by Aglaia Bianchi

Among the cities of the world Venice is the most intrinsically labyrinthine one. It’s not just the complex tangle of the Venetian alleys, the calli, that evokes the labyrinth; many elements, strongly connected to the very identity of the city, form its labyrinthine character.

Most of the people visiting Venice face the typically labyrinthine experience of getting lost or having to retrace their steps. Who hasn’t got lost at least once in the street maze of the Serenissima while trying a new path, or at least has had to change their route due to the curves of the alleys or because a canal blocked the way? And yet these are only some of the labyrinthine elements that characterize the city, its history and identity.


A Labyrinthine City

Walking around Venice is a purely labyrinthine experience. The visitors find themselves in a dense grid of little alleys that prevents an overview of the path and planning an easy and clear route from one point of the city to another.

As you go along the narrow calli, barely wider than a person and surrounded by high buildings, that sometimes are even joined directly above your head (in the so-called sotopórteghi), you have the feeling of walking down a corridor rather than a street. You do not have an overview of where you’re headed and the alleys rarely follow a straight line, preferring to force you to follow their windy path until you lose your sense of direction. Often you will find yourself walking in a completely different direction than the one you set off for, or at least you will wonder – and that’s exquisitely labyrinthine – whether or not you are actually getting any nearer to your goal.

The great number of alleys that branch out in every possible direction and their incredibly short length increase the confusion of our modern-day Theseus facing the labyrinth. It becomes almost impossible, even with a city map, to define the path to take in beforehand. This forces you to take decisions about the path to follow at every single crossroads, just like in a multicursale labyrinth or maze.1

Thus, the wanderer has the power to determine their way through Venice as labyrinth, crossroads after crossroads, and yet at the same time they are at the mercy of the labyrinth and its structure. This is due to the coexistence in the concept of labyrinth of the two contradictory models of the unicursal and multicursal labyrinth, as we know from the visual and the literary tradition, respectively. While in the unicursal labyrinth a windy yet single way, with no crossroads, leads the visitor along an inevitable path to the centre, the multicursal labyrinth forces him to continuously chose the path to follow.2

Going back to the structure of the lagoon city, an element that makes it more labyrinthine than other medieval cities is the abundance of dead ends. More than a few calli end suddenly before a canal, without any possibility for the wanderer to proceed on their path. They are forced to retrace their steps to the last crossroads, just like in a multicursale labyrinth, and to make a new choice.

This typically Venetian characteristic is strongly tied to the history of the city. Venice was not founded around a centre, like other medieval cities; it was born from the fusion of many little single islands that initially developed independently and were only at a later time unified through a reclamation of the swamp.3

Each of these islands is organised around three elements – church, belltower and campo (the Venetian square) – to which the houses are connected through a grid of little alleys. As the city got bigger, the swamp dividing the single islands was reduced until just a canal divided the islands. Bridges were then built to connect them and allow movement to and fro. Since the structures of the islands developed independently from one another, only seldom it happens that a street continues on the next island in the same direction. In this case, a bridge, quite often askew, connects the two road systems; more often, the calle does not have a corresponding street on the next island and just ends on the edge of the one it was built upon, thus creating the typical dead end.

Since the road system in Venice is the one made by the canals, and the streets were just used for brief distances on foot, this medieval structure remained in place until today.4

This historical development accounts also for the slightly chaotic and illogical impression the Venetian topography may give at a first glance, especially if compared to an island such as Manhattan. Another structural peculiarity of Venice reinforces its labyrinthine character: the city is a closed structure, with a clear separation from the outside and a precise entrance point. Unlike other cities Venice does not have suburbs that allows a gradual entrance into the city. Entrance to the city is gained at a precise point that in our time is represented by the Ponte della Libertà, which connects Venice with the mainland and thus defines what is part of the city and what is not.5

I would like to conclude this chapter with a last important observation, going back to my initial question. If you ask a Venetian if they ever get lost in their town or if they finds it labyrinthine, they will probably answer you no, of course not. But this does not diminish the labyrinthine character of the city. Even the Labyrinth of Cnossos for the Minotaur was not a labyrinth but his home. Similarly, to experience Venice as a labyrinth you have to come from outside.

Venice as a Labyrinth in Literature

While we have to wait until Giuseppe Sinopoli’s novel Parsifal a Venezia6 to have an attempt at a cartography of the Venetian labyrinth, the labyrinthine character of the city has fascinated visiting authors ever since Goethe and inspires them to this day in their works. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself, in his famous Italian Journey, experienced the labyrinth:

Towards evening I explored – again without a guide – the remote quarters of the city. […] I tried to find my way in and out of the labyrinth myself, asking nobody the way and taking my directions only from the points of the compass. It is possible to do this and I find my method of personal experience the best.7

In 1824 the German poet August Graf von Platen writes in a sonnet about Venice:

This labyrinth of bridges and small streets,
self-intertwining in a thousand ways!
How shall I ever thread this tangled maze,
How solve so vast a puzzle?8

Less than a century later, the protagonist of the novel Death in Venice by Thomas Mann9, Gustav von Aschenbach, gets lost in this labyrinth, in a city in the grip of cholera. Losing the way in the sick city reflects Aschenbach losing his identity as he, too, gets sick.

