Every corner is culture, art, and beauty. Adjectives are not enough to describe Venice, one has to experience it. Because it is one of the world’s most sought-after destinations, it is good to have respect and know its character. Only in this way will we be able to truly appreciate Venice, the great little town who ruled the seas.

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.

What to see in Venice?

The Origins

The dawn of the "Serenissima" Republic of Venice

  • Ducale Palace
  • St. Marks Basilica

From maritime power to the present day

  • La Fenice Theatre
  • Prisons’ Palace
  • Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

How tourism shapes Venice

The origins

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 dawn of the "Serenissima" Republic of Venice

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.

It was during this period, the epic of the fearsome and powerful Venetian Doges was. With the arrival of the year 1000 CE, Doge Pietro Orseolo II was proclaimed with the title of 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 to possess 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 known also 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.

1. Ducale Palace

The Ducale Palace, formerly known as the Doge's Palace (because it was the seat of the Doge - chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice between 726 and 1797 CE), is one of the symbols of the city of Venice and a masterpiece of Venetian Gothic architecture. It stands in the monumental area of St. Mark's Square in the district of the same name, and because of its grace and grandeur it is impossible not to notice it. It bears some elements of Byzantine and oriental architecture, suggesting the ancient expansionist power of the Serenissima. This well exemplifies of what intensity were the commercial and cultural relations between Venice and the East. Its beauty is based on a clever aesthetic and physical paradox, connected with the fact that the heavy bulk of the main body is supported by seemingly slender inlaid colonnades. The building was founded in the 9th century CE, and was the center of Venetian power, and from here Venice had the power to change the fate of the Mediterranean. Today it houses the Ducal Palace Civic Museum, part of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia (MUVE).

2. St Mark's Basilica

St. Mark's Basilica is the city's cathedral and seat of the patriarchate. It represented the combination of religious and commercial power of the Serenissima, boasting artistic masterpieces worthy of Venetian power and wealth. As early as the 11th century CE, St. Mark's Basilica began to be widely dubbed the "Golden Church," by virtue of St. Mark's treasure, ornate mosaics, and majestic design elements, which made the sacred building the visible symbol of illimited power of Venice.

From maritime power to the present day

In the 13th century CE, Venice dominated much of the Adriatic coastline, regions such as Dalmatia, Istria, many of the Aegean islands, Crete, Cyprus, Corfu, and was the most important military power and among the leading merchant forces in the Middle East. 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 a slow disappearance 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 kingdom was handed over by the French 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 a variety of damage to the city.

Venice, was decidedly luckier during World War II in that the lagoon city suffered only one air attack of 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 recognized by bomber pilots.

It was in the second half of the postwar period that Venice began to downsize in the market, especially in the tourism sector, becoming the lapped destination that distinguishes it today.

3. La Fenice Theatre

The Gran Teatro La Fenice, located in the Sestiere di San Marco in Campo San Fantin, is the main opera house in Venice and one of the most prestigious in the world. Every year it holds the traditional New Year's Concert. In addition, it has been home to major opera and symphony seasons and the International Festival of Contemporary Music. In the 19th century, the theatre was the site of numerous premieres of operas by Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi. This place conveys Venetian sophistication by suggesting elegance in all its forms. The theatre becomes an even more mysterious and peculiar lodging during the events of the Venetian carnival, the ancient city festival that takes place every year.

4. Prisons Palace

The Palazzo delle Prigioni also known as "Piombi" in Venice is in St. Mark's Square and is connected to the Doge's Palace by the world-famous Bridge of Sighs. The Piombi are an ancient prison located in the attic of the Doge's Palace in Venice, in the kneighbourhood of San Marco. The name “Piombi” comes from the material with which their roof was built which was covered with slabs of lead. In winter, these slabs let the cold pass and they acted as a conductor in the summer heat, imposing harsh conditions for inmates. Inmates were locked up here and were allowed in the air hour to walk the corridor that connected the various cells.

Famous people were imprisoned there, including Paolo Antonio Foscarini and Giacomo Casanova. The latter gave the Piombi widespread notoriety as he described them in his Memoirs and especially in History of My Escape from the Piombi, leaving us with details of the structure and detention methods and telling us how he managed to escape from it in 1756 CE.

5. Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo

The Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo (also called the Palazzo Contarini Minelli dal Bovolo) is a small palazzo in Venice, Italy, best known for its external multi-arch spiral staircase known as the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (literally, "of the snail"). The palazzo is located in a small, less-travelled calle (street) near Campo Manin, about half-way between Campo San Bartolo, at the foot of the Rialto, and Campo Santo Stefano. The staircase leads to an arcade, providing an impressive view of the city roof-tops.

How tourism shapes Venice

Venice has become a destination that suffers the effects of greed, of unaware tourism. One among several causes of pollution is the passage of cruise ships and other tourist vessels through the lagoon. This leads to serious effects to the lagoon ecosystem and consequently to the rising waters that are slowly and literally "eating" away the foundations of the city. To complicate this, is the 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 this is not enough to cover the lack of essential services. And this is one of the main reasons the area empties out 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.