Sunday, July 29, 2012

The stones of Venice

What's that bump in the corner?
The English art historian and all-around aesthetic know-it-all John Ruskin was so taken with the city of Venice that he wrote a three-volume treatise on the city's art and architecture. Titled "The Stones of Venice," Ruskin reviews every palazzo and church, describing in detail the various architectural styles of the city - Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque - and weighs in with his own theories of moral and spiritual decline as viewed through the lens of art and culture.

Any visitor to Venice is struck by its bricolage of stone, ruin, plaster, marble and stucco. It's as if a thousand years of houses are built on top of one another, bricked over, added onto, tumbled-down. A stone sill is salvaged from one ruin to build another house. A gothic window replaces a Byzantine portico. It's all a jumble, and the mellow tones of the stones and bricks lend a rosy, soft tint to one's overall view of the city. It all looks so beautiful, so romantic, so decrepit.

On a walking tour of the city, as we strolled down the Calle di Boteri, our tour guide, Fiona pointed out something - a kind of bricked-up hump in the corner where one house meets another. "Any guess what that is?" she asked.

"Some kind of drainpipe?"


This is an ancient Venetian solution to urban hygiene, the pissotta. "Pee-bumps," explained Fiona when we looked perplexed.  To prevent gentlemen in the street from peeing into corners, Venetians devised a method of deflecting the stream of piss back onto the pisser.

It would only take one try pissing on one to learn the lesson.

Winding sotoportego in San Polo - is that a pissotte at the photo's center?
You frequently find pissotta in the tiny narrow calles that twist and turn through San Polo. One can imagine that residents would certainly resent the smell of pee in such close quarters, and diligently filled in the corners.

Zooming in - yes, it is.
  Fiona said that another explanation for the corner structures was that they prevented thieves and muggers from skulking in corners to fall on passersby.


There are many elaborate variations on the pissotte. Here is a kind of double-decker shelf-type version. Maybe this is multi-generational type of deflector - one for the grownups and one for the kids?


Here a large bombe-shaped version shields the entrances of these two houses.

Sometimes, as a double-whammy repellant, a corner pissotta will feature a religious plaque or even a corner shrine, with the reasoning that no one would dare to piss on a religious symbol.

Once I learned about the pee-bumps, I suddenly started seeing them everywhere! If you visit Venice, you will too!

There are two pissotta here
If you'd like to see more examples, Yvonne at "Hello World" has put together a collection of pissotta. Do go visit and marvel at the ingenuity of Medieval Venetian residents at coping with the trials of urban life! We could use a little of this ingenuity in downtown LA, frankly.

Yvonne's blog is also a great look at what it's like to actually LIVE in Venice. If that's one of your dreams, go explore her blog!

8 comments:

déjà pseu said...

I now remember sort of noticing those "bumps" but think I was so overwhelmed with the ambience of the city that I didn't pay much attention. I think we probably missed out on a lot by not having a guide. Thanks for this!

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I have definitely learned something new today!

claudiagiulia said...

Dear Auntie, I think it's called serendipity! We do seem to have a lot in common, not to mention we were in Venice at the same time. Thank you so much for you lovely comment but, above all, for piquing my curiosity about yours. Two birds of a feather....off to suscribe now!

ytaba36 said...

Oh, good! you saw that double-decker model. It's one of my favourites! I have in my hot little hands my tickets for my next 3 month stay in Venice, only 200 days to wait!

Cheers! Yvonne

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I love the idea of pee bumps. Sign a few of our fair cities in the US for their addition, please.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I love the idea of pee bumps. Sign a few of our fair cities in the US for their addition, please.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

"Pee-bumps" -- yet another example of necessity being the mother of invention -- and in this case, a very brilliant invention!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Sometimes, as a double-whammy repellant, a corner pissotta will feature a religious plaque or even a corner shrine, with the reasoning that no one would dare to piss on a religious symbol.

Sadly, "Our Lady of the Pisotta" doesn't have a feast day of her own.