Return to Venice Guide Overview
The Campanile and Doge Palace, Venice
Venice is named after an Indo-European tribe who migrated here in about 1000 BC. In 568 AD when the fierce Germanic Lombards invade Italy, one of the first cities in their path is the Christian town of Aquileia who, legend says, was founded by St Mark. Many of its inhabitants, flee southwards to a low-lying offshore island - Torcello. Those refugees became the founders of Venice. Around about 584, parts of the east Italian coast in Byzantine hands are grouped together as a defensive arrangement against the Lombards. The islanders of Torcello are included in the defense. But with the northern mainland in Lombard hands, their survival is largely in their own hands. As survivors, they become increasingly independent.
Centuries passed, then the independent sect came to think of themselves as Venetians. In 726, they first elected their own doge (the equivalent of 'duke', from the Latin dux meaning 'leader'). Thus Orso became the first Venetian doge came to power specifically to oppose Byzantine rule over the islands of the lagoon. But Byzantine officials led many battles that held the islands until 751. Over time the Venetians develop specialized skills in trading goods.
Then in 809, the son of Charlemagne campaigned in northern Italy, and the Venetian doge, seeing Franks as a more powerful force, wisely makes an alliance with him without appearing too close. This risky move allows Venice to play the Franks and Byzantines off against each other while Venice thrives. When the treaty in 814 is signed between the Franks and Byzantines, the city remains independent with no special obligation to Constantinople. Perfectly placed between the Mediterranean, the mountain passes up to northern Europe and Eastern Europe, Venice is poised to make her fortune as the premier trading post of Europe.
Early in the 9th century the government of the lagoon is transferred to two adjacent islands where the land is a little higher above sea level, where in Venice every inch matters. To either side of the waterway is a rivo alto ('high bank'), from the which the name Rialto derives. The Rialto bridge joins these two banks. Then the city acquires from Alexandria, Egypt some relics of the patron saint St Mark to increase its cultural status. With that acquisition 828 Venice comes of age. A church to house the relics was built and rebuilt in the 11th century. With various modifications over the centuries, the church in St. Marks Square remains the centrepiece of the city.
The Normans drive the Byzantines from their last seaport in southern Italy by 1071, and soon they begin raiding across the Adriatic Sea. In return for help against the marauders, the Byzantine emperor grants Venice the rights to trade freely throughout the Byzantine empire without tariffs. A great increase in trade and pilgrimage travel to the eastern Mediterranean results with Venice as the strongest beneficiary. Venetian merchants travel far and wide across the Mediterrean making trade agreements and avoinding wars as much as possible.
St Mark's craftsmen produce probably the most sumptuous church interior in the world, with every corner a sombre glittering gold and Italian mosaics that represent the culmination of a great Byzantine tradition. In addition to its Byzantine mosaics, St Mark's contains in the Pala d'Oro the most spectacular surviving altarpiece from Byzantine churches with scenes of Jesus, the Virgin and saints set in a gold background encrusted with jewels.
In 1380, Venice finally defeats Genoa and becomes the undisputed maritime power in the region. Corfu is recovered in 1401. The Croatian coast is ceded to Venice in 1420. Zante is acquired in 1482. Finally Cyprus, the jewel at the end of the chain, is annexed in 1489. For the next two centuries the Venetians battle the Turks as their expanding empires collide. None seem to gain a decisive advantage.
Early the 1500s, Italy becomes the prime battleground of warfare between Venice, France and Spain, even as the latter two nations explore the New World. A series of shifting alliances, often brokered by the papacy redraws the map of Italy. The territories and incluence of Milan, Venice, Naples and Rome shift in often unpleasant ways.
With the emergence of England, Spain, France and Dutch from their New World salve-produced wealth, Venice, which was not a player in Trans-Atlantic slave trade, enters a long and gradual period of decline. Venice could only defend its Mediterranean possessions from the Turks. In the long run, even this proves a hopeless battle. A century later, in 1669, the Turks finally evict the Venetians from Crete. Losing its political will to fight, Venice finds consolement by redefining itself as Europe's favored tourist attraction. It opens the first public opera house in 1637 and starts the tradition of the pageantry masked women who delight wealthy traveling men. This city markets to visit its to the European uppercrust, until Napoleon intruded in 1797.
Campaigning against Austria in Italy in 1797, Napoleon, deposes the last doge. By the treaty of Campo Formio, Venice is handed over to Austria and remains under Austrian rule until 1866. Venice and the Veneto (Venetia) are ceded to the newly independent kingdom of Italy. The ancient city becomes, as it remains today, the capital of the province of Venezia.