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.

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