On the simplest level, many Venetian pictures function at least partially as depictions or evocations of the unique topography of Venice. This physical space has its own patterns of organization, use, connection and navigation, all of which generate the raw material for specifically Venetian visual practices. Pictures dealing with this complex territory must employ specific compositional techniques to convey local understandings of location and movement. An understanding of this physical space is therefore basic to material in succeeding chapters: the examination of perceptions and visual practices, the ritual landscape in Venice, the narrative bias of Venetian visual representations, and the essentially liminal character of Venetian paintings.
More than any other city, Venice has always been defined by its topography, although the landscape has undergone extensive alteration over two millennia. Accounts of Venice's early settlement state that the islands in the lagoon were much smaller and further apart than they are now, and that serious land-development efforts did not begin until the tenth century.  In those early times, transport by land was the norm on any given island, but between islands, boats were required. The patterns of settlement show that dual focus. Most islands were settled so that in the center there were one or more open spaces for animal grazing and intra-island transport, but the main façades of most houses were on the water, providing a large water entrance for the reception of off-island visitors, goods and supplies into individual houses. The transportation system was two-pronged: long-distance transport by boat, short-distance (on one's own island) on foot. Over time, this dichotomy was blurred with the construction of bridges that allowed longer-distance passage without entry into the water. The land-locked portions of the city were home to a labyrinth of interpenetrating alleys and streets, connecting together open spaces in a network even more complex than that of the water-based system.
In this chapter, I shall discuss the physical realities of Quattrocento and Cinquecento Venice that are outlined above, while drawing out the patterns of navigation that these actualities enforce. These perceptions will be used in succeeding chapters as a basis for defining visual practices and abstracting the visual and kinesthetic sensoria common to all Venetians and expressed in visible form on Venetian walls, panels and canvases.