A. Mapping the City

As evidence of perceptions about local space, maps and city views of Venice are a useful resource. According to Juergen Schulz, a map in the Middle Ages was usually a "selective stylized plan, representing the spiritual and historical face, rather than the physical appearance of a city." Further, "artistic" city representations "seem throughout the Middle Ages to have been the vehicles of abstract ideas."[1] In other words, maps and views of the period can tell us more about how the mapmakers felt about the territory than they can about exact physical detail. Maps may be seen as "thick" texts, containing much more than a simple visual representation.[2] As Denis Cosgrove has observed, mapping is both a "cognitive and conceptual activity"; mapping a space is therefore directly connected to its conceptualization.[3] Among Renaissance intellectuals, an important function of mapping was to act as "chorography," giving a pictorial impression of a locality, with little concern for exact physical accuracy. This notion, taken straight from Ptolemy's Geographia, should be borne in mind in the discussion that follows.[4]

Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Venice was the center of a map-making culture. It was also home to a map-reading and map-using culture. The obvious map users were sailors and navigators, but there were other groups who were more or less intimately involved with maps. The cartographically literate included many members of the patrician and governing classes, city employees, merchants, and humanists and other intellectuals. Maps of Venice and the surrounding territories abounded, some published in books about the city, but others created specifically as means of organizing information for those branches of government concerned with the fabric of the city and the lagoon.

One sort of map in wide use was the portolan map, employed by sailors to find their way along a coast. It was probably the most abstract of maps in customary employment; a drawing of a coastline, not always totally to scale, was marked with ports, as may be seen on the portolan map of 1563 by Jaime Olives.[5] Various symbols might be present, most having to do with the mechanics of getting a boat into a port, and the map was crossed with lines that presumably gave navigational headings. The sense of space and direction possessed by someone using such a chart would be one with a nodal quality: space was broken down into destinations, in a well-ordered manner (port B was after port A but before port C), but without a fully accurate notion of distance, and therefore only a minimal idea of time. Even direction, not always carefully specified, had no real place, for the lines crossing the chart did not necessarily conform exactly to compass headings.[6] Instead, the space was focused on landmarks, the specific visual signs that distinguished one port from another. At the same time, the emphasis on nodes and their ordering gave importance to the overall journey, rather than to specific events on the way. In between nodes, there was, quite literally, nothing. Beyond the coastline, there was also little if any detail; particularly in the earlier maps, the usual maximum was a coloration or symbol denoting rulership of the land in question.[7] It was the journey, and its ordering, that was important, not the larger context and placement. Such a map would, of course, be familiar to sailors, and to merchants, but portolans would also have been familiar to humanist intellectuals studying cosmography and new mapping techniques.[8]

One of the major pieces of documentary evidence for the period is the map of Jacopo de'Barbari, completed in 1500.[9] De'Barbari, a painter, had won the commission from the Republic some three years earlier. The unprecedented accuracy and detail of his bird's-eye view is such that it is generally accepted as primary evidence of an almost incontrovertible quality; even such minuscule details as window arrangements and roof trim may be found, in addition to documentation of the type and location of extant bridges.[10] The only serious problem with this map, which is printed on six large sheets, is one caused by its seeming fidelity; the perspective is such that not only the backs of buildings are hidden, but also those things that would be blocked by other buildings due to the line of sight. In sum, these blocked areas amount to approximately fifteen percent of the possible land area.[11] There is nothing that de'Barbari showed that did not exist as of 1497-1500, but there were some things that he could not show if he were to be faithful both to his perspective and to the task of showing as many building façades as possible.


The method of production for this map, as reconstructed by Juergen Schulz, showed a realization of the peculiar difficulties of mapping in Venice, problems that also play a role both in the Venetian perception of space and in the compositional adjustments necessary to produce paintings including city views or backgrounds.[12] The main difficulty, from a map-maker's point of view, was the lack of long straight streets from which to take measurements or bearings. Early maps and plans were produced by taking distance measurements on the ground, and the narrow, twisted, sometimes discontinuous streets of Venice made that a difficult proposition at best. Taking a view from the air was slightly more possible, but presented its own problems. Attempting to create a such a map from a single aerial vantage point was impossible, as anyone who has ascended the Campanile can attest; the visibility is nowhere near perfect even close to the Piazza, and at a distance, even such landmarks as the Grand Canal are obscured by buildings. As a result, it appears that de'Barbari's map, far from having been constructed as a unit, was made up of many individual views, fitted together mosaic-like to produce a unified-seeming result. Each single view was constructed from a separate vantage point; this accounts both for the slight disproportion in scale between horizontal and vertical, and for the changes in angle between individual map pieces.[13] The fitting-together was done by computations involving the heights of towers in the city and their distances from each other. As Schulz notes, the way in which this was done has an interesting effect: whether by accident or by design, the area around the Piazza San Marco is in correct scale, while other areas of the city, notably to the north and west, are somewhat compressed or distorted.[14] The bird's-eye view that resulted from de'Barbari's two or more years of labor was as much a cross-section of the living fabric of Venice as it was a record of streets, buildings, bridges, islands, rii and campi. Far from showing the abstract lineaments of geographic or legal property relationships, the de'Barbari map is a statement of appearances, of façades; it shows the perception of the city as a built environment that had by this time overwhelmed its original foundations in marsh and mud.


