23 July, 2006

59. Precise but useless

In most parts of the world, if your house was number 3883 then you would be living in a very long street. But this is Venice, and in Venice there aren't any long streets, and the longest streets are canals anyway.

So what does this number mean? Surprisingly, it is exactly what it appears to be, the postal address number of this dwelling. But this is not 3883 Something Street, it is number 3883 San Marco. The house numbers in Venice don't have anything to do with the street the building is in, they refer to the Sestieri, or six districts, in this case San Marco.

Isn't that a bit confusing? You bet it is. If someone said to you "Come to dinner at my place. I live at "Canareggio 7542" you would be very hungry indeed by the time you found it unless your host had given you some more detailed directions.

I have never seen any map of Venice that includes building numbers at all, let alone one that could let you find out where you are going if all you had was the official address and you had never been there before. And without sestiere border markings it isn't always easy even to know which of two neighbouring districts you are in, so even if you found the very number you were looking for, you could still be in the wrong place. Italian postmen must have useful maps or they would spend their lives going round in circles until they got to know the sequence in their district.

How do businesses advertise themselves? Do they use the 'official' address, or do they give their street name as well as a simple matter of practicality?

Astonishingly, they seem to stick to the official address. For instance, our favourite restaurant puts "Dorsoduro 1016, Venezia" on its business card. It also puts "(ponte dell' Accademia)" after the address, which might be helpful if the restaurant wasn't a narrow alley and several streets away from the Accademia Bridge. Another restaurant in the same district narrows your search down a little by adding "(San Pantalon)" after "Dorsoduro 3818", which gives you a clue to which Church Parish to start looking in if you have some knowledge of ecclesiastical geography.

It's not like all the streets and alleyways don't have names, they do, so it's baffling why they don't include the street as part of the address. This bizarre system has been around for a long time, so it must work somehow. How do Venetians deal with it? I've no idea.

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