Venice is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, built on just a few of the 100 or so islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon, a large salt water lake that comes off the Adriatic Sea in northern Italy, the Venetian Lagoon itself covering an area of around 550 square kilometres, with many of the islands being just above and sometimes below the waterline.
Where most cities are a maze of highways, streets, cars and buses – the highways of Venice are its canals and waterways, with walkways, stairs and bridges becoming its roads, and boats of all sizes, not cars being its main transport.
There are around 260,000 people living in Venice, but then millions of tourists come here every day to see and discover the City, all taking home Venetian masks, glass, lacework and photos with them as memories and souvenirs of the City, its canals and architecture.
It is a truly unique and beautiful city.
There are also many festivals that happen in Venice – the most famous being Carnival in February-March (Carnevale di Venezia), the dates change based on when Lent is celebrated.
A LITTLE HISTORY -
The story of Venice is a complex one that dates back over a thousand years with its own intrigues and power struggles entwined within the history of Europe, religions, empires, wars, battles and conquests.
It is believed that the first Venetians came to the islands from the mainland and ancient Roman town of Aquileia establishing their first settlement initially on the island of Torcello around 568AD, at a time when Germanic Lombard tribal groups from the north had conquered the Ostrogothic Kingdom (493-553) and taken control over this part of the Byzantine Empire, (Eastern Roman Empire). There was also another tribal group called the Veneti, who are thought to have first settled in some of the islands around 1000BC.
The Capital of the Byzantine Empire was Byzantine (Constantinople, now Istanbul), with Venice coming under the administrative government of a Byzantine Exarch over this part of the Empire, this government being in the Exarchate of Ravenna. Venice was in some ways sandwiched between the Lombard forces in the north and the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna to the south.
The Ravenna town is about 200 kilometres south of Venice, while Aquileia is north about 120 Kilometres, both towns still with significant history, relics, ruins and buildings from those times. Today's Lombardy gained its name from the Lombards.
In 697 Venice elected their first magistrate 'doge' leader, Paoluccia Anafesto, then Marcello Tegalliano followed by Orso Ipato in 726, but Venice remained ostensibly under the rule of the Byzantine Empire at that time, with Orso only lasting one year as the Doge before being murdered.
There have however been a succession of Doge leaders, the last Doge leader's rule being in 1797, 1100 years after the first Doge leader was chosen. It is a long period of time, and the role of the Doge is somewhat like the succession of kings and queens in England, moving from absolute power to power with an appointed council of leaders, to almost a ceremonial role. The Doge's Palace on St Marco Square is where the Doge worked and lived.
When people think of the Roman Empire, they mostly are thinking of the ancient Roman Empire – the Empire that stretched all the way from the Britain in the north, most of Western Europe and to northern Africa and Asia Minor leaving its legacy in the roads, bridges, walls, towers, towns and castles that were built by the Romans. It was a vast Empire founded in 27BC lasting until 395AD when under Augustus Caesar, the Empire was separated into two halves – the Eastern Roman Empire that became known as the Byzantine Empire, with its Capital, Byzantine (Constantinople, now called Istanbul) and the Eastern Empire, its capital for most time being Rome.
You may recall that it was the Christians that were thrown to the Lions in the Colosseum, the Colosseum built in 70- 80AD, but then in 380AD Christianity became the sole Religion of the Roman Empire.
It was then Charlemagne (742-814), King of the Franks who conquered the Lombards in Italy, naming himself King of the Lombards and then on Christmas Day 800 he was crowned by the Pope in Rome as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
When you think of the city Constantinople (Istanbul), it is and was a crossroads between Asia on one side and Europe on the other, and in the early 800 years Venice became a bridge between the Byzantine Empire on the eastern side and the Holy Roman Empire on the western side, with the Islamic world to the far east and south.
In many ways history as a story is like pulling one thread of cloth that you see, knowing that there are thousands of other threads making up a whole cloth of stories that could be explored.
