Find your way using Venice’s piazzas
A church, a bell tower and a wellhead in the middle of a large open space surrounded by buildings, often with a canal nearby. If you put all these elements together you have a Venetian “campo” (literally: a field). Venetian “campi” are meeting places and also landmarks for anyone moving around within this labyrinth of a city. All of them have the above-mentioned components to a greater or lesser degree which is why they can sometimes be confusing, making you think you have déjà-vu!
There is only one piazza in Venice: Piazza San Marco. But the campi can be likened to the “piazzas” of other cities. In the same way, there is only one “via” (road), Via Garibaldi. The others are called “calle“, “fondamenta“, “ruga“, “salizada“, “ramo” and “rio terà“, to mention just a few of their names.
[For example: to reach the Rialto bridge on foot from Hotel Londra Palace, you could use Campo San Zaccaria, Campo Santa Maria Formosa and Campo San Bortolo, respectively, as landmarks. However, we advise you to ask our concierge for directions.
The term “campo” comes from their original nature: they were of grass or beaten earth and sometimes also had a cultivated garden. Over the years, the fields were paved with tiles, then in “herringbone” or “basket weave” brickwork. However, you can still see one campo today which has preserved the original grassy surface: Campo San Pietro, in Castello.
By studying the characteristic elements of Venetian campi you can understand how life used to be organized within these urban spaces in the past: why they were created and for what purpose. The well had a key role: it was the place where women met. Every day, they gossiped as they waited by the wellheads (which served as rain water containers) to fill their buckets.
However, in 1536, the Provveditori alla Sanità (city health officials) placed the keys for the cisterns into the custody of the district heads in order to protect the water, a precious commodity. They would then only be opened twice a day, when the bells were rung. The bells, therefore, marked the time of both religious life (every campo had its own parish church) and normal life. In addition to the opening up of the wells, the bells also served as a warning: in the event of fire, for example.
Some campi (such as San Polo, Frari, Santo Stefano, Santi Giovanni and Paolo) were also, because of their size, the settings for spectacular, secular events such as Carnival festivities, jousts, shooting or boules tournaments and markets. There also used to be “bull fighting” until February 22, 1802, when the disastrous collapse of the stands holding the spectators in Campo Santo Stefano led to it being banned.
With the arrival of a public aqueduct bringing water to the city (June 1884) and the closure of the wells, the campi lost their function and are no longer as busy. But even today they remain the most convenient meeting point for Venetians and the easiest landmarks for those visitors who aren’t afraid of exploring the heart of the city on foot, going beyond the most popular tourist spots, in order to discover its secrets.