Joseph Brodsky too, in his Watermark, dwells on the labyrinthine character of Venice and its many dead ends:

No matter what you set out for as you leave the house here, you are bound to get lost in these long, coiling landes and passageways that beguile you to see them through, to follow them to their elusive end, which usually hits water, so that you can’t even call it a cul-de-sac.10

In 1989 the composer Giuseppe Sinopoli, returning home from the Fenice theatre after a rehearsal of the Parsifal, was so concentrated on the leitmotiv of Parsifal’s Erring that he got lost in the street maze and decided to explore the Venetian labyrinth. Sinopoli captures this experience in a novel-essay packed with musings on the symbology of the labyrinth and of Venice and with a precise and fascinating cartography of his own path that night.11

If I choose not to include this itinerary in my essay is to let the reader live it themselves in the pages of Sinopoli’s work and thus appreciate it in its fullness.

Many other Italian and foreign authors compare in their work Venice to a labyrinth and highlight different aspects of it. The authors I quoted are but a taste, an invitation to read literature about Venice from a new perspective and experience the city in a new way.

A Labyrinthine Itinerary

Venice does not have one labyrinthine itinerary, yet every route can become one. With the proposed itinerary I wish to inspire you to find Venice’s labyrinthine character in its nooks and crannies; to recognize its elements, strolling around led by an Ariadne’s thread, and the associations it evoked in the authors who visited the city. And then to open yourself, without the need for a guide anymore, to experience the labyrinth directly.

The proposed itinerary [map] begins at the entrance of the labyrinth: the Ponte della Libertà that connects Venice to the mainland. After arriving in Piazzale Roma or the train station we leave the world behind and venture into the labyrinth. To give you an idea of the difference between the main routes and the maze of parallel and semiparallel alleys that make getting around in Venice a labyrinthine experience, we will begin with an easy route, marked by wide, long, straight calli with almost no chance of making wrong turns. An antilabyrinthine path, you could say.

The first stop will be the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. To reach it, start in Piazzale Roma facing away from the Ponte della libertà, the busses and the trams, signs of an external, non-Venetian world and cross the bridge to the Papadopoli Gardens, walk on keeping the garden on your left, cross another bridge and turn to the left along the Fondamenta dei Tolentini, then directly to the right into the Calle dei Amai. Follow this long and wide street as it curves slightly to the right, after the next bridge, into the Calle delle Sechere and the Calle delle Chiovere. A turn to the right, then to the left will bring you to another wide and long calle. Follow the flow of people and you will arrive almost automatically to the majestic Romanesque church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Go around the building and cross the bridge directly in front of it. Then turn right, always right. Should you at some point not come any further, turn around and continue, taking the next right turn.

We are now starting the proper labyrinthine itinerary and turning always in one direction is a mathematical method to – albeit after some time – get out of the labyrinth. After some right turns (the alleys are too short and numerous to quote them individually) you will find yourself in the Rio Terà (a street made by infilling or covering a canal) dei Nomboli. Facing away from the canal, walk down the rio terà. A microscopic alley, the Calle Corner, will manifest itself in front of you. Enter it and follow it. Narrow and gloomy, it will give you the impression of finding yourselves in a dark, somewhat menacing corridor. Keep going, even when apprehension rises. It will lead you where it will, to a dead end. Now turn around and retrace your steps, unless one of the many cultural events of the Centro Tedesco di Studi Veneziani is taking place in its magnificent halls or terrace on the Canal Grande. Who would guess that such a treasure is hiding in this dark alley?

When you get out of the alley take the first calle on the right and follow it. As you begin to glimpse the Campo San Polo, turn right into the Calle del Magazen and experience the multicursal labyrinth. Most of the little calli that depart from it will lead you to dead ends. When you have savoured this experience, go back and reach the Campo San Polo. Take a deep breath. You will seldomly find yourself in such a broad space in Venice. Then take, approximately in the middle of the square, a sotoportego on the right. After a little bridge and some turns (right-left-right), the calle will bring you to a magnificent example of a bridge laying askew to connect the road systems of two islands. Savour the view of the colonnade on the calle that lies in front of you.

I leave you here, dear reader. I gave you a taste of labyrinthine elements, in a corner of the city. Now it’s your turn: explore the labyrinth and discover Venice from a new perspective. Have fun!


Cover photo and sliding images: © Aglaia Bianchi 2021

1. For the difference between unicursal and multicursale labyrinth see Aglaia Bianchi, Venedig als Labyrinth. Die Stadt und ihre literarische Darstellung im 20. Jahrhundert, Regensburg, Schnell und Steiner, 2018.

2. See above.

3. See Mancuso, Franco, Venezia è una città. Come è stata costruita e come vive, Venezia, Corte del Fontego, 2009; and Howard, Deborah, The Architectural History of Venice, New York, Holmes and Meier, 1987 (1980).

4. See Howard, Deborah, The architectural history of Venice, p. 51.

5. Of course that is not true for the water ways – but the Venetian labyrinth, topographically, lies in the street system and not the canal system.

6. Sinopoli, Giuseppe, Parsifal a Venezia, Venezia, Marsilio, 1990.

7. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Italian Journey (1786-1788), tr. W.H. Auden and E. Mayer, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1982, p. 63 (orig. Italienische Reise, 30 September 1796).

8. Sonnets from Venice, translated from the German of Platen by R. B. Cooke, Madison, 1914, II.

9. Mann, Thomas, Death in Venice, Original: Mann, Thomas, Der Tod in Venedig, München, 1912.

10. Brodsky, Joseph, Watermark, London, Penguin, 2013 (1992), p.45.

11. See Endnote 6.

© Aglaia Bianchi 2021, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0