Over the centuries, fortunes have been made and lost on the basis of trading – buying cheaply on one side and selling for profit on the other, and Venice on the Adriatic Sea was in a perfect geographic position to prosper from such trading.
Trading however depends also on having or being granted the right to trade in markets too – and for Venice that meant gaining the rights to trade from its powerful neighbours through treaties and alliances and also holding on to such rights through military force, commercial negotiations or diplomacy or a combination of all of these, as power struggles and politics changed over the years, both within Venice and within the whole region. Empires were built and empires collapsed.
Just as today, there was competition for power and wealth in all markets, and the Venetians became very good at trading, their strength being their negotiating, administration and financial skills but also their maritime skills.
Trade depends a lot on transport, and those able to transport goods and deliver them safely had a great advantage over those who couldn't. The Venetians maritime skills ultimately became its greatest strength.
When you look at Ancient History, it is easy to see all events happening at the same time, but these events span across hundreds, sometimes a thousand years. The Great Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II was born 1303BC and died in 1213BC; the Parthenon in Athens, Greece was built between 447BC and 432BC; Alexander the Great was born in 356BC and died in 323BC; Julius Caesar was born in 100BC and died in 44BC; Augustus Caesar was born in 63BC and died in 14AD; Charlemagne was born in 742AD and died in 814AD; Mongol Empire leader, Kublai Khan was born 1215 and died in 1294; the great Venetian trader, Marco Polo, who met Kublai Khan was born in 1254 and died in 1324; Sultan Baybars 1st, born as a slave in 1223 and died as a Sultan in 1277 having conquered some of the last Crusaders ; the Great Crusades (8 or 9 of them) trying to take control of 'The Holyland' happened over almost 200 years between 1095 and 1291 and in 1453 the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and Islam became the dominant religion in that City, with the Empire particularly under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) expanding the Empire across the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe. This Empire would last from 1453 until 1918.
The location of Venice on the water, the Venetians knowledge of the sea and their skills in boat building saw Venice also become a great Maritime power, and in 1204 they took control over Corfu and Crete and parts of the Dalmatian Coast and parts of the Italian mainland too, the powerful Venetian Empire lasting until the 15th Century.
Over these centuries of trading, Venice achieved great wealth, and it used this wealth to build the city and great buildings that you see in Venice today. With wealth comes status, and in an age when Religion played such a powerful role, having their Patron Saint, St Mark looking over and protecting the City, gave the City extra security and power over rival cities and adversaries.
St Mark, the Evangelist, was one of the Disciples of Jesus, founding the Church of Alexandria in Egypt and writing the Gospel of St Mark, dying in 68AD. According to legend, in 828, parts of the body of St Mark were stolen from Alexandria and taken to Venice by two merchants from Venice with help from two Greek Monks hiding these body parts under a load of Pork, knowing that the Muslim inspectors would not touch this and find the body parts of St Mark. The remains were then presented to the Doge Giustiniao in Venice, who requested on his deathbed that St Mark's Basilica be built, with the remains of the body placed here in honour of St Mark. They are still here.
St Marco Square and St Mark's Cathedral (Basilica Cattedrale Patiarcale di San Marco) are right in the centre of Venice today and if you look closely at the Statue of him at the Cathedral, you will see him holding the Gospel Book of St Mark in his hand and also a smaller part of the Statue with a Lion with wings of an angel. This relates to a story that when St Mark was thrown into a lion den, the lion refused to eat him, instead licking his hand and allowing St Mark to pat him. Other parts of St Mark's remains are said to be in St Mark Coptic Church in Alexandria and St Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, another part was in the Vatican, but was returned in 1968 by Pope Paul VI to the Coptic Church headed by Pope Cyril VI in Alexandria.
Venice is said to be "a marriage between Venice and the Sea" – and the Venetian's success and fortune depending on this. The year 1104 saw the beginnings of what became known as the "Arsenale di Venezia" shipyard that developed and made Venice the foremost ship building city in Europe up until the 1500's. Here a high wall and guard towers surrounded the shipyard to keep all that was happening inside the walls a secret. This was an age when timber Galley boats were rowed by manpower and here in the Arsenale there were all the specialist skills needed to design, build and construct boats, such as caulkers, rope makers, workers making oars, blacksmiths, sail makers, wood turners and other specialized skilled workers.
From boats to carry goods to vessels to fight from these were all constructed here in the Arsenale. Today, the Arsenale in Venice still exists but your first place to see some of the remarkable gondolas, Vaporetti and other boats that were built, is to go to the Naval History Museum at Rio Della Tana Castello – near the Arsenale Bridge. (See www.visitmuve.it )
Venice had some of its own coinage from as early as 921AD and by 1031 it was minting silver and gold coins. While ship building and repairs were a big industry in Venice, they also made Venice a port for foreign boats to also use, and required all Venetian vessels to make Venice a port of call, and all boats carrying cargo had to pay a tax upon coming to Venice. They even had buildings constructed to house Turkish, German and other seamen when they were in port. This all meant accumulating great wealth for the City and its merchants, with the Doge, ruling Council members and merchants using this wealth to build churches and other buildings, support the arts, and keeping treasures that they found through their voyages to other parts of their trading empire.
Trading between the East and West was carried on for centuries, with the caravan trading routes crossing the deserts from the south and the Silk Road bringing goods from the East, but then Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) born in Genoa in Italy sailing under a Spanish flag from Spain discovered the 'New World' in 1492 and in 1493 Hispaniola was established as the first Spanish settlement in the Caribbean.
This was the beginning of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British Empires, but it was not until 1797 that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 -1821) conquered Venice, then he ceded Venice to the Hapsburg Austrian Empire in 1787 who then had it under their control until 1848 and then in 1866 Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy. For a short time in 1848, Venice had tried to re-establish the Republic of Saint Marco, but this was quickly put down by the Austrians.
The new trade routes to India, Africa, Americas and Asia saw Venice and its trade rapidly diminish, with the last Doge rule of Venice being in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the City.
Creating great buildings to rival Rome and other great cities meant that the islands of Venice, being just above high tide needed extra foundations to support any construction, and so an ingenious system was devised whereby large number of Timber poles and tree trunks were driven into the islands muddy sand and earth, and the waterways that criss-crossed the main island of Castello, were made into canals. With the tree trunks being below the waterline, they did not rot, instead became stronger over time. The tree trunks came from Slovenia, while limestone used in buildings and lining the canals, came from the other side of the Adriatic on the Istrian Peninsula. There are over 150 canals in Venice, including the Grand Canal and about 400 bridges crossing over all these canals. The canals in many places run between buildings with no walkways on either side, so that the only way to get to some of these places is via a Gondolier ride, through the narrow canals while the bridges all connect to walkways and small alleyways. It is easy to get lost with the myriad of bridges and walkways, that almost feel like a maze, but that too can be part of the fun of being in Venice.
While trade created wealth, Venice also developed its own industries and two of the most important were in Glass making on the island of Murano and Lacemaking needlepoint work on the island of Burano – both industries dating back to the 1500's.
Architects, like writers, musicians and other artists all have their sources of inspiration. Rome was inspired by Greek Architecture, just as the architecture in Paris was inspired by that of Rome, and the Architects who designed many of the most notable buildings in Venice were also inspired by Greek, Roman and Byzantine architecture. The great difference however is the setting of Venice on its canals and waterways.
As much as the lace and glasswork is impressive it is the architecture, heritage and the unique setting of buildings on the waterways and canals of Venice that make coming to Venice such a great place to visit and it was this unique feature of the City that drew the first tourist travellers to Venice in the 18th Century, even earlier when the aristocrats of Europe and Britain, made 'doing the Grand Tour' part of their education.
Today, tourism is the biggest industry in Venice with tourists arriving in ever increasing numbers, with Cruise ships calling here too. Most people stay here just a day or so, and you may too, but if you are able to stay longer, then you will be able to see more and learn more about this great City.