Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Laura Teso
One of my most successful post is How was Venice built? So, in order to satisfy your curiosity about this wonderful city, I decided to make some research and write a Venice Glossary. Moreover, to add some spice to the recipe, I also noted the numbers of Venice: how many bridges, canals and piazzas there are – in Italian the actual plural is piazze [PYAHTS-tseh].
While traveling and writing, I realized that many names defining the streets and the squares of Venice were different from the usual ones you can find in Italy. Some of them were a mystery even for me. So I decided to add also an explanation for all those strange names you can spot walking around Venice: rio terà, fondamenta, sotoportego and so on.
You’ll learn for example that Venice has only one true piazza. The rest of them are called other ways. Are you curious? Well, let’s start!
The numbers of Venice
The islands and the bridges of Venice
Venice is built on about 120 islands connected by 391 bridges.
Only 4 bridges are located along the Grand Canal:
- Costituzione, or Calatrava bridge.
Only 1 bridge connects Venice to the mainland: Ponte della Libertà. About 4 km long, it was built in 1933. Mussolini inaugurated the bridge, naming it Ponte Littorio (referring to the symbol of fascism). After the war it was luckily renamed Liberty bridge. It has also a pedestrian pavement. I personally covered it by bike and it took me about 20 minutes from the mainland to Piazzale Roma. As for the rail connection, the Austrians built it in 1846. It was widened in the 70’s.
As many of you may already know, Calatrava bridge, inaugurated in 2008, is quite disputed. First of all it costed a lot of money. Moreover the pavement is steep and the steps are irregularly spaced. As a result, it can be tricky and dangerous. Furthermore there’s no suitable side for strollers/bikes/trolleys and other wheeled vehicles. I mean: OK for the ancient bridges, the builders once could not foresee strollers. But not to think about that in 2008 is absurd imho! While since 2010 there is a mobility lift system, yet it is not that convenient: it takes 7 minutes to cross the bridge and it is open only from 8 am to 10 pm (9.30 am – 10 pm on public holidays).
Some minor but notable bridges are:
- Ponte delle Tette (Tits – yes!- bridge), so called because it is located in the former red light district. Prostitutes used to attract customers by appearing there in topless.
- Ponte dei Pugni (Punches), where once violent challenges were held.
- Ponte del Chiodo (Nail) is famous because it has no parapet and it leads directly to a private house.
- Bridges of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) connects the Doge’s Palace with the Prisons. As many of you already know the sighs do not refer to something romantic. On the contrary, allude to the sighs of the convicts who could see Venice for the last time through its windows.
- In Cannaregio you can see two peculiar bridges: the only one with spires (Ponte delle Guglie) and the only one left with three arches. It is therefore the Ponte dei Tre Archi.
The sestieri [seh-STYEH-ree] are the districts of Venice. The word derives from Latin sesto (sixth). Venice is in fact divided into six different sestieri.
The house numbering is unique for each sestiere. The numbers don’t stop at the end of a street, but they continue throughout the entire sestiere. That’s why you’ll see houses with giant numbers!
The sestieri are:
- Cannaregio: the name probably derives from the rushes once in this area (in Italian canneti). This is the most populated of all.
- Castello: there was once a fortress or a castle. It is the largest sestiere.
- Dorsoduro: maybe for the hard ground (hard ridge) and not swampy, unlike the other areas.
- Santa Croce: there was once a church (now demolished) called Santa Croce.
- San Marco: obviously from the Basilica di San Marco.
- San Polo: from the church of San Polo. This area is the centre of the city.
The Giudecca is part of Dorsoduro. San Giorgio Maggiore of San Marco. The island of San Michele (Venice cemetery) is part of Castello.
If you are an affectionate reader you should already know that exists a connection between sestieri and the gondola. If you don’t remember it, go and read all the fascinating secrets of the Venetian gondola!
Do you know that… Normally Ityalian cities are divided in quartieri – this derives from quartus, fourth. In Padova (and many other cities) we still call our neighbourhoods quartieri even if they’re now way more than just four! Venice is not the only city with sestieri. Also Milano, Ascoli Piceno and Genova are.
