In Venetian history

Venice Lido or simply Lido or Lido di Venezia is one of the natural barriers of the Venetian lagoon, protecting it from the Adriatic Sea. Its history shows how a city was born in the early 20th century with a different vision from Venice and its heritage. What was the vision of the future of the island a century ago? Can that story be of inspiration still nowadays?

The Jewish Cemetery on Venice Lido and St Nicholas Church

It was in 1386 that the Venetian State granted the Jewish community in Venice with the ground for a graveyard. At that time, Lido was a distant island —and it would be even more distant when Jews would live in the Ghetto between 1516 and 1797— and pretty wild.

The ancient Jewish cemetery on Venice Lido founded in 1386

Orchards, ponds, sand, very scarcely populated. Further north, you can see the Benedictine church of St Nicholas with its brick façade, by which the Doge would celebrate the Marriage with the Sea on Ascension festivity.

St Nicholas Church on Venice Lido

Goethe and Lord Byron in Lido

Goethe loved walking along the shore and like a child pick up shells for his children to take home. It was his first time to see the sea! He observes the plants, enjoys the waves and describes Lido as dunes of sand, shaped by the wind:

I heard a loud hollow murmur, —it was the sea! (…) I sighed the children had been there to gather the shells; child-like I myself picked up plenty of them. (…) On the Lido, not far from the sea, is the burial place of Englishmen and a little further on, of the Jews: both alike are refused the privilege of resting in consecrated ground. (…)

The Lido is at best but a sand-bank (dune): the sand is carried from it backwards and forwards by the wind, and thrown up in heaps is encroaching on every side.

Published in 1816, Italian Journey reports what Goethe experienced in 1786-1788.

A few years later, in 1819 Lord Byron was also in Venice. In Lido he went horse back riding… 

Bike riding on Venice Lido along the dam at San Nicolò by the sand beach

All in all, Lido was room for wilderness, untouched nature, no civilisation or historical heritage. And if there was, it was forgotten and doomed to disappear. This would be true also during the Hapsburg domination. Fortifications and military presence was enhanced during those years. Ah, even Napoleon used the Jewish tombstones at Lido as platforms for his cannons.

Lido as a fancy, high-end tourism island

Forty years later, in 1858, an entrepeneur from Pellestrina island, Giovanni Busetto called “Fisola”, started the change. Wealthy Venetians could come to Venice Lido and enjoy a brand new bathhouse: the fashion of water therapies moved from St Mark’s basin to the island offering sand and sun, too.

Major high-end hotels opened at the beginning of the new century. Hotel Des Bains started in 1900, Hotel Excelsior in 1908. The simple track became the prestigious Viale Santa Maria Elisabetta, framed by trees, looking like an elegant boulevard. With the support of the city council, Nicolò Spada reached in those years the monopoly of the tourism on the island and the CIGA (Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi – Italian Company of Grand Hotels) was granted all the concessions in 1906.

Excelsior Hotel on Venice Lido, 1908 in moorish style

In 1905 Venice Lido brought to the city council of Venice 1,5 million lire. In 1913 the income was 37 million. Almost 25 times higher.

Lido and its Liberty villas

Gardens, villas in Liberty style, elegant mansions would be built in those same years before WW1 started. Not just wealthy tourists, Venice Lido attracted residents from the upper class, too. In Villa Romanelli for instance, you would meet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Eleonora Duse, Isadora Duncan (maybe in her Delphos Fortuny dress) and Maria Rainer Rilke.

Details of a Neo-gothic villa on Venice Lido

As a matter of fact, potential competitors found it very hard to build more hotels and capitalise on the island’s exclusive nature.

Details of Liberty façade in ceramics of the Hotel “Ausonia Hungaria” on Lido in Venice, 1907

More details of Liberty façade in ceramics of the Hotel “Ausonia Hungaria” on Lido in Venice, 1907

Details of a villa on Lido in Venice

Modernity as a key to understand Venice Lido

It was clear that the ones staying at the Lido would need reasons to stay there. Attractions of a certain kind, like opera, entertainment and modern transportation to move. At a certain point, Spada had in mind to build a theatre and a subway tunnel under the lagoon to connect Lido and St Mark’s square. From club dancing, to golf, to the Casino and the Film Festival, the very first event of the kind in the world. 

Venice Film Festival at the Lido, the 78th edition in 2021

When it comes to transportation, I am sure you think of boats. Well, not just. Civil aviation in Italy started at the Airport Giovanni Nicelli inaugurated during WW1 in the northern point of the Venice Lido. On August 18th in 1926 the first flight in Italy for civil passengers, directed to Vienna, took off. That same airport was the second largest airport in Italy by 1939. Needless to say, the airport’s workers were all living in Castello, not in Lido.

The Giovanni Nicelli Airport on Venice Lido

A recipe for the future?

The development of the Lido between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s reveals an interesting combination. Local administration targeted an international intellectually and culturally curious audience and arranged some events, but not just. As real wealth stems from a constant offer and not just special occasions. Culture- and nature-based tourism, but not just, also innovative technology and respect for natural sights were (and are) key points. More or less what Venice used to do in its past history, when it was a cosmopolitan city where you found luxury goods, from silk velvet to books or spices and the lagoon was respected.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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