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Why Should You Live in a Marsh

Jonathan van Bilsen



May 3, 2024

Why Should You Live in a Marsh

I have had the pleasure of visiting Venice several times, and on my last trip, I began to wonder how this amazing city, primarily built on marsh, has lasted so many centuries. Venice is one of the most iconic cities in the world, and home to spectacular mediaeval structures, all linked by winding canals.

Constructed on unstable islands in the middle of a lagoon, this imposing city of 640,000 inhabitants defies all odds. Venice welcomes over 20 million visitors every year, and with every inch of every island covered in buildings, the only way to get around is by water.

1,600 years ago, Venice was nothing more than a series of marshes and lagoons, but today it is a city like none other; a patchwork of over 100 islands connected by 400 bridges and 50 km of canals. Venice was created by sediment, brought by the Po and the Piave rivers, as they made their way to the sea.

If you were to dig down beneath all the buildings in Venice, you would discover millions of wooden piles, driven deep into the ground, about 15 cm apart. Wooden planks were then placed on these posts, which act as a support for slabs of limestone. This provided a solid foundation for all the buildings still standing today.

The canals, however, have put the structure of this magnificent city at risk. The Grand Canal, which runs for four km through the centre of the city is home to 170 houses along its shores. All of these are at risk of collapse if the ground gives way. To everyone’s surprise, recent discoveries show the canals are constantly shifting.

Ancient Venetians realized this problem immediately, and came up with an ingenious solution. They drove wooden planks into the canals, forming dams, draining the remaining channels. They then lined the sides with planks and bricks. When they filled the canals again, the sides held firm, even after 1,500 years. To help reduce the stress, these early industrialists used bricks instead of heavier stones on all the buildings, and constructed arches to lighten the load even more, creating the iconic façades of the Venice we see today.

Undoubtedly, one of the city’s most famous landmarks is the Rialto Bridge, built in 1588. It is an engineering wonder, standing on 12,000 wooden poles, which keep the 10,000 tons of bridge from sinking into the muddy ground. Masonry blocks were placed on top of the poles to support a single block of limestone, spanning 30 metres across the Grand Canal.

Once the bridge was completed, the famous market, on the west side of the bridge, was established. Why has this renowned market been in existence for hundreds of years? The answer is salt, needed to preserve meat and fish. Commonplace today, in the middle ages, salt was one of the most precious commodities in the world.

The Venetians were also skilled ship builders, and constructed a factory and assembly line, which was capable of building an entire ship in just one day. This 600 year old manufacturing works still stands today, less than a kilometre from St. Mark’s Square.

Recently, on the island of Poveglia, a mass grave with hundreds of bodies was discovered. The question is, why were more than 1,500 people from across the world, buried here, and what was the cause of their death?

The concern of sickness from around the world came to the attention of the Venetians. A system of quarantine was invented, whereby trading ships entering Venice, were diverted to this island for 40 days. The word quarantine means forty in Italian, and it was felt a 40 day stay would ensure the people were free of disease. As vigilant as they were, they were not immune, and in the 1630s as many as 45,000, one-third of the population of Venice, died from the plague. Today of course, antibiotics treat diseases, but the quarantine system, invented by the Venetians, is still in use worldwide.

One has to wonder, with all the land available in Europe during the Middle Ages, what would draw people to settle on marshy lagoons in what is now Venice? Just north of the city, archaeologists have discovered a massive stone and mortar structure, dating back to Roman times. This find reveals the area surrounding Venice was inhabited by the Romans 2,000 years ago. With recently developed technology, many additional ruins have been found under the water in this area, showing a huge Roman population.

In the fifth century CE, constant attacks by the Huns, a civilization from the Caucasus Mountains, by the Caspian Sea, began attacking the Romans. Eventually the Huns won, causing hundreds of peasants to seek refuge elsewhere and flee the tyranny. The only place for them to go was the small, marshy islands, where they built dwellings, which became settlements, which led to villages, and today is the Venice we know.

I was amazed to discover the origin of this very unique city and If you have an opportunity to visit, I would highly recommend it, as there is no end to its distinctiveness, charm, splendid architecture, and interesting waterways.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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