How the color red helped build one of the most beautiful cities in Europe

Venice. The mere mention of this great Italian destination conjures images of stunning vistas and romantic afternoons. We imagine gondoliers navigating their boats down narrow canals; we envision the majestic waterfront buildings that form so much of the city’s unique architectural character. These well-known aspects of the Venetian experience are essential to any traveler’s encounter with the city, but there is much more to them than meets the eye. Behind the black lacquered gloss of the Gondola and the Gothic facades of the Doge’s palace lie glimmers of a once powerful maritime city, whose influence in the Mediterranean once inspired some of the most influential men in Europe to unite against it.

According to tradition, Venice was founded in 421 BCE when the people of Veneto, fleeing from the Goths as they burned and pillaged their way south towards Rome, sought shelter among the low-lying islands off the coast of Italy. To overcome the challenging conditions of this marshy environment, the early Venetians devised building techniques that used Larchwood rafts and timber to support stone buildings. Pinewood piles were driven deep into the ground before construction began, and there they have remained for hundred of years, protected from rot by the waterlogged subsoil that prevents microbes from causing decay.



Subsequent builders continued to use these enduring building methods throughout the city’s history. The magnificent Santa Maria della Salute, for example, was built on top of more than a million timber piles near the entrance of the Grand Canal. Described by Henry James as “some great lady on the threshold of her salon,” the church was built by the survivors of a plague that ravaged the Venetian community in 1630. So thankful were they for their lives that they created this stone monument as evidence of their deliverance, hence the name, Salute, meaning health and salvation.

The early Venetians took advantage of their easily defended maritime position by establishing trade agreements with the Byzantine Empire. Eventually their expanding influence resulted in the conquest of Byzantium in 1204, a move that created more than a few enemies in Europe. By the 16th century Venice’s power had not only created a monopoly on Mediterranean trade, but had also made their colonization of the whole of northeastern Italy possible. Seen as an imminent threat to European interests, in 1508 the League of Cambrai was formed by Pope Julius II and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. The sole purpose of this organization was the destruction of Venice, but it was not until the Turks began carving out the Ottoman Empire that Venice was finally forced to withdraw from the continent.

A significant portion of Venice’s clout was derived from the lucrative business of cloth dying. Indeed, Venetian dominance of this industry even created a connection between its European interests and Spain’s newly discovered territories in Mexico. Both the cities of Venice and Lucca were Europe’s finest producers of exquisite satins, brocades and velvets, all available in a variety of hues. One of the most luxurious and expensive colors, however, was crimson, and the Venetians possessed the secret to creating some of the finest scarlet cloths in the European world. Wealthy Europeans were willing to pay staggering sums of money for these exceptional Italian textiles, wearing them as symbols of their rank and affluence. Red was the color of power, prestige and privilege. Richard II of England went to his coronation dressed in crimson shoes, stockings and gown. In France, only royal magistrates were allowed to wear the deepest shades of scarlet. At the height of its power the fabulously wealthy aristocrats of Venice reveled in their ruby wool gowns, while those who dressed in crimson silks were said to dress “a modo principe,” or “in the way of a prince.” This was a luxury reserved for the highborn citizens of Europe, however, since even wealthy merchants were generally not allowed to wear such coveted colors.

It is interesting to note the ways in which Venetian dyers guarded the secrets of their trade. Before the conquest of North America, when the discovery of cochineal in Mexico would bring an unexpected rival onto the scene, dyers painstakingly harvested the rare substances that could produce a lasting, deep-crimson color. Oak-kermes, St. John’s Wort and Armenian red were the more favored materials, and once sufficient amounts had been gathered the dyers carefully turned them into the Venetian scarlet whose creation was envied by many. To protect the details of this process they spread tales of ghostly specters that haunted the dye-works. According to some, a black wraith in a wide-brimmed hat walked the alleyways at night, determined to harm any foolish enough to wander where they should not.

In addition to Venice’s supremacy in the realm of the crimson arts, the city also gained enormous wealth trading in silks, spices, slaves and precious metals. The opulence that came to be associated with the upper echelons of society can easily be seen in the intricate stonework that decorates so many Venetian dwellings. The Doge’s Palace is no exception to this rule. The Palazzo Ducale was originally built in the 9th century as a fortified castle but it, and several later versions of the building, were destroyed by fire. The exquisite palace that travelers now visit in Saint Mark’s square is a product of the 14th and early 15th centuries. It’s lace-like Istrian stone arcades, pointed arches and carved windows are superb examples of the sort of Gothic architecture that can be found throughout the city. Inside the palace, the Giants Staircase hearkens back to a time when newly elected doges were crowned on the landing, flanked by tremendous statues of Mars and Neptune during the dazzling ceremony.

Though real power was with the Council of Ten, the lavish ceilings of the Doges private apartments reflect the luxurious lifestyle to which he was accustomed. Along with other sumptuous areas of the palace these sparsely furnished rooms are also reminders of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1791 siege of Venice. The ornate furnishings that once supported weary noblemen and visiting dignitaries were taken when he ordered his troops to loot the palace.

While not everyone could afford the grand lifestyle of an aristocrat, people of every social class did share a mode of transportation: boats. The black gondolas that we have come to associate with classic Venetian travel were commonly used to transport goods from the markets to the palazzo. That is not to say, however, that they were not also used to help people get around the city. Common folk and nobles alike used them in the same manner that visitors to Venice do today. Gondolas were, and still are, hand crafted from nine woods – beech, cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak and walnut – while their traditionally black color comes from the tar that was originally used to make them watertight. There was a time when aristocrats, always eager to distinguish themselves from others, decorated their gondolas with bright colors and plush carpets, but such displays of riches were outlawed in 1562.

Navigating these vessels are, of course, the Gondoliers, those timeless symbols of Venetian travel with their beribboned hats, stripped shirts and black trousers. So uncanny is their balance on the edge of a rocking gondola that local legend jokingly maintains that they are born with webbed feet, and indeed the very history of their occupation is in their blood. Knowledge of the city waterways is passed down from father to son, as is the remarkable skill that allows them to steer their crafts from a standing position. Today, as visitors glide past the palatial homes of Venice in cushioned gondolas, the city is transformed into a scenic experience unlike any other. When you travel through the canals using a mode of transportation more than 1,000 years old, it is as if you are touching history.

– Boulton, Susie and Christopher Catling. Venice & the Veneto. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London: 2004.
– Greenfield, Amy Butler. A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire. Harper Collins, New York: 2005.
– Willis, Harry. Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire. Washington Square Press: New York, 2001.



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