By Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D.
A view of Saint Mark Square: Basilica, Bell Tower, Doge Palace, Biblioteca Marciana
Originating from tiny specks of land, an archipelago formed by minuscule islands, out of which a community was established, Venice went on to become one of the most powerful maritime republics in the Mediterranean, roughly from 700AD -1700AD. Indeed, for nearly one thousand years Venice became an empire, an opulent nation, as it dominated international trade and it left beyond a wealth of artistic accomplishments in architecture, the visual arts, as well as music and literature. But how was this achieved? What made Venice so special and how did it play such an important role in history? Civilizations have come and gone but Venice, to this day, continues to thrive, attracting as many as twenty-one million tourists every year. This issue will explore the treasures of Venice through which a considerable light will be revealed.
Venice has the shape of a fish surrounded by brackish water
The geography of Venice is unique in that the lagoon out of which it is resting is a mixture of brackish water coming from nearby rivers and the Adriatic Sea. Venice has the shape of a fish. It is a shallow lagoon, populated by 120 little islands that are connected by more than 430 bridges, made out of stone, metal and wood, the sum of which provides a lifeline of communication for every citizen.
Unlike other cities that originated near a river and expanded outward, the origin of Venice is intimately connected to the sea. Venetians had to learn at first to adapt to an environment that was barren, with no agriculture and land to thrive on. Roman colonies were well established on the mainland of the Venetia region. The name Venezia is said to have derived from the Latin expression veni etiam, which means “come back again.” Cities like Padua, Aquileia, Grado enjoyed a significant quality of life. However, as the Roman Empire began to crumble, the north-east area of Italy was subjected to ongoing invasions from the barbarians, most notably the Germanic tribes of Ostrogoths and Visigoths, as well as Huns, Central Asian tribes that came from Eastern Europe. Gradually, the local inhabitants sought refuge in the Venetian lagoon, which was 6 miles away from the mainland. It is hard to imagine why these early settlers would want to leave the comforts of Roman civilization and eke out a living on makeshift habitats. Historians have emphasized that this exodus took place gradually. The barbarians were excellent horsemen but were totally unfamiliar with life at sea and unwilling to pursue the Venetians, as there was nothing to gain from it. In the fifth century AD, Venetians managed to escape the threat of Barbarian invasion and settled on the lagoon.
Initially, the early Venetians made a living by fishing and by building dwellings on top of wooden piles, driven into the sea. This was a technique that lasted for many centuries, thus allowing for the expansion of the community that has come to be known as Venice. Between the seventh and the eighth century, Venetians mastered the art of salt making by directing sea water unto containers, allowing them to be sun-dried until rich crystals of salt began to form. Salt was a vital commodity in the Middle Ages, as people relied on to preserve perishable foods for many months. Salt constituted an immense source of revenue for the early Venetians, enabling them to supply Europe and the Mediterranean markets. Thus, by the ninth century, Venice had become a major political and economic power, controlling the seas, as well as diversifying their economy by exporting additional products such as spices, wool, silk and legumes. This is a remarkable achievement for it allowed Venetians to transform their salt trading society and to become world-class merchants, bankers and statesmen.
The lion of Venice: a symbol of power intimately connected to Saint Mark
As Venice grew politically and economically, it needed an icon, an identity that would legitimize its prestige around the world. The early Christian annals circulated a myth that Mark the Evangelist had navigated as far as Venice, whereby a divine vision appeared to him that presaged the following utterance: “Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus” (Be at rest here). The Venetians ceased on this by making Mark their patron saint. The fate of all Venetians was intimately connected to Mark who was buried in Alexandria, Egypt. In 828, the Venetians set out to take possession of the saint’s relics who had been martyred between 62 and 63 AD. Presumably, the Coptic Church in Alexandria was in danger of being destroyed by the Muslims and local authorities gave permission for the remains to be exhumed and relocate to Venice. The choice of St. Mark as an icon for the city of Venice was an important one because Venetians made the case that the saint originally came to the lagoon area to preach and that Christ told him that some day this would become his final resting place and that an angel appeared to him uttering the famous phrase, which can be seen all over Venice. The robbery of the relics also illustrates the power of the Venetians because they were the only European agents to operate in the Middle East with little opposition. The Venetians controlled the Adriatic Sea and much of the Mediterranean around Egypt and the Aegean Sea, conducting trade in the Middle East, and all the way down to Alexandria, Aleppo – modern-day Syria – and Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul.
The Basilica of Saint Mark
In the ninth century, the Basilica was built-in honor of Saint Mark, celebrating the arrival of his relics. This was not just a symbolic gesture but also an important icon that parallels Rome. Just as the pope drew his authority from Peter, so, too, the Venetians claimed the moral authority from Mark. The saint dominates the Basilica of Saint Mark, in that it narrates his life in the interior as well as the exterior of the church. The art historian John Ruskin described the church as “a treasure heap.” The term heap is used to describe a pile of plunder from various areas around the Mediterranean, starting with the robbery of the body of Saint Mark. Throughout their navigational history, rarely did the Venetians returned empty-handed, as they brought relics and materials used for the embellishment of the church. This explains why the Basilica exhibits an Oriental aesthetic quality. Unlike the European cathedrals whose roofs reach for the sky, the church of Saint Mark has a comparatively lower roof, reflecting the Eastern influence, most notably the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople.
