October 23, 2016
The walk around Treviso was certainly made far more interesting because of our guide Natalia. She is passionate and knowledgeable about her city. She provided us with stories about Treviso that only a person that has deep roots in their city would know. As we walked the narrow, winding streets friends would come up to her, chat a minute and wish her “buon lavoro” ! Of course I cannot remember all of what she recounted to us but I did take some notes of the things that most captured my interest.
Treviso markets itself today as “la città d’acque” and in fact its history and fortune have been shaped by water. Dante described Treviso as “the place where the Sile and the Cagnan go hand in hand” –the two rivers come together to circle the town, their waters running side by side.
Treviso was a Roman city and the Romans fortified it from the earliest days. Portions of a mosaic floor from a paleochristian baptistery probably from the 4th century have been found on (actually below) Via Canoniche. Who were the artistic masters that created this happy scene? Fish, palm leaves, dolphins, birds perched on grape vines, cherubs collecting grapes, a woman’s head all still beautiful and living on for us to appreciate and wonder about 17 centuries on.
In the 12th and 13th century Treviso was a city-state and at the height of its power and influence. The Palazzo dei Trecenti was constructed during that time. The name means Palace of the Three Hundred from the fact that in the Middle Ages it would host the City Council, made up of 300 citizens, 50% nobles and 50% belonging to lower classes. On the 7th of April 1944 in less than five minutes an American bombing raid missed its target and destroyed half of the historic city centre including heavily damaging the Palazzo dei Trecenti. As the bombing occurred on Good Friday, fascist propaganda called the day “passion of Christ and of Treviso”. There are two photos of the crumbled walls of the Palazzo in an archway where we listened as Natalia explained that her father, who was an architect, recognized how precious the Palazzo was to the history of Treviso. He refused to allow the building to be torn down. He led a group that worked to rebuild the brick walls and wanted people to understand and remember the rebuilding of the Palazzo. The year 1948 when the reconstruction work was finished was engraved on one of the new bricks to recognise the difference between the original structure and the rebuilt part of the wall.
Building stone was scarce in the plains of the Veneto so the rich clay produced by the Sile was used for building construction. It became popular to cover up the humble red bricks (matoni), with plaster and frescoes, first in the 13th century with simple patterns and colors and then by the 15th century with heroic mythologies and allegories. The frescoe materials used would, with the rain, harden to a shiny marble like finish. At that time Treviso was known also as Citta Dipinta (Painted City). It would seem that with a couple of millennia of history you have many opportunities to rebuild and rebrand!
Treviso had a strategic position along the international trade route between Venice and Northern Europe. It was a staging area for German and Austrian merchants as it was in Treviso that their goods were placed on barges to be taken to Venice. The Sile River crosses through Treviso and empties into the Lagoon of Venice. And so Treviso became in the early 1300s the Republic of Venice’s first mainland possession securing Venice this important trade route.
Frà Giocondo was instructed to build new city walls wider than the previous wall. Two new Gates: Porta San Tomaso and Porta Santi Quaranta were added to the new walls and the winged lions still stand proud guarding those gates. The River Sile flows below the walls, and together with the River Cagnan, the rivers were used to further protect Treviso from attack. The waters were diverted into canals that encircled the city and were designed so they could also be used to flood the surrounding lowlands, making a siege difficult. Treviso became Venice’s major stronghold protecting it from invasions from the north.
Stone from Istria especially from Rovigno was used to build palazzi in Venice because it is white like marble and strong and resisted frost and sun damage. Polished with pumice and rubbed with felt it shone like marble. Natalia told us that Venice would of course not allow itself to be outdone by Treviso and while stone from Istria was used to build the San Tomaso gates it was not the best quality Istrian stone.
For the next four centuries Treviso remained under Venetian control right to when the Venetian Republic fell to the Austro-Hungarians in 1797.
The Venetians set up an administrative centre in Treviso to collect customs and taxes for all the goods flowing back and forth to Venice.
The many waterways were exploited with several waterwheels which were used for milling grain. The waterways were all navigable and “barconi” would arrive from Venice at the Port of Treviso (Porto de Fiera) pay duty and offload their merchandise and passengers along Riviera Santa Margherita. Fishermen were able to bring fresh catch every day to the Treviso fish market, which is held still today on an island connected to the rest of the city by two small bridges.
The wealthy of Venice sent their laundry to be washed by the women of Treviso in the river Sile. You can still see a few of the “platforms” used by the women to reach the river. Laundry could be washed all year-long because the temperature of the river water never falls below 13C.
Today Treviso still bears the scars of the second world war bombings – lifeless concrete apartment buildings constructed as quickly as possible to provide shelter to the homeless line the Sile River. But despite this there is still an air of serenity and tranquility that you feel from seeing white swans gliding elegantly down the small canals under a canopy of weeping willows. Walking down the narrow streets lined with medieval houses their balconies hanging over the streets was indeed like stepping back in time. And just before lunch the sun broke out, reflecting off the water of the small canals, making the stuccoed renaissance buildings pop with pastel color and just bathing everything with a warm golden glow.