Although he is one of the earliest providers of a bird's-eye view of Venice, Jacopo de'Barbari's map is the most sophisticated. Later views are considerably more schematic; for the most part, they appear to have been abstracted from the de'Barbari map, and therefore what is most useful or important to the modern viewer is the way in which they are schematized.[15] The less detail given on a map, the more obvious it is that Venice is composed of islands, and the less prominent are the bridges, except for the Rialto, which is shown on almost all maps.[16] The most striking feature of these derived maps is the decrease in the number of islands, accompanied by corresponding reductions in the numbers of bridges, buildings and land routes. This is linked to a general loss of detail, but the shrinking of the total island count from roughly 150 down to, in one or two cases, a minimum of four or five is particularly striking. It would appear that mapmakers--who, it must be admitted, were often dealing with woodcuts of a sufficiently small size as to rule out high degrees of detail--felt that it was enough to indicate that Venice was set out in the water, and that it was made up of multiple islands in close proximity.


Such maps derive as much from the "generic" sort of map found in the Nuremberg Chronicle as they do from the de'Barbari map. Two views predating de'Barbari's work, each labeled "City of Venice," show views instead of actual maps; their concern is to convey the sense of a city in which water is a key element, and where a peculiar characteristic is the ability to arrive at governmental spaces by boat. In all of the maps, there is a political component: the San Marco area is displayed as a focus. All but one of the later maps are views from south to north, and almost all of them place the San Marco area in the horizontal center.[17] Some of them, such as the de'Barbari, also place San Marco on or very near the center of the vertical axis. In many of the maps, the Piazza San Marco is out of scale, larger than life, assuming an extra importance. Further, the city becomes progressively distorted into a symbolic ideal, as the extended urban areas are compressed, so that the city takes on a more "perfect" circular aspect, complemented by the circularity of the enclosing terraferma and lidi.[18]



An excellent example of schematization is the view by Benedetto Bordone; lagunar islands are each shown as a square wall enclosing a church and one or more other buildings. The city proper is shown as eight islands, and the Grand Canal, except for its length, is no more prominent than a canal leading off it to the northeast. A notable example of a map showing Venice as a complex of islands is that of Giovan Francesco Camocio (1571-72). Camocio shows no bridges except for the Rialto and a number of bridges that connect pieces of rive, giving the whole complex the look of islands connected only around the outside perimeter. [19] Such misrepresentations, inaccurate as they are, nevertheless can give us an insight into the perceptions of both Venetians and outlanders concerning the shape of the city, and the things that are important to them. The facts that stress is laid upon the island character of the city, and that bridges are, even in the Cinquecento, still regarded as of lesser importance, should be borne in mind during the discussion that follows.

As Denis Cosgrove has shown, Venice was at the center of an active mapping culture. Cartographic literacy was spread out through the elite governing and intellectual classes. While the patrician class disdained practical knowledge in favor of the theoretical, they were still involved in map-reading activities, through their governmental offices. Many official agencies were concerned with the fabric of the city, and they recorded and conceptualized much of their information in the form of maps.[20] This was absolutely essential from an operational point of view, as the patrician provvedditori, or overseers, of the magistracies in charge of water, the lagoon, and the city fabric changed on a regular basis.[21] The proti, or members of the engineering-literate class who were charged with carrying out the actual technical work, were not only cartographically literate, but were also the persons in charge of producing the maps that showed the past, present and future of the city and lagunar fabrics. Such proti as Cristoforo Sabbadino headed up engineering projects for drainage into the lagoon and maintenance of the lagoon's integrity, respectively, and their maps display their understanding of the lagoon and the terraferma as an ecosystem, a complicated balance of land, salt water, fresh water, structures, and flows.[22] Two maps, both by Sabbadino, are useful as examples of the perceptions exercised by Venetian water engineers. The first map, of drainage into the lagoon, is a more accurate rendering of the surrounding lidi than any of the schematized bird's-eye views that were being produced at the same time. Far from enclosing Venice in a cozy, near-perfect circle, the lidi are here shown as long, straight sandbars. Sabbadino's map of Venice is equally enlightening, as it depicts a Venice made up of two main islands separated by the Grand Canal. Interior canals are shown only as short spurs of the Grand Canal or the exterior of the island mass, and the surrounding water is revealed to be a series of channels through marsh. Sabbadino's work is much closer to map than to view; the only features to be seen on the island mass are church towers, shown as landmarks rather than as faithful renderings. The effect, in fact, is quite similar to that of a portolan map; the rii may be seen as equivalent to ports, while the interior canals and islands are cognate to the interior of a portolan's coastline.

Finally, the mapping culture of Venice extended to the city's becoming a center for the publication of maps of other regions, in consonance with the city's reputation as a printing center in general. There was, of course, a widespread fascination with the territories discovered in the New World, but a particular focus in Venice was Mexico City. Placed upon water, linked to the surrounding land by bridges, Mexico City had a unique resonance with the spatial concerns of Venetians, so that such maps had a local vogue, as a reflection of their own city.[23] The schematization of Mexico City in the 1566 map of Giovan Battista Ramusio was one familiar to the audience for maps of Venice: islands separated by water, a collection of European-style houses on each island, houses at a larger scale than that of the islands, and a generally circular format for both the island mass and the surrounding water. The one divergence is that the Mexico City map shows, proportionally, many more bridges than do most contemporary maps of Venice.



Chapter 2: The Visible City Chapter 3: The Venetian Sense of Space and Place Explore Venice with Joann Zimmerman: main site page Joann Zimmerman's home page Chapter3, A: Mapping the City Chapter 3, B: Describing the City and its Uses Chapter 3, C: Government Intervention and the City Fabric Chapter3, D: The City as Practice