Amid romance, art and maritime power
One of the most visited places in Italy, and perhaps because of this reason, it needs suggestions more than other destinations. It is easy to become enchanted and wander through the crowded canals of this city nestled by the sea. Every glimpse, every building seems to be interesting. But so what to see? What to visit to get a good picture of the soul of Venice?
Let us explore the crucial periods of this small maritime city that once controlled the Mediterranean seas.
The Venetian lagoon was formed in the 8th century B.C. from an earlier fluvial-palustrine environment. It is assumed that there have been human settlements here since prehistoric times, given the wealth of resources that favoured hunting and fishing. However, according to some historians, the area of today’s lagoon was scarcely populated, and the nearest Roman centres were Padua, Aquileia, Treviso, and Altino.
Some sources, therefore, date the first permanent settlement in the lagoon to the 5th century CE. The city’s origin seems to be related to the barbarian invasions, which, between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, devastated northern Italy, especially the warlike Lombards. These events intensified the migration of mainland people seeking shelter in the lagoon’s islands.
Here, the expansion of commerce and trade developed into an autonomous duchy independent of the nearby city of Ravenna, which controlled a vast kingdom. After the latter’s collapse in 751 CE, the duchy of Venice expanded and exercised more power, intensifying trade across the Mediterranean Sea.
The Lion of Venice - façade of Scuola Grande di San Marco (Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The privileged relationship with the Byzantine East and simultaneously the distance from Constantinople made Venice one of the main ports of trade between the West and the East, allowing the development of a dynamic and enterprising merchant class. Over about four centuries, the city transformed from a remote settlement and imperial outpost to a now fully independent master power of the seas.
During this period, the epic of the fearsome and powerful Venetian Doges was at its peak. With the arrival of 1000 CE, Doge Pietro Orseolo II was proclaimed dux Dalmatie and dux Croatiae, which sanctioned Venetian hegemony over the Adriatic Sea.
Moreover, Venice was “blessed” by The Golden Bull, granted by the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1082 CE, in exchange for an alliance that yielded lofty trading privileges. Such benefits included commercial advantages and a privileged role in post-Crusader events, culminating in possessing dominions in Morea (Peloponnese), Crete and many Aegean islands. At this point, Venice was an undisputed master of the Mediterranean.
Venice’s power began to extend over land as well. The banners of the Lion of St. Mark went as far as the borders of other Italian duchies, sometimes in friendship and sometimes by force. Here was the beginning of a dispute with Italy’s other maritime power: Genoa.
However, Venice developed like no one else into a powerful maritime empire (an Italian thalassocracy also known as Repubblica Marinara) and was no match for the other maritime republics (among the most powerful were Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi).
We list here below places and buildings that tell with their majestic appearance and solemnity the immense power of the “Serenissima” Venetian Republic.
In the 13th century CE, Venice dominated much of the Adriatic coastline, regions such as Dalmatia, Istria, many of the Aegean islands, Crete, Cyprus, and Corfu. It was the most important military power among the Middle East’s leading merchant forces. However, decadence began to set in immediately afterwards, in the 15th century CE. Due to the heavy conflict with the Ottoman power and the shift of trade to the Americas, Venice began slowly disappearing from Mediterranean scenarios.
However, thanks to a strong influence on the art, architecture, and literature of the time, in the 18th century, Venice regained “revenge” by becoming one of the most refined cities in Europe. After more than 1,000 years of independence, the doge was forced by Napoleon to abdicate on May 12, 1797 CE, and the French handed over the kingdom to the Austrians by treaty.
Years passed under Austrian rule until the events of World War I. In a desperate attempt to defend Venice and its valuable naval base, the Italian army stood on the Piave River in the Alps and repulsed two Austro-Hungarian offensives. Venice thus came to find itself close to the front. In this context, it suffered numerous air attacks by Austria-Hungary, which caused various damage to the city.
Venice was decidedly luckier during World War II in that the lagoon city suffered only one air attack during the conflict. In fact, the belligerents avoided striking a city of such great cultural and architectural value. On the whole, Venice came through the war almost unscathed, thanks to the precautions taken by the belligerent powers as well as to its isolated location, easily recognised by bomber pilots.
In the second half of the postwar period, Venice began to downsize in the market, especially in the tourism sector, becoming the lapped destination that distinguishes it today.
Venice has become a destination that suffers the effects of the greed of unaware tourism. One of several causes of pollution is the passage of cruise ships and other tourist vessels through the lagoon. This leads to severe effects on the lagoon ecosystem and consequently to the rising waters that are slowly and literally “eating” away the foundations of the city.
To complicate such situation, is a widespread conception of Venice as an open-air museum rather than a city. Hence, even among those who work there, few choose to live. Undoubtedly, the lagoon has an inestimable charm, but more is needed to cover the lack of essential services. And this is one of the main reasons the area empties year by year.
These are thought-provoking points, and one should be no stranger to them under any circumstances, especially as a visitor. Tourism is an evolving phenomenon, and what makes the difference is the mindset with which one enjoys a destination. For such reason, Venice represents an example of a mass touristic phenomenon, and as an example, it must teach a lesson. Learning a place’s background makes it possible to adopt behaviour changes while enjoying a destination. This mentality is fundamental for significant changes to begin first with the individual. Each of us can truly make a change if only aware.
It is the small changes that make significant impacts.
Venice is still a town that can still be enjoyed, but as everywhere, it requires understanding and respect.