As seen through governmental intervention in the fabric of Venice, citizens of the late fifteenth century managed to maintain contradictory images of the city and its spaces. The official exterior face of Venice, as expressed in such laudatory tomes as those of Sabellico and Sanudo, was one of vigorous optimism and civic perfection. Within the private sessions of municipally-minded governmental bodies, however, the mood was one almost of despair; the urban space had proven to be as much an ongoing irritant as anything else, for it was a fabric in need of continual upkeep and repair. There had always been municipal interventions in the city's infrastructure, but up through the fourteenth century, these works had been overshadowed by the ongoing reclamation of land from marsh. Venice had, for centuries, been in the grip of an expansionist mindset comparable to the later clearing and settlement of the United States; at the end of the fourteenth century, Venice ran out of local territory to reclaim. Energies formerly directed outward now turned inward; having no frontiers on which to mount an offensive, the city went on the defensive. The "enemy" was water; there had always been a sense of aqueous "menace," but the feeling crystallized in the fifteenth century. There was now a constant undercurrent of worry about the "state of the waters" fueling a perception of a city that was falling apart and in a permanent state of decay. In response to this perceived--and in many cases actual--decay, there were numerous ongoing reconstruction and repair efforts. As early as 1321, a survey had been made, house by house and canal by canal, to determine what repairs and modifications were required. Maintenance of canals and piscine (pools) was always under way.
In addition to the filling in of swampy areas, there were less obvious evidences of the consolidation of the city fabric. Once the land was reclaimed, it could be built on, and by the fifteenth century, well over 90 per cent of the possible building area had been reclaimed, allowing for at least the possibility of its development. But consolidation also worked in more metaphoric terms: the tying together of routes within the city. Bridges operated to join parishes together; sottoporteghi worked to link open spaces that would otherwise be separated by buildings. The result was a city that, as it became ever more tightly tied together, felt more "complete."
At the same time, some forms of consolidation were seen as inimical. The concentration of undesirable industries, specifically those that polluted or created other sorts of public nuisance, was frowned upon to the extent that they were dispersed. In fact, the entire sphere of the relationship of public to private was seen as extremely important; the communally-oriented city suffered a number of tensions having to do with "private usurpation," in which some private venture or construction impinged upon public order or public space. There were many cases of "encroachment" onto a canal by a private quay. There was an ongoing municipal battle against outcroppings--extensions of banks or quays into canals. Private bridges, from a dwelling to a public quay, were seen as an overall good, but were regulated as to placement and size. Balconies were controlled; if they stuck out too far over a street or campo, they were seen as impinging. But the full force of regulatory fervor was reserved for altane, the wooden structures built on Venetian rooftops; relatively unstable physically, and frequently projecting over the adjacent horizontal spaces, they were tightly regulated as private encroachments upon public space, suggesting a very broad definition of both "encroachment" and "public," in which the former included the casting of shadows and the display of domestic activities, and where the latter encompassed not only physical space, but also what would now be known as airspace rights, as well as a notion of the right to privacy.
Governmental involvement with the physical fabric was not limited to legalities and building projects or improvement programs. The city also directly promoted its relationship to the local topography through ritual action. In particular, the Sensa --the "Wedding of the Sea" performed each Ascension Day--was a visible linkage of the open sea, the lagoon and the city itself. The rite took place after the Doge's cavalier had pronounced the sea to be sufficiently calm. After a mass in the basilica of San Marco, the clergy, the choir and the doge were rowed out into the lagoon in the Bucintoro, or ceremonial vessel. After a performance by the choir, in the presence of a flotilla of observers gathered around the Bucintoro, the party was joined by the Patriarch of Venice, who had arrived in a flatboat, accompanied by holy water, salt and an asperger. After the canons sang, the Patriarch prayed for protection for all who sailed upon the sea, and the chief priest of San Marco begged to be asperged by the Patriarch, who then circled the Bucintoro and blessed the Doge and his retinue with holy water. The procession then journeyed out until they were level with San Nicolo de Lido, where the lagoon opens into sea. The Patriarch then poured out the rest of the holy water into the sea. The actual "marriage" ceremony then took place, as the doge dropped his ring overboard, saying "We espouse thee, o sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion." While cohesion and linkage were one subtext of this ceremony, another was an attitude toward the sea--and by extension, all water--of subjugation and dominance. Water was a bride only in the crudest terms.
The water itself was both a focus and an attractor for focal points. Water permeated; it cohered with the land. The canals containing the water were a focus or "center" for all the activities taking place in their vicinity, but a consciousness of them as geographic features in their own right seems to have come late to Venetians. In particular, as late as 1321, the Grand Canal was not perceived as a single waterway, for a distinction was then made between the "Rialto canal" and the "San Marco canal." A century later, the entire length was finally described as a unit--the "canal de San Marco," a recognition which may have been intimately connected with the fifteenth-century refurbishment project in which the Canal was made five feet deeper, although the name "Grand Canal" appears to have delayed its entry into discourse until shortly before 1490.