Venice has 159 churches
- Cannaregio 20 + 5 deconsecrated
- Castello 25+ 1 greek-orthodox + 5 deconsecrated
- Dorsoduro 16 + 1 Anglican + 5 deconsecrated
- San Marco 16 + 3 deconsecrated
- San Polo 9 + 1 deconsecrated
- Santa Croce 8 + 2 deconsecrated
- Giudecca and Sacca Fisola 8 + 1 deconsecrated
- Other islands 18 + 5 deconsecrated
- Lido 10
The most famous is of course la Basilica di San Marco. Then you probably know Santa Maria della Salute (Dorsoduro), il Redentore (Giudecca). Other noteworthy churches are Santa Maria dei Miracoli and la Madonna dell’Orto (both in Cannaregio), la Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Castello), Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (San Polo).
In Venice there are 400 canals, but the correct name is actually rii. The only true canals (navigable by bigger boats) are 3:
- Grand Canal (3.247 metres long)
- Cannaregio Canal
- Giudecca Canal
Did you know that… The boats traffic must follow precise rules. You may notice traffic signs (one-ways, parking limits and so on, exactly like the car traffic ones).
There are 135 small piazzas, called campi, 380 corti (also small piazzas but located inside a residential complex and off the main road), 196 campielli (super tiny piazzas) and just one piazza: Piazza San Marco.
Did you know that… once in Italy all piazzas were called campi. Now just a few remain outside Venice. One for all Campo dei Fiori in Rome. The names was due to the fact that those areas were once fields.
The biggest campi in Venice are Campo San Polo, Campo Santa Margherita and Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
About 3.000 calli (narrow and long streets). Among them there are: 367 rami (smaller streets connecting bigger streets), 53 rio terà (buried canals), 42 salizade (the first paved streets), 10 rughe (lined with shops), 1 strada (street, it is the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio). Then there are the liste. There, some white stones in the pavement marked the limit of the diplomatic immunity in front of an ambassador palace.
The width of the Venetian calli varies from about 60 cm to 6 meters. The narrowest calle in town is Calletta Varisco (53 centimetres). You can see it in the map below.
The names of the calli derive from the history of Venice: some dedicated to churches, or to famous people or to the artisan guild of the area. It also happens to find more than one “Calle della Chiesa”, in different sestieri. So you have to pay attention!
256 public wells, about 2.500 private wells (once they were 6000), 142 fountains. Speaking of fountains, I noticed that many of you searched in my blog the map of the potable fountains. But I had posted it only in my Facebook page. I wasn’t able to embed it so I link it: Check the map of Venice drinkable fountains!
Venice Glossary – The terms in alphabetical order
Calli: pedestrian streets, long and narrow
Campi: small piazzas
Campielli: even smaller piazzas
Canal: large navigable canal
Contrada: parish area
Corti: small piazzas inside a residential complex
Crosera: crossing of calli
Fondamenta (or rive): pedestrian streets running along a rio
Fontego or Fondaco: Home and warehouse of merchants
Liste: part of the road dependent on an embassy
Piazza: Venetians consider a true piazza only Piazza San Marco
Piscine: pedestrian streets, once canals or marshlands, then buried
Rami: branching (often blind) alleys of the calli leading to courts/jetties
Rio: all the canals in Venice except 3 major Canals. Not all of them are navigable
Rio Terà: Buried canal
Ruga or Rughetta: small streets lined with shops
Salizade: first paved streets
Sestieri: the 6 districts of Venice
Sotoportego: small tunnels connecting two calli, leading to courts or to a riva
Strada: there is only one strada, the Strada Nova in Cannaregio
! The most important part of Venetian Palazzi is the facade overlooking the canal, accessed by boat by the aristocrats. When walking the streets of Venice, we poor mortals normally just see the rear part, once reserved for the servants entrances.
I hope this post will be useful and satisfy your curiosity.