Venice is an island that is divided into six neighbourhoods, the Italian word for ‘sixth’ is sesto and so they’re called sestieri. A sestiere is the same as a ‘quarter’ in any other European city; that is, one fourth of a Roman encampment. This urban plan is quite common in many cities throughout Europe.
The Sestieri have been around since Venice was founded and each one of these neighbourhoods was once governed by a Caposestiere whose task was to monitor and manage residents’ behaviour.
This administrative model was also exported to some of the territories conquered by the Serenissima.
Each of Venice’s six neighbourhoods has a name:
- Cannaregio, seems to derive its name from ‘Canal Regio’ which was the main shipping canal that connected Venice to the mainland. It was also an area full of reeds (canne in Italian) – because of the swamps – so it’s possible that the name is connected to this particular aspect of the landscape;
- Castello, derives its name from a fort, around which the area developed, that now no longer exists;
- Dorsoduro, its name is probably related to the compact sand dunes typical of this area;
- San Marco, (St. Mark), takes its name from the Basilica located on the famous square;
- San Polo, is where the Rialto market is located and is named after ‘Campo San Polo’, once the largest open field in Venice, now the second largest public square;
- Santa Croce, is where the Rialto market is located and is named after ‘Campo San Polo’, once the largest open field in Venice, now the second largest public square.
These subdivisions are not enough to describe all the areas of the city centre, which also include the islands of Giudecca (in the sestiere of Dorsoduro) the island of San Giorgio Maggiore (in the sestiere of San Marco) and the island of San Michele, where the city cemetery is located (in the sestiere of Castello).
As you’re walking around Venice, you’ve surely noticed that many houses have house numbers up to four-digits long: the house numbers are unique for each neighbourhood, which means that each sestiere starts over from 1 and can continue as far as 7000, as is the case in Cannaregio.
They say that the ornament on a gondola’s prow, the ferro da gondola, is a compact representation of the city. The six sestieri are symbolically represented by the six prongs that point forward and the island of Giudecca by the one pointing aft.
The ‘S’ shape resembles the curves of the Grand Canal, and the little arch over the topmost prong symbolises the Rialto Bridge. The broadly curved top signifies the Doge’s Cap, the headdress that was only worn by Venice’s ‘duke’ or chief magistrate, the Doge.
Even if it is only a legend, it’s nice to think that it could be true. It certainly makes the image of the gondola even more interesting and mysterious. What’s more, it certainly makes it easier to remember the names of Venice’s sestieri!