Crawshaw: Space in the Renaissance Port

Space in the Renaissance port: viewing Venice and Genoa through the lens of the global city

Jane Stevens Crawshaw, Oxford Brookes University

An idea embedded in Saskia Sassen’s work on the modern global city, that similar economic functions have caused districts of cities across the world to bear a striking resemblance to one another, both in terms of architecture and social makeup, prompted me to wonder whether such a claim could be made for an earlier period. In line with my broader research interests, I explored this in relation to Renaissance ports, the historiography for which has made few inroads into these locations as distinctive architectural and social spaces, despite important studies on the global nature of Renaissance trading economies and cultural networks.[1]

Cities in this period represent a rich and intriguing focus for such a study because of the significant relationship between people and place. Urban forms of cities were intended both to accommodate and influence the social forms. Port societies were believed to share characteristics like, and in part because of, the similarities in their natural settings; notably these included the high turnover of people and the cosmopolitan make-up. Ports generally had more women than men – since many of the latter travelled for work as sailors, fishermen or merchants. These seafaring men were believed to take on the characteristics of their environment: ‘like the Element they belong to, much given to loudness and roaring.[2] This framework for connecting space and society could have provided the basis for a series of global resemblances like those of Sassen’s global cities. Certainly, these associations mean that a number of similarities can be traced between systems for managing health and the environment, which are too numerous to reproduce here.

It is also possible to glean ideas about intended parallels between the spatial form of ports from Renaissance tracts on ideal cities, which often dedicated specific sections to ports. What emerges from these texts in terms of guiding principles for the organisation of space is that the overriding concern of authors was on the uninterrupted flow of information, people and materials through port structures.  This idea influenced a number of structural elements, from accommodating the ebb and flow of the tides to allow for the evacuation of filth in order to prevent siltation to the use of an institution for foreign merchants and commodities, known as a fondaco and described as a ‘building from which goods flow towards other districts like water from a fountain’.[3]

Nevertheless, it is clear that the differences in scale of many Renaissance ports and the varying size of their foreign communities shaped the manner in which general and idealised principles relating to space and society were adopted. This can be seen clearly in a comparison between the two ports of Genoa and Venice. Both cities had been important medieval sites, with built structures which predated the development of the Renaissance ideals. Both ports were further enhanced during the Renaissance, although the engaging principles outlined in the ideal city tracts and the planned benefits were not implemented in the same way in the two cities because of the realities of urban space and the complexities of their demographic make ups.

The changes which took place in the ports of Venice and Genoa are, to some extent, mirror images of one another. In Venice during the Renaissance, the district of Rialto was redefined as the preeminent market place for domestic and international commerce. It took on many of the principal features of a port, although the area close to the customs house also continued to be described as the port for the city. In Rialto, district-wide development, for example after a fire in 1514, was largely functional and, where changes were made to earlier styles, it was often to protect against the risk of fire. Arcades, for example, were rebuilt with vaults rather than wooden beamed ceilings in order to reduce the risk of fire. Rialto was not transformed into the city’s primary civic space. Instead, Renaissance developments focused upon the accommodation of port society within broader structures of hospitality, particularly in the development of the fondaci for foreign merchants. These sites incorporated elements of the architecture of Eastern trading centres from which the institutions developed and were more obviously ‘global’ in their nature that any other element of the city’s port.[4] In Venice, therefore, it was the ideals relating to the location of people which were adopted from the ideal texts and other contemporary practices.

In Genoa, the medieval port was redefined with a broader, Renaissance civic purpose which shaped the use of space and form of architecture; the spatial programme focused upon the functional areas of the port. Genoa lacked large-scale, civic spaces beyond the port. The square in front of the cathedral of San Lorenzo, for example, was half of the size it is today, only being enlarged in 1840. The port, therefore, served as a key presentation space for the city – an entranceway to Genoa and a conceptual foundation for the city. It was this space, rather than its social institutions, which proved the focus for Genoese Renaissance innovations. No fondaci were developed in Genoa.[5] The strong tradition of alberghi meant that the division of urban space was primarily directed by family ties. It was not until 1660 that the government required the Jewish population to live within a Ghetto, reputedly as a result of tensions in the aftermath of the severe plague of 1656.  Before then, formal quarters or institutions do not seem to have been allocated to foreign populations. Ennio Poleggi has illustrated that occupational clusters existed, such as that for shipbuilding around the Molo, but Genoa’s polycentric nature makes it difficult to characterise areas as central or peripheral. This distinction between Genoa and Venice in the spatial policies for foreigners may have been because the criteria for citizenship were far easier to obtain in Genoa than those in Venice and the issue of foreign populations, their locations and their rights, was less of a priority for government control.


The points of contrast which emerge between Genoa and Venice illustrate that Saskia Sassen’s modern, global cities provide a far more distinct, ‘supracivic’ space in terms of their economic function, architecture and social make-up than early ports. These ports formed such central parts of civic identity that they proved to be more difficult to disentangle from traditions of vernacular architecture and social institutions. For the Renaissance sites, the parallel often drawn between the city and the body is relevant, since the architecture of the port was designed to function like medicine for the body – applying general principles to individual spatial and social circumstances. Despite the obvious differences which emerge from the comparison between Genoa and Venice, the utility of adopting a Renaissance framework for comparison (based upon similar natural environments) is that it illustrates the way in which common problems were managed distinctly, revealing more about the political, economic, spatial or social histories of specific places.




[1] Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, Global Interests: Renaissance art between East and West (London, 2005). The historiography on ports has sketched out generic forms for these cities. Renaissance ideals have featured as the ‘background’ for this analysis but have not been the subject of detailed scrutiny in their own right. See, for example, Josef W. Konvitz, Cities and the sea: port city planning in early modern Europe (Baltimore MA, 1978).

[2] Mandeville cited in Lotte van de Pol, The burgher and the whore: prostitution in early modern Amsterdam (Oxford, 2011),p. 157.

[3] Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Trattati di architettura ingegneria e arte militare (Milan, 1967), p.487; ‘una casa della quale le merci profluiscono verso altre contrade come l’acque della fonte’ cited in E. Concina, Fondaci: architettura, arte e mercatura tra Levante, Venezia e Alemagna (Venice, 1997) p. 9.

[4] Olivia Constable, Housing the stranger

[5] Poleggi p.167.