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  • Asirini Parakramawansha

The Mystery of the Floating City

Updated: Sep 9, 2019


Pink lanterns, feathered felines, and terracotta streets in the middle of a lagoon. Venice is famous for many things but its floating buildings are by far its most recognisable element. But how do they float?

Venice lounges atop the waves with her baroque skirts thrown wildly into intricate canals. But it couldn't possibly be buoyancy holding up this monarch of the seas, could it?

Today we look through the lens at the kaleidoscopic view of the world's most beautiful and strangest city. Looking out at the waterborne metropolis of Venice for the first time, I found it impossible to imagine how such huge and beautiful structures could simply be suspended on frivolous waves. Treasures of Renaissance architecture seem to rise from the restless ocean like Aphrodite's birth from the sea. They couldn't really be floating- not those many tonnes of marble and brick. Marvelling at the architecture as I strolled through the bustling streets of Venice, I decided to start pondering the secrets of this otherworldly 'floating city'.


Perhaps it is held up on the back of a sleeping titan or giant turtle. Maybe Venice is balanced on top of another older city- one with mermaids and amphibious citizens. Perhaps the underbelly of the city is being balanced on the surface by the mighty arms of a sea beast- perhaps the tentacles of a Kraken! The serious side of me would like to imagine it balanced on a forest of wooden stilts. But what kind of wood could hold up entire gold coated palaces for over a thousand years? After doing a bit of research, I found that the answer to this bizarre query lay in the most mundane of places.

A history book.



Hand painted image of a Venetian canal with the tentacles of a Kraken hiding beneath the surface of the water.
Maybe it's a Kraken?!- an illustration of my view through the kaleidoscope when I was in Venice (painted by yours truly.)


Temples crumble, empires fall and- Venice floats?!


The Romans occupy the majority of Italian history in the casual manner their emperors once lounged across marble couches. The particular part of history we're looking at today is the barbarian invasions of Rome around 5 AD. The funny thing about these invaders is that Rome had actually hired these armies to defend it's northern borders by promising them a share of the empire's wealth. The barbarians had eventually realised that they could get much richer by just looting Rome themselves while the empire was weak.


And so they descended on the city in anarchic hordes; The clash of bloodstained weapons and primal battle cries echoed among the once revered marble pillars of the ancient civilisation. Rome was destroyed in the same way it had once laid waste to many other cities in the rise of its empire. The onslaught of violence caused a mass exodus of refugees fleeing from their luxurious, silk-curtained homes to the marshy, barren islands of Torcello, Lesolo and Malamocco. This is where Venice stands now. As the population of refugees grew, they decided to build a permanent settlement- a city on the water. Now here's the part you've been waiting for. *drumroll as everyone leans forward in their seats*.


Is Venice floating?


Well... not exactly. You see, the initial construction about 2000 years ago started with the soon-to-be-Venetians carving canals into the existing islands, draining them, and then driving hundreds of thousands of wooden poles into the marshy ground to later build on top of that. As time progressed, the water level has risen, licking all the way up to most front doors of Venetian buildings. This means that added layers of bricks have been needed to keep the city out of the water.


But how can old wood hold up one of the greatest (and mind you, heaviest) Renaissance-style cities in the world? Simple wood is much too weak to hold up Venice- especially if it's several thousand year old wood. Is it magic? Mermaids? Unfortunately the answer is a bit simpler. You see for wood to rot there needs to be microorganisms to decompose it. Because the wood is fully submerged, there is no oxygen, and hence no microorganisms to eat away at it. It's strange and actually quite scary to think that I spent about a week of my life walking across a land thrust from the viscous depths of the ocean by forests of millennia old logs held in an undead state by an ironic lack of oxygen.


Venetian canal with a gondala and part of the Rialto bridge in the background
I'd like to think that what truly keeps Venice afloat remains a mystery that's as murky as the city's canals

Although I now know that the city isn't really just freely bobbing about like the isle of Delphi, I still like to think of it as floating. Besides, the foundations don't entirely disprove my other theories. There are many local legends surrounding both mermaids and sea-monsters being spotted in the many canals of Venice so you can never know where what may seem like wooden supports to us, could be the ancient hiding place of something far more mysterious. Those of you who wish to look with me, past the history books and through my kaleidoscope, may be able to dream up an explanation to this phenomenon that's just as whimsical as the rest of this amazing city. Feel free to share your theories in the comment section and also share and like this post if you found it as interesting as I did. I for one believe that there's definitely more to this city than meets the eye, just as there always is, when you look at the world through a kaleidoscope.

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