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Venice: Self-Representation, Performance, and Reception

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Venice: Self-Representation, Performance, and Reception

By Natalia Revelo La Rotta.

Since the first time I visited Venice I have said that it's like a dream. It is a city unlike any other. It is not only its canals and narrow streets that make Venice so unique — it is the whole fantasy of it. What I mean by fantasy is that Venice is an impossibility. Venice is a city built on top of disappearing marshlands in the middle of a lagoon. Its foundations are wooden stakes that were driven into the water, topped by limestones to create an even and sturdy ground for building. The city is filled with grand palaces and churches that have survived hundreds of years almost intact. No one had expected the city to last this long, and even today Venice’s fate looks rather gloomy with rising sea levels and sinking foundations.

I had been to Venice twice before, and when the opportunity arose to visit a third time, I couldn’t pass it up. That is how I ended up in ITAL/ARCH 311: “Venice: Self-Representation, Performance, and Reception,” a course cotaught by Professor Fabio Finotti of the Italian Studies Program and Professor Raffaela Giannetto of PennDesign, funded by Penn’s Humanities + Urbanism + Design (H+U+D) initiative.

My previous travels to Venice had been through the Penn-in-Venice summer program, where I took courses in Italian language, history, and art history, but what I also learned through these trips was that Venice is much more than a “floating” museum or a tourist day-trip.

Through ITAL/ARCH 311, I learned about the beginnings of Venice and its development as an empire. The course presented a thorough exploration of Venice from its origins to its present-day status and its attempts to represent itself to the world through a variety of myths. It also examined these self-representations through the use of texts, visuals, and built form. What made this course unique and rewarding was the quality and amount of primary texts presented to us as we investigated each stage of the history of Venice, from the visit to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts in Van Pelt Library to the end-of-the-semester trip abroad. The visual imagery presented in class created a clear picture of Venice throughout the years, and little slivers of information contextualized life in Venice at every century.

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    • Piazza di San Marco, Venice.

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    • Photo of Jacopo de' Barbari's woodcut, Map of Venice.

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For my final research project, I chose to study and analyze the foundations of Venice and the city's fragile relationship with the water around the it. This topic was inspired by the content discussed in class about the numerous rivers that had been diverted in the Veneto region to ensure Venice’s survival. From these class discussions I learned of the long battle for survival between Venice and the lagoon, which inspired my final essay “Venezia e il mare.” Other projects from the class dealt with the representation of Venice in Hollywood films, Venice as a maritime power from rise to fall, Venice’s architectural influence internationally, and even the evolution of the Venice Biennale.

While preparing for our trip throughout the semester, and especially nearing the departure date, the thought of acqua alta haunted me. Acqua alta is Italian for high water and that is when the water level in the lagoon rises and floods parts of the city, especially the Piazza di San Marco. The wintertime in Venice is when acqua alta occurs most often and at its highest. In the days leading up to the trip I remember checking the weather and the moon cycle to check for possibility of acqua alta

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    • Example of acqua alta in Venice.

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    • Example of acqua alta in Venice.

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    • Example of acqua alta in Venice.

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Lucky for us, during the week we were there the water was rather low, and there were no threats of acqua alta on the horizon. Unlucky for us, on most of our days in Venice there was an incredible amount of fog, where you could not see five feet in front of you. It was a wonder that the vaporetti were able to transverse the canals without being able to see very far ahead. But even still, with the blinding fog and the low temperatures, we were able to explore Venice following the groundwork we had laid out throughout the semester. We visited the Palazzo Ducale, wandering through its many rooms and seeing first-hand how the function of each room corresponded with its form. We even island hopped for a day visiting Lazzaretto Nouvo, Torcello, Murano, and Burano, while at the same time seeing every design of vaporetti that Venice has to offer. Nothing brings a group closer together than being stranded on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Venetian lagoon during winter. For me, highlights of the trip were visits to the Teatro Olimpico and Villa Rotonda, both designed by Palladio and considered masterpieces in the history of Italian architecture. As someone who studies architecture, visiting these buildings was a dream come true. 

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    • Early morning fog over Venice.

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    • ARCH/ITAL 311 students standing in front of Jacopo de' Barbari's Map of Venice at Museo Correr in Venice. 

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    • Palazzo Ducale, Venice.

    • Lazzaretto Nuovo
    • Lazzaretto Nuovo.

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    • ARCH/ITAL 311 students brave the cold and the fog to visit the historic Lazzaretto Nuovo to learn about the history of quarantine in Venice.

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    • View of Torcello.

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    • Rio dei Vetrai, Murano.

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    • View of Burano.

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    • ARCH/ITAL 311 students visit the Accademia Olimpica in Vicenza.

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    • Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza.

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    • ARCH/ITAL 311 students visit the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.

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    • Villa Americo Capra, also known as Villa Rotunda, Vicenza. Andrea Palladio, Architect, 1567-71.

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Natalia Revelo La Rotta is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where she is pursuing a BA in Visual Studies with a concentration in Architecture Practice and Technology, an Italian Studies minor, and is working towards a certificate in Portuguese. Her love for learning new languages is fueled by her love of travelling. 

Edited by Mariah Macias.