Mapping the History of Venice, One Inscription at a Time.
Venice, with its intricate network of canals and architectural marvels, has served as the backdrop to countless historical episodes. However, another layer of the city’s narrative emerges from its walls, a facet often overlooked: inscriptions, marks and etchings, known as ‘graffiti’ in Italian. These signs, whether cryptic or clear, play a crucial role in Venice’s urban dialogue.
In this discussion, Alberto Toso Fei and Desi Marangon, authors of “I Graffiti di Venezia“, published by Lineadacqua, delve deeply into the significance of these marks. Through their comprehensive research, they shed light on the myriad narratives—both grand and intimate—that these silent testimonials convey. By examining these imprints, they present an alternative historiography of Venice, highlighting not just the grand events but also the lived experiences of its inhabitants.
As you delve into this exploration, you’ll uncover the nuances and stories these marks encapsulate, offering a fresh perspective on Venice. Throughout this discussion, we use the terms ‘inscriptions’, ‘etchings’, and ‘graffiti’ to describe the various marks scattered throughout Venice. Each term has its distinct historical and artistic implications, but for the purposes of this article, we consider their distinctions less significant and use them interchangeably.
How did you start your collaboration for this project? What inspired you to undertake such a challenging and unique project?
Alberto Toso Fei: The idea to research and map Venetian inscriptions, as far as I’m concerned, goes way back. For the past thirty years, I have primarily focused on recovering stories from oral tradition, and some of these stories are tied to graffiti. What struck me as a young boy was that many of these traditional stories matched real signs on Venetian walls. Through my research, I realized that there were dozens of these marks, but they were hard to interpret without the right tools to understand them. This idea to map the inscriptions became tangible when I met Desi, as we shared the same passion. We initially began by thinking of creating a basic map of the etchings, and since there wasn’t any exhaustive work that listed and interpreted all of them, we decided to do it ourselves. We found incredible materials, most of which were entirely new. After the collection and organization phase, the study and writing phases started simultaneously. I want to emphasize that this work was done with absolute harmony of intent and energy.
Historical Significance: The graffiti and inscriptions reveal the history of Venice from a different perspective, focusing not just on the elite and the rulers but also on the common people. They provide insight into the daily life, beliefs, and values of the Venetians of the past.
Desi Marangon: Initially, we had no idea the project would be so demanding. We thought that there might be a few dozen signs and that it wouldn’t take much time. However, the more we searched for inscriptions, the more we found. They quickly turned from a few hundred to thousands. So, we decided to map all of them. All this work still had to be cataloged, sorted by thematic areas, and then we had to structure the chapters, provide a theoretical framework for the volume, and decide how the book should be written, trying to avoid turning it into a mere catalog since that wouldn’t be very valuable for general readership. We did not expect such a lengthy and demanding job.
How has the way you look at Venice changed over the course of this research? And how has your research on Venice’s inscriptions influenced and changed your understanding of the city?
ATF: Our perspective and that of others! During meetings, one of the first things we say to people we meet is that their perception of the city will change. Once you become aware of the inscriptions, you begin to see Venice not just as a monumental entity but as a living organism with a story to tell. Our own perception of Venice has changed: it’s as if the city spontaneously tells its stories through the faded marks left on its walls. We’ve reached a point where, if we have to meet for any reason, we set our meeting spot by a specific piece of graffiti!
DM: Once you notice the signs, you begin to appreciate Venice for its details. Venice is, of course, a wonderful city, home to highly significant historic monuments, which tend to draw all the attention. However, there are much smaller details that narrate the history of this city, such as the inscriptions. These details tell the stories of the people, not just of the doges (Note: “Doges” refers to the chief magistrates and leaders of the Republic of Venice. They were elected for life by the city’s aristocracy) and artists. They’re the stories of ordinary individuals. The imprints help us reflect on the concept of cultural heritage, on how some details end up outlining the history of Venice from a very different perspective.
Did you receive support from the Veneto Region or the Municipality of Venice?
ATF: Not directly for the creation of the book. We received support from international committees for the safeguarding of Venice, which commit every year to investing significant sums in restoring monumental parts of the city. However, we had the support of many Venetian civil and military institutions. The Municipality and the Region supported us later in the creation of the first festival called Venezia Urbs Scripta. Those were four beautiful days.
DM: The Festival is part of a broader project for historical dissemination, which began with the book, followed by promotion through social digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, etc. We tried to disseminate these materials widely with the festival, through guided tours, meetings, and special guests.
