What is Venice? It is an agglomeration of over 100 islands, but it is the city’s six historic sestieri that more usually defines it: Cannaregio, San Polo, Santa Croce, Castello, Dorsoduro (inclusive of La Giudecca and Sacca Fisola) and San Marco (including San Giorgio Maggiore). La Giudecca, Sacca Fisola and San Giorgio Maggiore are separate islands, while Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Castello and San Marco are contiguous, despite the serpentine Canal Grande’s best efforts to split them down the middle. And of course each district is in turn riddled with smaller, more easily traversed channels.
San Marco gets given the job of representing the municipality. The Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square) is overlooked by two of Venice’s most iconic buildings: the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco and the Campanile di San Marco – the famous bell tower. Adjacent to this is Piazzetta di San Marco – St. Mark’s little square – which rests beneath the Palazzo Ducale, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and two columns supporting two patron saints – Saint Theodore on one and the Lion of Venice, standing in for Saint Mark the Evangelist, on the other. St Mark's Square is where tourists predictably gather, to queue for a view from the campanile, to marvel at the mosaic-encrusted domed interior of the Byzantine basilica, or just to take photographs of themselves. This is all well and good but it’s not a reason in itself to travel to Venice. The fact that there are no roads, and so no cars, is.
In truth, there are some roads. The Ponte della Libertà connects mainland Veneto to Venice but doesn’t get very far, terminating at Piazzale Roma, which acts as a sort of bus station; cars are siphoned off into a number or carparks nearby. Unless you’re exploring west of Dorsoduro then you would be none the wiser. It’s worth doing: head for Campo Santa Margherita for some light lunch, then follow the Rio de Carmini down towards San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (the church that Donald Sutherland’s character is tasked with restoring in the film Don’t Look Now), wend your way south before walking east along the waterfront, where you will find the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Basilica di Santa Maria, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Corner Pub Venezia on Calle della Chiesa.
Despite the crowds, San Marco itself rarely stifles. If you feel the need to escape then simply follow the path of least resistance. Such diversions will invariably lead to another bridge over another canal, to an irregularly shaped ‘campo’, or to vistas that have barely altered since they were conceived. This is consistent with Venice’s reputation: all grand squares and labyrinthine alleyways, which is generally the case and precludes much in the way of flora. The eastern tip of Castello proves to be the exception. There you will find the Giardini della Biennale (gardens), Parco delle Rimembranze (a park), and Pier Luigi Penzo (a stadium), home to Venezia’s football team.
Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo is not of much interest architecturally, because architecturally it isn’t really a ‘thing’. Built in 1913, it is Italy’s second oldest football ground (the first being Luigi Ferraris in Genoa) but very little remains of how it once stood. The stadium was almost decimated in 1971 by a particularly virulent tornado, leaving only the concrete tribuna partially intact. Venezia F.C. were playing in Serie C at the time, so rebuilding the ground wasn’t a top priority, although had the club not narrowly missed out on promotion in 1972/73 it might have been a different matter. As it happened, Venezia mucked along for a few more seasons in Serie C before succumbing to relegation. By 1987, they were facing administration and an enforced merger with mainland-Venice team Associazione Calcio Mestre, who played their football at the modest Stadio Francesco Baracca. The alliance appears to have been an uneasy one, but was temporary. In 1990, ‘Venezia Mestre’ was reborn as Associazione Calcio Venezia 1907 (whilst A.C. Mestre carried on as they were). Promotion to Serie B followed in 1991, which facilitated a move back to a rehabilitated Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo.
In 1998, Venezia (as the locals insisted on still calling them) finished the season as runner’s up. They lasted two seasons in Serie A and then dropped back down into Serie B, but were promoted again in 2001, before being relegated for a second time. The club descended into bankruptcy, eventually reforming as Società Sportiva Calcio Venezia in 2005 (still referred to colloquially as ‘Venezia’ one would assume). By 2009 the club once again became insolvent, and yet another name change was legally enforced: Foot Ball Club Unione Venezia. This latest incarnation made a good go of it, winning Serie D in 2011/12 and attaining promotion to the old Serie C in 2013/14, before finally going bust in 2015. As it stands, Venezia F.C. S.r.l.d. are currently competing in Serie B.
Since returning to their old stomping ground in 1991 not much has changed. The idea for a while has been to build a new stadium in the suburb of Tessera, not far from the airport. In the meantime, Pier Luigi Penzo must suffice.
Only the tribuna centrale exists as an actual building, while the other three sides of the ground accommodate the sort of tubular metal structures you see plenty of all over Italy – scaffolding, effectively. More often deployed as a means of bringing the crowd closer to the pitch where a running or cycling track has stood in the way – at Brescia, Cagliari, Siena, Como – the makeshift stands in Venice are merely expedient. An effort has been made to beautify these right-angled triangular prisms by randomly installing black, green and orange plastic seats – the club’s colours. This combination works well and the temporary stands appear more substantial than they otherwise might. On the west-side opposite the tribuna, white chairs spell out ‘VENEZIA’. The masts of yachts can be seen behind, the Church of Saint Elena rises to its side. Beyond the curva sud, a row of trees. Above the curva ospiti, clear sky. Of these three provisional gantries, only the curva sud measures the full width of the pitch. The open spaces in-between are left bare.
Amongst this utilitarian simplicity, the central tribuna stands proud. Running eight rows deep and made of concrete, it is the only stand that has a roof. Resting upon this canopy’s middle third is a row of executive boxes – the tribuna d’onore. To the front a parterre – really just a gap between the building itself and the fence that runs around the pitch’s perimeter. It’s a modest set-up but a well maintained one with plenty of character.
There are probably a good many lower-league grounds like this in Italy, but I doubt many enjoy such beautiful surroundings. Behind the tribuna runs the Rio Sant'Elena, which cuts off the island of Sant'Elena from the rest of Venice. In truth, it’s a fairly narrow body of water, and not particularly long either. What it does, though, is force a certain perspective of the stadium from the river’s western edge: of the river itself, the small boats moored along it and the small bridges that cross over, the trees and bushes planted beside, the path above the opposing bank and the external rendering of the stadium itself – stucco painted yellow, flaking in places to reveal the brickwork beneath. This is the view that any visiting football fan will encounter after walking from the nearest ferry terminal. Should that same fan choose to follow the ground’s perimeter, they wouldn’t be disappointed. A bricked wall obscures the metal struts that support the curva sud but leads to the Church beyond. Walk in the opposite direction, past the tribuna, and one will come across a marina stuffed with yachts.
Venice’s football ground is the antithesis of Siena's Artemio Franchi, which, despite being comprised mostly of the same temporary, gossamer-like structures, comes across as beset upon and untidy. Conversely, Stadio Penzo feels open, neat and accessible, almost like a minor-county cricket ground. The problem is its size. A capacity of 7,450 is just about enough to get by on in Serie B but would be problematic in Serie A. Then there’s climate, which can be unkind, and the location, which is hemmed in. Could a solution to these problems be found that is simultaneously sympathetic to the environment? You can understand why a move to Tessera has been proposed.