Wood is for Venice what stars are for a galaxy. It surely does not shine. But without wood, Venice’s beauty would not shimmer. Or simply said, Venice would not exist.
It may happen that when you go around Venice you don’t notice much wood around. Hard to imagine, though, but timber is there, especially where you can’t see any.
Wood as foundations for Venice
Wooden posts in fact support the structure of the buildings. Whether it’s oak, alder or conifer wood, these timber pilings have petrified throughout the centuries due to lack of oxygen. They replaced natural bedrock missing in the soft Venetian marshland. Hundreds of thousands of these posts were driven into the soft soil of the lagoon mudflats while pebbles and sand all around them created a solid base for constructions.
It is indeed mind blowing to imagine a forest upside down holding palaces or bridges emerging from the water. The story claiming that the Salute church is supported by one million posts in wood is just a legend. But it is true that the Rialto bridge is held by around 12,000 posts placed in three layers. No large sequoia trees, of course. Young, small and short. But still…
Timber as construction material for Venice
Wood in Venice was also extensively used for buildings’ interiors. Floors, ceilings and trusses inside Venetian homes and palaces, churches or monasteries, are made of wood. The flexible quality of this material allowed for the general flexibility of the constructions, thus absorbing the settlements or any shifting of the ground.
The Doge’s palace and houses of the 16th Century in Venice
Here you can see the roof of the huge Major Council Hall in the Doge’s palace, the largest room in Europe still today. This exceptional room was provided with a flat ceiling after a terrible fire in 1577 under the supervision of the architect Antonio Da Ponte. Later on in his career, he was commissioned the construction of the Rialto bridge. Pillars or columns could not be placed on the elastic, and yet fragile floor of the Major Council hall. So, in order to support the ceiling, the roof was designed to download the weight on the side walls using composite gigantic wooden trusses.
But even in simpler constructions, you find trusses, ceilings and floors all made in wood. Not just. You can still find examples of wooden partition walls, too. Like in this house of the 16th century, you can see what masons of the past did.
Venetians recycled the wooden parts left over once the carpenters squared a trunk. They used them to build the walls in between the rooms inside a house. They placed the wooden left overs vertically and then fixed them on the ceiling and on the floors using long metal nails. This wall was then sandwiched in two more layers in wood, this time horizontally. All over some mortar was laid. In this way, these walls were strengthening the construction.
Wood to float in the Venetian lagoon and along the seas
If anything you see in Venice was delivered by boat, can you imagine how much wood was needed in Venice to build boats and ships, masts and oars and oar locks? Rafts from the mountains and cargo ships delivered a lot to Venice. However, it was not just a matter of quantity. It was a matter of quality, too. Different kinds of wood would serve different purposes. Let’s not forget you need eight kinds of wood to build a gondola —well, seven really, as now plywood is used for the bottom.
Have you ever looked at the skeleton of a boat under construction? The intricate combination of every single wooden piece in a boat is the soul of a creature.
You can fall in love with modern materials, but they won’t give you the feeling of the uniqueness of a hand-made wooden boat.
The “bricola” (dolphin): when wood helps you find your way
In the Venetian lagoon you will see groups of wooden posts called “bricole” that are used to mark the deep waterways and help not get stuck in the shallow water. Essential markers for correct navigation routes, the “bricole” don’t serve as mooring points. Rules establishing how these dolphins work were issued for the first time in Venetian history in 1439. The Venetian Senate voted that all new channels in the lagoon had to be marked by wooden posts and had to be yearly checked. From a survey dating back to 1789 we learn there used to be over 8,000 “bricole” in the lagoon.
The “bricole” do create the typical landscape of the Venetian lagoon and to see them in need of maintenance for the ones that love Venice is a symbolic sign of lack of care.
Lunardelli: a new generation of carpenters in Venice
Considering such a strong relation between Venice and this apparently poor material, I was positively struck by what Lunardelli company is doing in Venice (and outside). Angelo Lunardelli was 9 years old when his family sent him to Venice to learn to become a carpenter. In 1967 he founded his own company in Fossalta di Piave, but never forgot how much he owed to Venice.
If you visit the Danieli Hotel or the Bauer Hotel, if you pass by the University of Ca’ Foscari in Venice or by Palazzo Grassi, the Tre Oci photography showroom or the seat of the Biennale offices, Ca’ Giustinian, then you will see the wooden windows’ frames designed by Lunardelli. Even some pieces of furniture.
The showroom in Venice
The company now led by Angelo’s daughter Agnese has very recently opened a showroom and a carpenter’s workshop in the heart of Venice. Their idea is simple, but extremely fascinating. If wood helped Venice, their wooden creations are dedicated to Venice. They talk about the lagoon or its architecture and emphasise the city’s uniqueness and creativity.
Technology helps, too. Sophisticated numerical control machines are used for the first phase of the work. Then, it’s the hand of expert carpenters that refines the outcome into a hand-tailored creation. The company collaborates with professors and young scholars of the University IUAV of Architecture and Design in Venice as well as with companies from Murano such as Nason Moretti, Salviati, Ercole Moretti and Nicola Moretti. But also with the artistic foundry Valese and the silk textile mill Luigi Bevilacqua. Have a look at their tribute to Ca’ Pesaro. The stool reminds you of the ashlar bottom of this baroque palace on the Grand Canal, now the Museum of Modern Art, while the sitting is all covered in Bevilacqua silk velvet.
I also love the domes reminding you of the different churches of Venice.
And finally a slice of the “bricola” that almost becomes, because of the typical shipworms, a piece of lace. Something that will remind you of Venice, and what wood has done for the city.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy