12 July 2022
Mestre is often overlooked by
many on their way to Venice
On our way to Venice last week, Charlotte and I stayed overnight in the Mestre in the Hotel Centrale, less than five minutes stroll from the town centre and the bus station.
For many tourists, Mestre is merely an affordable place to sleep and leave luggage, a convenient starting point for a day-trip to Venice. There are cheap and frequent connections to Venice by train and by bus, even through the night, and the bars, hotels, restaurants and supermarkets charge more reasonable prices – even car parking is possible.
Mestre seems to live in the shadow of Venice. Some even claim it is everything that Venice is not: modern, ugly, traffic-filled, ordinary. It often goes with appreciation, yet it has its own charm, character and history as a town that few give themselves time to appreciate.
Mestre was always overshadowed by its powerful neighbour Venice. Yet his is the most populated borough of the comune of Venice, and administratively it is part of Venice, serving as a kind of mainland suburb. Indeed, Mestre has a history that dates back to the Middle Ages … if not earlier.
According to legend, Mestre was founded by Mesthles, a companion of Antenor, a fugitive from Troy, who founded Padua. The true origins of the town are uncertain, although it is known that there was a Roman oppidum or fortress there. The settlement was destroyed by Attila and was probably rebuilt in the 10th century.
The first historical record of Mestre is in the charter of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, in which Rambald, the Count of Treviso, received land in an area named Mestre. A papal bull by Pope Eugene III in 1152 recognised the Bishop of Treviso as lord of Mestre and mentioned the Church of Saint Lawrence, an old castle (Castelvecchio) and a port.
The Bishop of Treviso granted Mestre to Alberico da Romano, the podestà of Treviso in 1257. A fire destroyed the castle in 1274, and the people of Mestre fortified the town with a palisade that became Castelnuovo, the new castle.
The Scaligeri family from Verona conquered Treviso in 1323 and so acquired Mestre. But the Venetians feared Verona’s power on the mainland and conquered Mestre in 1337. They replaced the old fortification with a brick wall with eight towers and a moat.
Unlike Venice, Mestre had no lagoon to protect it, and its fortifications were fought over, conquered, destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. Even after the town was taken over by Venice in the 14th century, it was still at the mercy of occasional attacks from Venice's enemies. But the port of Mestre benefited from the economic power of Venice, forming Venice’s main connection with the mainland.
The Venetian domination of Mestre ended on 16 July 1797 when Napoleon occupied the Republic of Venice.
Mestre followed the French model, and constituted itself into a free municipality or comune in 1806. It remained so under subsequent Austrian rule and under the Kingdom of Italy after the unification of Italy. Mestre remained a comune until 1926, when it was absorbed into the Comune di Venezia, losing its separate status as a town.
A big port and industrial complex was developed on the shores of the lagoon at Porto Marghera, in the 1920s and 1930s, aiming to boost the local economy. Mestre grew as workers arrived from across Italy seeking somewhere to live and to work.
After World War II, Mestre had a fast and disorganised period of urban growth and became a large urban area, so that post-war Mestre experienced a population boom in the 1960s and 1970s fuelled mainly by the growth of the industrial zone in Marghera.
As Venetians left behind dark flats and the threats of high water and rising damp, there was more rapid growth. Mestre suffered inadequate planning control as ugly housing and industrial developments sprang up, and the population of the town grew.
The population of Mestre today is almost three times that of Venice itself. Mestre offers modern houses and apartments, with space for children to play, and families can use cars and bicycles too. There are normal shops with normal prices, including Mestre’s shopping centre, Centro Le Barche.
Mestre’s most appealing feature is the town’s main square, Piazza Ferretto. Large, long and attractive with a friendly bustle, here there are cafés to while away the morning or the afternoon.
Piazza Ferretto, with its beautifully designed water feature and sculpture at its centre, creates a relaxing atmosphere.
There too is the Teatro Toniolo, a beautiful theatre that is considered an important architectural landmark. Teatro Toniolo is a centre for the arts in Mestre, with its symphonies, theatre, dance, and comic performances.
The square is pedestrianised and is surrounded by interesting and historic buildings, including the 18th century Duomo di Mestre or Chiesa di San Lorenzo, the Church of Saint Lawrence.
The duomo is the most important church in Mestre and the religious heart of the city, with its neoclassical exterior and its original Romanesque bell tower. The present church was built in the 18th century to replace an earlier church destroyed by fire.
The parish was part of the Diocese of Treviso until 1927, but is now part of the Patriarchate of Venice. To the right side of the church, set back and hidden by an early 20th century building, stands the Scuola dei Battuti, the oldest schola in Mestre. It was founded in 1302 and is housed in a graceful 15th century Gothic building.
The restored clock tower, the Torre Civica, or the Torre dell’Orologio, at the end of the piazza is Mestre’s principal monument, and was part of the town’s original mediaeval fortifications, called the Castelnuovo, which is believed to have had more than a dozen medieval towers.
The tower dates back to the 13th century and was endowed with a clock in the 16th century. It is 24 meters high, with its dramatic red-brick exterior accentuated by an impressive crenelated structure.
Mestre and neighbouring Carpenedo form the Municipalità di Mestre-Carpenedo, one of the six boroughs in the comune of Venice. With about 89,000 inhabitants, Mestre is the most populated of these urban centres. In contrast, about 53,000 people live in Venice itself, and about 27,700 live in the other major islands of the lagoon, Murano, Burano, Mazzorbo, Torcello, Lido and Pellestrina.
Recent attempts to regain Mestre’s autonomy in five referenda – 1979, 1989, 1994, 2003 and 2019 – have been rejected.
Many people who work in Venice each day – including many gondoliers – commute each morning from Mestre to Piazzale Roma. Mestre is linked to Venice by Ponte della Libertà, the 3.8 km railway and road bridge that crosses the lagoon. Buses run constantly between Mestre and Venice, crossing the lagoon to Piazzale Roma, Venice’s bus terminus.