Each year, the Georgia State University graduate program in Heritage Preservation provides its faculty, students and friends a unique opportunity to study preservation in a foreign environment. Between May 10th and 28th, 2007, Venice, Italy became a G.S.U. classroom, offering thousands of years of architecture and culture for exploration. Landscapes of Memory: History, Culture and Historic Preservation in Venice and the Veneto Region was an unparalleled opportunity for a unique look at the field of preservation, an opportunity that participants will not soon forget or match.
Arriving in Venice on the afternoon of May 11th, our exploration commenced almost immediately after arrival at the Residenza Junghans, a hotel on the less-toured island of Giudecca. A visit to Andre Palladio’s Redentore, one of Venice’s most celebrated churches, followed by a group dinner at a local restaurant, introduced us to the island and the city.
One of the most interesting aspects of life in Venice is its absolute dependence on water. Venice was developed because of the area’s potential to dominate trade on the surrounding Adriatic Sea, but even thousands of years after that trade dwindled to near-nonexistence, the city of Venice maintains unbreakable ties to the water. There is no automobile traffic in Venice: everything and everyone travels by boat or foot. This makes for, at least in some parts, a very quiet city, and maintains an energy that makes one feel almost as if they have literally stepped back in time to the pre-automobile age. The public transit system of Venice consists of a fleet of boats known as vaporettos that travel the canals day and night, and everything from trash collection to ambulance service must be conducted via the water. Throughout our stay, we witnessed many of these water-based services and used them (particularly the vaporetto) as well, giving us a chance to really experience the joys and hardships of living in a city with much more limited mobility than those of the U.S. The experience and complete comprehension of this water-focused lifestyle was enhanced with study of what innovations this water has inspired in Venetian architecture, how the water is currently damaging that architecture, and the challenges it continues to present to preservationists working to save Venice’s built environment.
Our first few full days in Venice took us to some of the most celebrated Venetian cultural sites. Piazza San Marco, affectionately deemed “the drawing room of the world,” was our focal point during one day as we visited its collection of treasures, including the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace. We visited the Rialto Bridge, the Accademia Museum, the Jewish Ghetto, and multiple landmark churches as well, and it was via these visits that we first began to notice evidence of another interesting aspect of Venice: its political past. In Venice, the ruling of multiple nationalities over the centuries is written in the architecture: for example, the Lion of St. Mark, a very popular symbol, was only used in architecture during Venetian rule, while many of these lions were removed from buildings and destroyed when Napoleon came to power in 1797. During the 1800s, Austria ruled Venice. The Austrians facilitated mobility within the city with the construction of many wooden bridges, many of which still exist (including the famed Accademia Bridge). It is in this way that Venice is an extremely revealing city with regards to its past: seeing this pattern taught us how to examine buildings carefully to discern what details of history might be hiding in the open on a structure’s exterior.
While we definitely made time to see Venice’s best-known sites, one particularly impressive aspect of this trip was its efforts to focus on less-celebrated monuments. Laura Corazzol, former G.S.U. heritage preservation student, is from Italy, and in planning our trip, did a wonderful job of including lesser-known historical sites, such as the villas of the Renaissance elite along the Brenta River, and lesser-mentioned modern sites, such as a school dedicated to restoring and preserving the Veneto region’s heritage, particularly historic books. Both of these places are outside of the more heavily-toured Venice in the surrounding Veneto region, which illustrates another exciting aspect of this trip: we did not remain in only one locale. While we spent each night in Venice, we spent many days touring the surrounding country. We toured Villa Cornaro, a Palladian villa actually owned by a couple from Atlanta, who graciously showed us their house and grounds and then directed us to the best gelato shop I have ever been to! We visited Laura’s hometown of Feltre, where her parents treated us to lunch and a walk around a beautiful outdoor market, and we took day trips to Aquileia, Padua and Verona, beautiful cities with Roman ruins, Renaissance and Medieval architecture, and modern development, as well as a much-diminished tourist population in comparison to Venice. While Venice was amazing, it was these opportunities to get into smaller, more authentic Italian towns that taught us the most about Italy’s culture.
This trip also brought us up-to-date on current events in Venice, particularly those associated with preservation. We attended a private lecture by the staff of Punto Laguna, a group promoting the construction of mobile barriers in Venice’s lagoon that would theoretically block off the tides, preventing the flood waters that constantly threaten to overwhelm the city. We also met with representatives from Save Venice, Inc. and Venice in Peril, two international committees currently working to preserve individual structures in Venice. We even toured La Fenice, Venice’s premier theatre, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1996 but has now been rebuilt exactly as it was prior to the blaze. The beautiful structure gave us insight on yet another way in which preservation is being carried out in modern-day Venice.
One final noteworthy benefit of this trip was the free time. Planned activities dominated our time, but we did have four completely free days and almost every evening to ourselves, allowing for plenty of time to return to a site for extra exploring, visit sites of personal interest, shop in the markets, and get dinner anywhere in the city.
Landscapes of Memory: History, Culture and Historic Preservation in Venice and the Veneto Region was the learning experience of a lifetime. With our native student, our classmates and our instructor present to guide us and help out when needed, there was no apprehension as to where to go or what was happening. The group was instead able to enjoy the trip and the activities, while also bonding and really getting to know one another. On one of the final evenings of the trip, we met for one last group dinner, bidding farewell to Italy and in some cases, each other, but the memories and opportunities of this trip will never be forgotten and participants are sure to forever benefit from the knowledge and experiences acquired via this program.
- Stephanie L. Cherry
GSU © 2007