Dorsoduro is a very diverse neighbourhood in Venice. Whether you love art, history, religion or education, you will certainly enjoy your walk south of Canal Grande. Art is omnipresent at the musea such as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or the Punta Della Dogana, and at several galleries. The 2 scuole grandi, the Scuola Grande dei Carmini and Santa Maria della Carità, combine history and art. Amongst the many religious sites are not only the magnificent Santa Maria della Salute church and several other churches, but also the ‘seminario patriarcale’. The Ca’Foscari university and the Campo Santa Margherita bring the student life to the area. And finally, also the Giudecca island is officially part of Dorsoduro.
DID YOU KNOW? The name Dorsoduro means ‘hard back’. It refers to the soil which is harder than in the other parts of Venice.
This post will take you on an architectural walk along the 4 corners of Dorsoduro: the Accademia bridge in the north, Zattere in the south, Punta della Dogana in the east and Ca’Foscari in the west. The other topics related to art, history and religion will be covered in future posts on Dorsoduro.
The Dorsoduro sestiere is located on the south side of Venice, below Canal Grande. You can reach it by crossing the Accademia bridge or via the San Polo or Santa Croce sestieri. The picture taken from the Accademia bridge towards the Salute church is probably one of the most photographed views of Venice.
1. Ponte dell’Accademia
When you think about the Accademia bridge, the wooden structure immediately comes to mind. Did you realize this was not meant to be a permanent structure, but only a temporary solution?
The first suggestion to build a bridge at this location dates from 1488. It took however until 1854 before Venetian citizens were able to cross the Canal Grande here. The first bridge was in iron and was designed by engineer Alfred Neville of the Neville foundry at San Rocco. It created a pedestrian link between the historical center and the new commercial, maritime and railway hub near the Giudecca Canal.
DID YOU KNOW? The Accademia bridge is one of the 4 bridges that crosses Canal Grande. It was the second one to be built. The Rialto bridge is the oldest and was built in 1181. It was originally a pontoon bridge, but was replaced by a wooden bridge in 1255. The original Scalzi bridge (in front of the Santa Lucia railway station) was quite similar to the iron Accademia bridge. It was built a couple of years later, in 1857, by the same Neville foundry. Finally, the Ponte della Costituzione near Piazzale Roma is quite new and is in use since 2008. The very modern structure with glass is designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the vaporettos were put into service but they couldn’t pass underneath the flat iron bridge. At that time, the bridge was already unstable. The deck had to be narrowed to avoid that too many people would be standing on the bridge at the same time. A competition was organized to select a new design. None of the entries was sufficiently convincing, so they chose a temporary solution. The wooden bridge, with an arch of 48 meters, was designed by the Italian engineer Eugenio Miozzi and was built in 1932. Time has passed and several new tenders didn’t result in a better proposal. The wooden Accademia bridge is now a famous landmark of Venice.
The bridge had already been reinforced with steel to lend it a degree of permanence, and has now also be completely restored. The Luxottica group agreed to pay 1.7 million euros for the works which were finished in 2018. If you want to know more about the financing of cultural heritage by large corporates, you can read my post ‘Discover how Venice finances its cultural heritage’.
When you cross the Accademia bridge and set foot in Dorsoduro, go straight to the other side of the island. This will bring you to the Fondamenta Zattere along the Giudecca Canal. The name ‘Zattere’ means ‘rafts’ and refers to the merchandise (salt, coal and wood) which arrived here by rafts. It was originally called Fondamenta Carbonaria, referring to the coal. The Fondamenta exists since 810, but the pavement dates from 1516.
This 1.7 km long boulevard is a very nice area to enjoy the sun, make a walk and sit on a terrace. It’s one of my favourite locations for lunch. You have plenty of choice on the large terraces which are set above the water. They are quite touristy, but the view in the sun makes you forget about the other guests. Just make sure you get a table in the front row and you will have an undisturbed view on the canal and on Giudecca.
INSIDER TIP: If you prefer a quieter and fancy environment, I can suggest Linea d’Ombra. This restaurant is located further down the Fond. Zattere, near the salt warehouses. (Ponte delll’Umilta, Dorsoduro 19).
