Venice’s underground warehouse: A forgotten treasure of the city

Written by Jai Utsav, CNN

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Venice’s iconic canal system is the extensive damage left by long, lonely, barred locks.

Once loved for its dazzling invention, they are rarely used now.

But during the city’s heyday, just as in medieval times, humans were far too poor to pay for better, more energy-efficient locks.

Instead, they climbed aboard wooden boxes left to rust away into the lagoon’s depths. These wooden boxes are the burrowers of Venice.

Some 350 burrows exist, according to an archeologist from the National Observatory of Naples — they are buried by the tens of thousands, a measure of Venice’s undying fascination with reinvention.

“The burrows are the very soul of Venice,” said Mariangela Ferrante, superintendent of the Venetian Architecture from 1992 to 2014.

This year will mark the golden jubilee of the restoration of the banisters and casements of Venice’s most celebrated wooden box, Giovanna.

The underground warehouse is in a unique — and less-known — corner of the Venice’s lagoon city. In the early nineteenth century, it housed a precious defense mechanism used to counter German submarines.

Because of the stability of the harbor (and the fall in price of shellfish) it was no longer needed, but instead of turning into open-air warehouses or apartments, its owner decided to keep it the way it was.

“In 20 years, it was empty and was due to be dismantled,” said Ferrante. “This man decided to continue to mummify it in a very special way, with the theme of, are we ever going to actually open this thing up again?”

Three storeys high, 350 feet deep and 24 feet wide, it holds an uncanny combination of mementos.

These include a historic lens and a manual, tilt-up revolving mirror used by artists to shoot or create portraits from above. A giant Bible, the cradle of a baby and several furnaces are also interwoven in the many layers.

There are 100 false ceilings to allow the various competing chambers of the building to merge as well as 1,000 marble floor tiles used to support the fallen walls.

The enormous timber frame survived a barrage of storms during the city’s worst drought in 1900 — all without being sunk, a compromise afforded by its owner at the time.

Perhaps that’s because the building still has a touch of Victorian mystique: as people walk past it, it reminds them of the lost innocence of the past — with its isolated splendors, its shepherds roaming above.

Over the next three months — as part of the important Venetian industrial week — it will be opened up, inviting visitors to peer into the interior and mummify it once more.

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