The Floating City Misnomer

A friend recently lent me Dan Brown’s Inferno, saying, “Lots of it is set in Venice!” So I had to read it. It took a few hundred pages for the protagonist Robert Langdon to get himself to Venice, but he finally arrived. Besides his knowledge of Florence and Rome, Langdon showed he knows Venice as well… until I came to these lines:

“Is there water under St. Mark’s? The question, he realized, was foolish. There was water under the entire city. Every building in Venice was slowly sinking and leaking.” (page 365-66)


While we often hear that “Venice is sinking,” that’s a misnomer, or at least an oversimplification of the problem. But a city built on water? Just a moment of rational thought would make anyone realize that stone buildings weighing a few tons couldn’t possibly be floating. Venice is primarily built on wooden pilings that have petrified over the years. I won’t attempt to give a detailed description here, but if you want a good one, check out this site:

(Notice that this article is titled “The Construction of Venice, the Floating City!”)

It even has a drawing that shows workmen tamping in a wooden piling. You can still see the machinery doing this kind of work today when they are replacing old wood.

I know it’s difficult to get all of your facts straight when writing a book. I’m writing a history book right now myself, and I’m sure there will be some things that I’ll flub up. I also don’t want to go bashing authors. But I just couldn’t pass up Robert Langdon’s (Dan Brown’s) comment without reacting, especially since the books are generally so factually dense and accurate (as far as I know).

About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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4 Responses to The Floating City Misnomer

  1. Bert says:

    I suppose that, in a sense, he is right: there is water under the entire city, because the mud that the city sits on is saturated with water. But, of course, the city is not floating on the water. It may sometimes be referred to as a floating city with poetic licence because it might look that way (to a poet rather than an engineer or physicist). The general opinion seems to be that Venice used to be sinking because of the extraction of water from aquifers far beneath the city, but that it is no longer sinking now that the extraction has stopped. The problem for Venice (and other low-lying places) is now rising sea levels.
    Venice may still be singing, however 🙂

  2. steven says:

    Well, I think it’s still sinking, Bert, but slowly enough not to be a concern, as it had been before they stopped drawing water from the acquifer (or however that’s spelled). Venice, like Ravenna, is situated atop ancient sediment, so both can’t help but sink (according to John Keahey’s non-fiction book on Venice). But Ravenna is actually sinking at a faster rate–though we never hear about that!

  3. Nancy Schwalen says:

    So I wouldn’t much credence to anything Dan Brown says anyway.

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