After your lunch, buy an icecream and head along the water to the east side. Take your time to admire the beautiful buildings on the other side of the canal, on Giudecca, such as the Redentore church, the Zitelle church, Casa dei Tre Oci or the Hilton Molino Stucky, a former flourmill. The weekend of the Festa del Redentore is the only time that you can walk from Zattere to Giudecca. A pontoon bridge of 330 meter long and 3.60 meter wide is put just above the water. Walking on the bridge at the same level of the Redentore church gives you a great opportunity to admire its beautiful façade. If you want to visit Giudecca, I recommend you to watch these 10 buildings ‘Giudecca: A peaceful island with 10 remarkable buildings’.
DID YOU KNOW? In the beginning of the 20th century, there were 2 swimming pools in the Giudecca Canal along the Zattere. The Passori Pool was a closed off section of the canal. Dr Rima’s pontoon pool was floating next to the Dogana da Mar. The pool was in use until the 1950s.
Don’t forget to look to your left as well. You will come across nice canal views before you arrive at the old salt warehouses (magazzine del sale). The warehouses date from the 14th century but the neoclassical façade was added around 1830 by Alvise Pigazzi. The warehouses adopted the names of the original religious structures which were located here: San Gregorio, Trinitá, Gesuiti, Spirito Santo and Umiltá. The buildings have a high roof and a spacious structure. They were designed to withstand the enormous pressure of the tons of salt placed inside.
DID YOU KNOW? Venice played a very important role in the trading of salt and even constituted a monopoly. In the 12th century, Venice was supplying salt to a number of nearby Italian cities. By the 14th century it was the center of a salt enterprise that stretched from the Crimea in the Black Sea to Alexandria and the Balearic Islands. Salt was a major contributor to the economic and financial power of La Serenissima and was called the ‘white gold’. At its peak, the trading in salt represented nearly 10% of the state’s income.
The former salt warehouses are now used for exhibitions and as a boathouse. One part has been renovated in 2009 to create an exhibition space dedicated to the Venetian painter Emilio Vedova. The renovation was done by Renzo Piano, an Italian architect who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998.
INSIDER TIP: In the book ‘Carnival for the Dead’ of David Hewson, Teresa, the main character, stays at an apartment near these warehouses. It’s a very intriguing story which plays during Carnevale and is primarily set in Dorsoduro.
3. Punta della Dogana
When you reach the tip of the island, you are at Punta della Dogana. The triangle building used to be the Dogana da Mar or the customs office of Venice. The goods and papers of arriving ships were controlled here. The building as it stands today was completed in 1682 by architect Giuseppe Benoni. It is characterized by the tower with two Atlases lifting a golden bronze sphere with lady Fortune on the top. The statue turns in the wind to show the direction. The building continued to be a customs house until the 1980s.
In 2007, after it had been abandoned for 20 years, the Venice city council launched a tender to transform it into a contemporary art space. Interested parties were the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, who wanted to move from the nearby Palazzo Venier dei Leoni to a larger site, and the French business man François Pinault, who already acquired Palazzo Grassi in 2005.
François Pinault won the tender for a lease of 33 years, with a design from the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. He managed to completely restore the site in a period of 14 months. The Punta della Dogana museum opened in 2009. The contemporary art exhibitions have been very successful.
DID YOU KNOW? At the tip of the triangle is a replica of a 19th century lantern, which used to be a romantic meeting spot. At the time of the opening of the museum, a huge statue of a naked boy with a frog, designed by Charles Ray, stood on this spot. It was however controversial as it was too modern for the surrounding architecture. It was removed and replaced by the lantern in 2013.
One of the constraints which Tadao Ando had to take into account was the need for flexibility of Venetian buildings. They are set on unstable soil and constantly move with the water. He wanted to add concrete walls to create a modern appeal, but these cannot bend. If you look around in the Punta della Dogana, you will notice that the concrete walls are placed far from the original brick walls. This allows the brick walls to move without hitting the concrete and is a safety measure to avoid cracks or fissures.
INSIDER TIP: If you want to better understand the typical Venetian construction methods, Insula spa, the operative arm of the City of Venice for urban maintenance, created an interesting movie ‘Venice Backstage’ on this topic.
Tadao Ando also had to skip two columns next to the entrance of the museum from his original proposal. These concrete columns symbolized the new era of Punta della Dogana. After long discussions with the government, he finally got the permission to build them. However, during the construction, they found some underground city infrastructure on that exact location. Due to the time constraints, it was no longer possible to make changes to the plan.