Venice as a Living Organism: The inscriptions transform the way one perceives Venice. Instead of seeing it merely as a collection of historic monuments, it’s viewed as a living entity, constantly telling its story through marks and imprints left behind by its inhabitants.
Why are there so many inscriptions in Venice? Who marked them? And what stories do these signs hide?
DM: Graffiti are part of the soul of the city. Venice, in fact, has retained much of its oldest surfaces, allowing the inscriptions to be preserved, even though many marbles were replaced, especially in the 1800s and 1900s. Also, many churches were destroyed. However, most of the surfaces remain intact. This was a question we asked ourselves, especially in comparison with other art cities. We found so many signs that we realized they are part of the graphic culture inherent to the city itself. Venice is a city lived outdoors; people live and walk through the streets, so naturally, there’s an appropriation of public space by leaving marks on the stone. Each inscription tells a different story, the story of the one who left it. In the past, it wasn’t illegal to write on walls. There was no specific condemnation; nobody minded if someone left marks on the stone, given that we found countless signs, crosses, proverbs, and drawings even on the columns of the Procuratie Vecchie in Piazza San Marco (Note: The “Procuratie Vecchie” are historic buildings on the northern side of Piazza San Marco in Venice). The issue, if any, was related to the content of these writings. Everyone wrote on the walls: those from the lower classes, codes from the Scalpellini (Note: craftsmen specialized in stone carving), or the Zappieri, who procured timber from the mountains of Cadore, who used a specific graphic trademark. These codes are incomprehensible to us today, but for them, it was an entirely regular language, even though most of them were illiterate. There are also numerous inscriptions left by an elite male, intellectual and economic group that traveled throughout Europe, leaving their signatures on European castles, palaces, and some even signed as “nobleman” because they wanted to show their social status. Women wrote very little; we found only three or four inscriptions by them. This scarcity can be attributed to their limited access to certain public spaces, such as specific rooms in the Doge’s Palace and other ceremonial places. Additionally, they had a lower literacy rate and likely didn’t have access to the tools needed to etch stone. Above all, women were sidelined in public discourses of society.
Is there any particular place in Venice where a large amount of inscriptions is concentrated?
ATF: Definitely in the Doge’s Palace. This building has a long history and a very high degree of preservation. Excluding the 20th-century tourist signs, there are hundreds of other marks, some very important. In some gathering centers like St. Mark’s Basilica, the Marciana area, which is the most central, and obviously also the most ancient and rich in inscriptions.
Were you able to interpret all the signs?
ATF: Some inscriptions cannot be interpreted, their meaning is not clear. For some, we can make conjectures, but we don’t have all the elements at our disposal to clarify their meaning, as happens, for example, with the proverb in Piazza San Marco.
Artistic and Historical Value: Some inscriptions have significant artistic beauty, while others depict critical events in the city’s history, making them invaluable sources of information
Is there any inscription that particularly struck you for its artistic beauty or its historical significance?
DM: Some are iconographic, for example, they depict landscapes, many are of ships, or faces. We also have various lions of St. Mark like the one at Palazzo Ducale, which is rich in detail. There are some from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that depict the lagoon freezing due to extreme cold, while people cross on foot the stretch of lagoon that separates the Fondamenta Nuove from the Island of San Cristoforo, which today is the San Michele Cemetery. Very interesting are also the inscriptions representing historical events such as battles, victories, those related to the Doges of Venice, the entry of Italian troops into Venice in 1866, the collapse of the bell tower of San Marco in 1902, etc. Venice truly records its history on its walls in some way.
What are your next projects?
ATF: Along with the Festival, another smaller and more theoretical volume called “Venezia Urbs Scripta” was released. With this, we intended to answer all the questions that had been asked of us from the time the book was released until the Festival itself. We are already working on the next edition of the Festival because it was supported by the Municipality, indeed by the Presidency of the Municipal Council in the person of Linda Damiano, who supports the festival very strongly.
Photos courtesy of Alberto Toso Fei and Desi Marangon, Author: Simone Padovani
Links: Alberto Toso Fei Official Site
Topics: Venice wall inscriptions meaning, Historical significance of Venetian graffiti, Stories behind Venetian wall marks, Venetian inscriptions research, Stone etchings in Venice’s architecture
Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it, China-underground.com, Weirditaly.com and RetroFuturista.com.