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Saving the Lagoon in Renaissance Venice

Renaissance Venetians developed a sophisticated technology for keeping the city’s vital waterways free from silt and in the process, as Joseph Black explains, created a unique landscape that inspired travellers and painters.

Visitors to Venice today gliding along the still waters of the Brenta canal towards Padua are probably unaware that this channel was once that of a great river that was diverted south some 400 years ago by Venetian engineers in a major civil engineering project. This massive endeavour was instigated primarily to prevent the silting-up of the Lagoon which as a hazard to shipping could have threatened the continued existence of Venice as one of the greatest naval and trading ports in Renaissance Europe.

The diversion of the river also produced commercial and social benefits which arose from the construction of a canal utilising the new technology of ‘locks’; this provided a flourishing transport link between Padua and Venice. The scenes on the Brenta canal were later to inspire the eighteenth-century Venetian veduta (view) painters, the outstanding master Canaletto (as we shall see), his nephew Bellotto, and his contemporary Francesco Guardi.

Venice is a small island in the centre of a lagoon bounded on the west and north by the mainland; by 1414 to 1428 the Venetians had captured Verona, Vicenza, and Padua and had reached Bergamo, coming close to Milan. To the south and east the island is protected from the Adriatic by a string of low islands forming a large sheltered anchorage. At the peak of the empire the Venetian navy, with over 3,000 fighting ships and 36,000 seamen, dominated the eastern Mediterranean (culminating in the destruction at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571) of the much larger Turkish fleet threatening Italy until its eventual surrender to Napoleon in 1797.

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