INSIDER TIP: More details and plenty of pictures of the renovation project can be found in the book ‘Tadao Ando Venice: The Pinault Collection at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta Della Dogana’. Alternatively, you can watch the timelapse video of the construction works, which is very impressive. During the summer months, you can also follow a guided tour (in English or Italian) about the architecture and the restoration.
Now it’s time to cross the Dorsoduro area to the west side. You will find the Ca’Foscari university on your right, at the foot of the bridge that brings you to San Polo.
A university might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you are visiting Venice, but I can guarantee you that it’s certainly worth the visit (see also: ‘Why you will never forget your visit to Ca’Foscari’). It is a gorgeous palazzo located in the most beautiful curve of Canal Grande. It offers a spectacular view from the Rialto Bridge to the Accademia Gallery.
DID YOU KNOW? Thanks to this wide view, the Regata Storica finishes in front of Ca’Foscari. Last year, there was some commotion to change it to a different location, which would be better suited for spectators. In the end, they decided to keep is as it had been for such a long time. More information on the regata storica can be found in my article ‘Don’t miss a thing of the Regata Storica’.
The ‘Casa delle Due Torri’ dates from 1420. In 1452, Doge Francesco Foscari bought it from the State of Venice. According to the official version, he did this as a favor to replenish the state treasury. In fact, he was more interested in reinvigorating his own waning power. Led by the famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Bon, the building was largely demolished, renovated and expanded. This created the second largest courtyard of Venice, after the Palazzo Ducale. Since then, this masterpiece of Venetian Gothic style has been known as Ca’Foscari. Many distinguished guests, including the French king Henry III and Tsar Peter I stayed here during their visit to Venice. In 1868 it became the headquarters of the Ca’Foscari University.
The most beautiful part of Ca’Foscari is the Aula Baratto on the first floor. This space opens onto Canal Grande and used to be very popular for parties. In 1936, the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa (see post: Explore Venice in the steps of Carlo Scarpa) transformed it into the main auditorium of the university. His typical style can be recognized in the wooden windows, but especially in the furniture and the marble stage. In 1956, the auditorium was converted to a smaller hall for lectures, again by Scarpa. The woodwork that separates the corridor from the auditorium is a real gem.
INSIDER TIP: There is a beautiful paper shop in front of the university: Amor del Libro. You can watch the owner decorate books and boxes and afterwards buy some to take home with you.
The Ca’Foscari university is a public institution, so you can explore the courtyard and entrance for free. They do however organize guided tours run by the students of the university. I certainly recommend this, as they give you a lot of insights in the history of the different buildings and rooms. You also get access to parts which are otherwise not open to the public. You can choose between 2 different tours. The first tour focuses on Ca’Foscari and lasts approx. 1 hour. The tour includes the courtyards and the beautiful Aula Baratto. The second one is a larger tour which also includes a visit to Ca’Dolfin. Ca’Dolfin hosts the Aula Magna Silvio Trentin, decorated with 18th century frescos. I followed the larger tour and it was really worth it. Both palazzos are beautiful but quite different, so it makes sense to visit both.
The university also organizes on a regular basis temporary art exhibitions, which can be visited for free. These give you the opportunity to enter some of the rooms in the adjacent Ca’Giustinian palazzo, which is part of Ca’Foscari. At the moment of publication, there is an exhibition ongoing from the Chinese artist Han Meilin. Take a look at some of the pictures in the article by Monica Cesarato.
These are only the cornerstones of the Dorsoduro area. As mentioned at the beginning, there is so much to see and discover in between these 4 corners. You can easily explore it on your own by wandering around as it’s not very large. If you are interested in modern art, I can advice a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection as you can read in my post ‘The artistic legacy of Peggy Guggenheim in Venice‘. If you would like to stay in this area during your trip to Venice, I recommend the Sina Centurion Palace along Canal Grande. You can read about my experience in ‘Sina Centurion Palace: A luxury hotel with a splendid view‘.
If you want to know more about the architecture in Venice, you might be interested in one of these books from my list ‘The architecture of Venice captured in 8 books’.
Enjoy your walk!
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