From earliest times, the history of Venice has also been that of the lagoon. The two are interdependent. The city has been much influenced by the ebb and flow of the tides of the lagoon, while inhabitants of the lagoon look upon Venice as the metropolis on which they depend for their livelihood.
The Venetian lagoon is a small inland sea whose waters are saline. It covers an area of 550 sq km, is 50 km in length and ranges in width from 8-14 km. The lagoon isprotected from the open sea by a chain of narrow strips of sandy land and from North to South, we see the long curving peninsula of Punta Sabbioni followed by the islands of Lido, Pellestrina and Ca’ Roman, ending up with the shorter peninsula of Chioggia and Sottomarina.
Twice daily, tides surge through the three inlets between these outer barriers, cleansing the lagoon waters and the canals that thread the lagoon itself. There were once four inlets, but in the middle of18th century a long Istria stone rock-filled dam was built to join the island of Pellestrina and that of Ca’ Roman, creating one of the lesswell-known and most romantic Venetian walkways that is a kilometer in length and suspended between the Sea and the Lagoon.
These works maintained a vital balance between allowing the tides to cleanse the lagoon and keeping out the full force of the sea. Maintaining this equilibrium has always been the primary preoccupation of the city. During the last 60 years of industrial development on the land around the lagoon, huge damage has been caused to this delicate balance. Inhabitants and administrators seem to have the lost the historic ability of their predecessors to maintain the harmony and equilibrium of their city.
The Lagoon Lands
Over half of the area of the lagoon is permanently covered with water. The rest is a shifting landscape of islands, marshlands, shoals and mudflats, some firm enough to be used for cultivation and settlement. Others are only emerging from the sea at the lowest tides.
The firmest areas are the islands proper, a group of which contains Venice itself. The best way to grasp the diversity of the lagoon is from the air on the approach to the airport, from where the marshes, shoals and water spread like a patchwork below.
The Lagoon Islands
The lagoon is scattered with islands. San Giorgio Maggiore and the Giudecca lie close to the south of the city. San Michele, the Cemetery Island, and Murano, the heart of Venice’s glass-blowing industry, are a short hop to the north.
Further north are the islands of Burano, Mazzorbo and Torcello, a once important trio of settlements. The barrier islands of the Lido and Pellestrina guard the lagoon entrances. Of the two, the Lido is far more developed due mainly to its 19th century role as one of Europe’s most fashionable resorts. Pellestrina to the south, still a lonely fishing community, is a narrow strip of sandy land that feels a thousand miles from central Venice.
Other important islands include bucolic Sant’Erasmo, a large agricultural island that still supplies many of the city’s vegetables. San Francesco del Deserto and San Lazzaro degli Armeni, both are still home to monasteries.
Smaller islands still in use are San Servolo and Sant’Andrea. San Servolo was once a psychiatric hospital and is now part of Venice’s International University and San Clemente, one of Venice’s classiest hotels. In addition,Sant’Andrea is a fortress island undergoing a lengthy restoration. There are also many islands which were once inhabited that served as hospitals or military installations, or housed religious communities, but they are now deserted.