Venice is divided into six parts called sestieri – singular sestiere.
It has always been that way. From the earliest sources we have, there sestieri are there in Venice.
The origin of the word sestiere
The word sestiere is itself just like quartiere, only with six parts instead of four.
Our common word ‘quarter’ for a part of town comes from the military fortifications the Romans built wherever they went. Such a fortification was rectangular, split in four parts by a cross-roads. Since many European cities started as Roman fortifications, that organisation of cities in four quarters became commonplace.
This is the reason we still use the word ‘quarter’ for a part of a town, even if most cities now have more than four parts.
The city of Venice has no Roman past of any importance.
Instead it grew out of a group of distinct settlements, six of them, scattered over an area of marsh. They became the basis of the six sestieri.
A city divided in four parts had quartieri, while a city divided in six parts had sestieri.
In the earliest period of Venetian history Venice wasn’t even one single city. Rather, it was a loose group of different settlements.
The most important settlement was at Rialto, which was a marketplace for fishermen, farmers and salt extractors from the central lagoon. The name Rialto is from Latin rivus altus, the high brink, as that marsh island was a bit higher than the others, and hence a useful place for bartering produce.
Other known settlements were on the island of Olivolo, now San Pietro di Castello, and in Dorsoduro.
Rialto became the political centre of the Venetian state when Pepin, son of Charlemagne, sacked and burned the Doge’s palace at Malamocco in 809. The Doge fled into the lagoon, and settled in 811 in what later became the St Mark’s area.
With the presence of the Doge and the rest of the administration of the Venetian State, the group of settlements centred around Rialto grew, fused and the name changed from Rialto to Venetia.
A divided city
The city of Venice is split in two by the winding Grand Canal, with three three sestieri on each side. Until the early 1900s the only bridge across was at Rialto.
With government and administration on the northern side it became common usage to refer to the three sestieri on the northern side as de citra (on this side) and the three on the southern side as de ultra (on the other side).
Sestieri de citra (north)
The Sestiere Castello is the largest of the sestieri, both in size and population. It occupies all of the north-east of the city, from San Pietro to the Doge’s Palace to the hospital.
The name most likely derives from an early medieval fortification on the island of Olivolo, now San Pietro di Castello.
Sant’Elena is normally considered a part of Castello, but it is a modern addition to the city, and the house numbering is separate.
The Sestiere San Marco is the central part of the city, bounded by the Grand Canal on three sides and a line from the Rialto to the Doge’s Palace on the last.
The vicinity to the economic centre at Rialto and the political centre at St Mark’s made this the most prestigious of the six sestieri.
The name is obviously from the presence of the Basilica di San Marco, the seat of government at St Mark’s, and almost all the major institutions of the Venetian Republic.
The Sestiere Cannaregio is the second largest of the six, extending from the railroad station to the Rialto. It covers almost half of the northern part of Venice.
The name probably derives from the reeds and canes that grew there before it became part of the city.
That a large part of Cannaregio is reclaimed land and not natural marsh is evident from the three long straight canals with perpendicular inter-connectors. The marsh canals are usually winding, so such straight canals are no doubt man-made.
Sestieri de ultra (south)
The Sestiere Santa Croce is in the central western part of Venice, along the upper bend of the Grand Canal. It was important because the porto fluviale (the river harbour) was here.
Venice was an important trade hub for over a millennium. While the main harbour for sea going ships was in the area in front of St Mark’s, and the main market at Rialto, much of the merchandise destined the rest of Europe went up the rivers of the Venetian hinterland. The river harbour at Santa Croce was where much of these goods left Venice.
The name of the sestiere comes from the now demolished church of Santa Croce, very close to the porto fluviale.
The Tronchetto, the cruiser terminals and the Maritime station are generally considered parts of Santa Croce. They are, however, modern constructions reclaimed from the lagoon.
The Sestiere San Polo is in central Venice, around the upper bend and central part of the Grand Canal. The Rialto market is in San Polo.
The Rialto market was the central part of Venetian commerce. Goods came to Venice from the Levant by ship to the main harbour in front of St Mark’s. After customs they were sold at the Rialto market, and much of it taken to the river harbour for the further journey towards the rest of Western Europe.
The name of the sestiere comes from the main church dedicated to St Paul (San Polo). The Campo di San Polo is one of the largest in the city, and was once the location of bull fights and other popular events.
The Sestiere Dorsoduro is the southernmost part of Venice proper, on the north side of the Canale Giudecca.
The name of the sestiere literally means the ‘hard spine’, and it most likely come from the solid sandbanks along the Canal Giudecca that the southern part of the sestiere is built on.
Currently, the island of Giudecca is considered part of Dorsoduro.
The importance of the sestieri
During the time of the Venetian Republic the sestieri were real administrative units of the city.
Some political roles, such as the six councillors of the doge, which formed the Signoria, were distributed between the sestieri.
Likewise, the Magistrato alla Salute, a kind of early public health ministry which appeared in 1485 following the plague epidemics, had six magistrates, one from each sestiere.
Each sestiere also had a caposestiere who was responsible for law and order locally.
In the Austrian period, each sestiere had a Commissario Superiore di Polizia, as a kind of successor of the Venetian caposestiere.
In modern Venice the sestieri don’t play a large role, if not for the fact that house numbers are separate for each sestiere.