Venice city of light, public lighting anticipates the other great Italian cities by almost half a century

20 October 2021

Venice, 19th October 2021 – Narrow and dark streets, corners and ravines where thieves malicious hid. Today it seems impossible, but once Venice was a very dangerous city. And when the sun went down, it was easy to get lost, fall off bridges, end up in canal, or be pray to bad guys. The shops and houses were built entirely of wood and it was therefore forbidden to light lamps or fires because of the ever-frequent danger of fires. The story of how and when Venice was “illuminated”, from the first lanterns to modern LED lamps, is ancient and full of curiosity. In the year in which the city celebrates its foundation, in 421, the cultural centre Candiani (in collaboration with the Fondazione Neri spa Museo Italiano della Ghisa and Servizio Impianti Venezia del Comune di Venezia) has wanted to enclose it in an exhibition, on the fourth floor, which traces the evolution of public lighting. “Venezia città di luce” – through historical and contemporary panels, texts and images – is a historical excursus of a city illuminated due to the installation of public lamps first oil, in the XVIII century, then gas, during the XIX century, and finally electric in the early XX century. Venice, which in 2021 celebrates a 1600-year birthday, was therefore one of the first cities to equip itself with primitive public lighting, anticipating by almost half a century the other great Italian cities.

Dates back to 1128, a measure adopted by the city for the lighting of streets and channel the dark of Venice, which led to the construction of the first lumen able to shed light in the night: the doge Domenico Michiel ordered that in the night, in areas that are not safe, there were “cesendelli impizadi”, that is, the “small fireflies”, the small lights oil hanging on the walls of the houses. All expenses were borne by the Republic, while the maintenance was entrusted to the parish priest who were asked to have small votive capitals installed, which were supposed to burn all night to “instill” courage to the travellers. But this measure, while partly responding to the demands of the time? Failed to meet the need for greater enlightenment/ In 1450 the increase in the number of night attacks prompted the Serenissima to decree a law that made the use of light mandatory for those who went through the city at night. It was thus that the figure of the “còdega” was born, a humble, popular profession, a kind of “illuminating” nocturnal companion, who for compensation and equipped with a lantern, guided the nobles and the rich back home from a show at the theatre or from a party. A term still in use today because when you want to point out to a person to be “too much” and make the third uncomfortable you use the Venetian expression “far el còdega”, that is to be a third wheel.

This picturesque figure disappeared when in 1732 the Council of Ten decided that the whole of Venice should be illuminated, ordered the installation of the first 843 “ferài” (lanterns) in the Merceri and San Marco areas, lamps powered by electric oil, protected by a glass bulb and attached to the walls of palaces, which were to remain illuminated until dawn. Thus, Venice was one of the first cities equipped with primitive urban lighting, paid for by a special tax that burdened all citizens, including nobles, but excluding the poorest. A power-on, power-off and proper operation of the plant ensured, for the order of the magistrate, the “impissaferai” or “impizadori”, which used the various types of oil on the market: the whale oil, linseed,beet, but also the one obtained from the pressing of the olives, the better, and therefore also the most expensive of all. The “ferài” were built by the “feraleri”, gathered in the school of the same name that was based at the Church of San Zulian.

It had to wait a century before the oil in “ferài” was replaced with gas lamps: in 1839, the municipal congregation signed a contract for the supply of gas with the French company “De Frigière, Cottin et Montgolfier-Bodin” (more commonly referred to as “La Lionese”). The company took on the task of distributing the new fuel throughout the city within six years and adding another 1,500 lanterns to the 1,368 already existing ones: these were lanterns attached with iron to the facades of buildings, or suspended on complex vertical cast iron pillars called lampposts or candlesticks. In 1843, a gas called the “Night Sun” was used for the first time to consecrate San Marco Square: in the same year, all the city lights were transformed, and the oil was replaced with gas. This was immediately crowned with success. The flame was switched on and off manually using long rods capable of opening or closing the gas leak tap. Only since the beginning of the XX century, an automatic spring clock with a charge lasting one week has been placed in each lamp.

In 1886, electricity marked a real turning point: first, an experiment was undertaken to illuminate the Giudecca area and some private houses, then, in 1922, the municipality decided to completely replace gas and began work on rationalizing the network, until in 1927 all “ferài” were switched to electricity. Since2011, the lamps have been replaced by low-energy LED sources, and today the total number of lights sources in the Municipality of Venice is 61,214 (42,185 on the mainland; 10,426 in the historical centre and 8,603 on the islands). Switching on and off of public lighting systems is carried out by means of astronomical-controlled clock devices installed on special electrical panels, which are automatically programmed according to the seasonal reference period.

For general reference, it should be noted that the total electricity consumption for public lighting is 17,101,284 kWh (which is equal to about 120,000 TVs that are always on all year round), and the annual per capita consumption is 66 kWh. Urban lighting in the las century was also crucial for the “liberation” of Venice, as Andrea Comoretto tells in the book “Una vita di lavoro per Venezia" (edizioni El squero). In Venice, he is called a man of light, the historical memory of the city. Andrea Comoretto, 90 years old, phenomenal memory, was born in Friuli, but lived in Venice, worked for 40 years in the service of first Sede, and then at the factory in the historical centre of Venice and on the islands.

“The public lighting played a pivotal role in Venice, - he says, - As in the case of the Hoax of the Goldoni Theatre, when my predecessor Bepi Turcato organized a break-in at the Goldoni announcing the liberation front of the German command, and then turning off the lights to escape without getting caught, or the dreaded Decima Mas when the lights went out of zone in the area, where the fascists were passed”. Graduated as an electrical expert in 1951, arriving in Venice Comoretto thought of finding a city with specific standards and solutions, “instead the workers climbed on the highest facades of the buildings, almost vertically, a system that I had never seen in other cities”. In charge of the technical department from 1964 to 1991, Comoretto was responsible for the electrification of Pellestrina, Torcello, Cavallino, Lio Piccolo and Treporti, illuminating the most peripheral areas of the lagoon. With passion, curiosity and common sense, Comoretto fought against bureaucracy and homologation to help find a particular environment such as Venice and its islands. After the high water of 1966, it is his intuition to raise the power units so that they could not suffer the tidal excursions, and if in 2019 the electricity network has not collapsed it is also his merit. “Forty years of improvement, looking for solutions and improvements – he smiles – I am not looking for medals but I can say that I worked with commitment and that if they had listened to us certain things, we could have avoided them”. In fact, all Venetians who have lived in this time frame can recognize that quality of life has improved along with the improvements of electricity grid.

The exhibition is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 16:00 to 20:00.