The Arsenale was a ship building center that enabled Venice to create a formidable navy
Venice’s ascendance to power could not have been achieved without its ability to engage in shipbuilding. Venetians were famous for their fast ships and a reliable navy. Venice dedicated one tenth of their land to the Arsenale, which was a shipbuilding center. It employed 16,000 workers and could construct as many as 100 galleys in 60 days. These ships were light and fast and capable of carrying cargo, and were made by utilizing division of labor. What made Venice such a formidable navy is that the ships had no slave to power the boats. The sailors were Venetian citizens who were also quick to switch from their navigational role to soldiers during a time of confronting adversaries. Today, the Arsenale is used to house the Venice Biennale for art exhibition, but in the past it constituted an industrial center that propelled Venice toward a redoubtable naval force. Indeed, the Arsenale was considered a precious secret and Venetians punished by death anyone who divulged any information on how shipbuilding took place. Similarly, the art of glassmaking was confined to the island of Murano and it was jealously guarded as an art form to be shared with no one because the production of glass, window panes, eyeglass lenses and decorative activities was a monopoly of the Venetian Republic from which a considerable wealth could be generated. This is also true for the island of Burano where embroidering skills were handed down from one generation to the next.
The voyage of Marco Polo changed European perception of Asia, as he connected to Kublai Kahn, founder of the Yuang dynasty in China in the 13th century.
To illustrate the magnitude of Venice’s dominance of the sea, the story of Marco Polo’s voyage to China is truly emblematic in that it demonstrates how, as early as the Thirteen century, Venetians sailors could navigate freely through the Adriatic Sea, cross the Middle East, pass through Persia, go across the Pamir mountains, the Gobi desert and finally head to Beijing. The story of Marco Polo’s voyage is truly memorable and it celebrates Venetian power in that it enabled the explorer to navigate freely and to walk all the way across the Silk Road, reaching Asia and Mongolia. It was an extraordinary expedition that lasted more than two decades, from 1271-1295, during which he became the confidant of Kublai Khan. His biography, The Million, provides an excellent documentation of what China’s cultural life at the time and it afforded Europeans a greater understanding of Oriental customs, as well as expanding the trade routes to the East.
The Doge Palace is a perfect example of open architecture as opposed to medieval fortresses.
In the rest of Europe, society was defined in terms of social class; the nobility and the clergy occupied the top of the echelon, followed by merchants and peasants. While most Italian city-states were often subjected to family feuds, such as Florence and Milan, for example, Venetians had a more cohesive sense community. In Venice, class distinctions appeared not to exist, as everyone felt a sense of social equality. Most European societies experienced rebellion in one form or another, as people demanded better services. Venetians never felt the need to rebel, as workers, merchants and shipbuilders all enjoyed a certain degree of economic stability. This benevolent form of government does not qualify Venice as a utopia. On the contrary, the so-called Council of Ten, which was, in essence, a secret police, made use of repressive measures against citizens, in an effort to restrain any opposition. Nonetheless, Venetians had allegiance to the Republic rather than families, as occurred elsewhere. Similarly, the architecture of Venice also illustrates that its structures were not fortified as other Italian City States, as there was no need to protect against potential enemies. Buildings in Venice show an opened feature without having the need to establish heavy security for fear of a rebellion. Its buildings are delicate and not bulky. The Palazzo Corner Loredan, which is now Town Hall, was built-in 1362 and the Ca’ D’Oro built in 1420 are good examples of this opened architecture and, therefore, the liberal civic spirit that characterized much of Venetian society.
Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana: 1563
Venice did not have a parliamentary system. Venetians created a democratic institution and, unlike their European neighbors, were adverse to power handed down from one noble family to another. Venetians preferred a government by the few. It was ruled, instead, by the so-called doge, with limitations of term, who was elected by an oligarchy, a limited group of people each of whom in turn represented the people. Pietro II Orseolo is considered one of the first great doges of Venice because in the tenth and eleventh century he put an end to piracy, which was becoming a force to contend with. In doing so, Orseolo won the admiration of the Byzantine leadership, receiving special privileges that made Venice the sole European state to control the market in the East. This victory established Venice as a leading Republic in the Mediterranean Sea and launched the maritime republic toward becoming an empire. The doge ruled not by family ties and this practice continued to the end, until Venice was conquered by Napoleon in 1797. Venice never suffered an occupation but Napoleon took advantage of the Republic’s decline his troops pillaged the city’s wealth with its artistic tradition. Gold was robbed and melted for French consumption. Priceless works of art were stolen and taken to France. To this day, the Louvre houses many Venetian paintings, most especially Veronese’s Marriage of Cana. Even Miami houses Venetian treasures at Villa Vizcaya.
The Swiss Renaissance scholar, Jacob Burckhardt, who painstakingly examined the undisputed role of Florence in leading the Renaissance to the restitution of the arts and sciences throughout Europe, since classical antiquity, dismissed the notion of a humanist movement in Venice as it was simply relegated to few individuals. In reality, though, Venice did experience a humanist drive that was just as significant as that of its Florentine neighbors. The great Renaissance was characterized by fervor for the ancients. The Florentines embraced and rediscovered classical antiquity by bringing forth the love for Greek and Latin literature, architecture, the visual arts and the sciences, as well as the study of Hebrew. The Venetians, too, perceived the same message but they were able to process it differently. The architecture in Venice, for example, was never classical, as it tended to reflect an eclectic style bearing influence of Byzantine and Islamic tendencies.
Aldo Manuzio: Venetian humanist and inventor of the small pocket-book, allowing readers to carry it everywhere.
Similarly, the invention of the printing press, which initiated a massive wave of information for the general public, impacted in a very distinctive way in Renaissance Venice. Starting in late fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century, Venice became an important printing center. Nearly half of all the books in Italy came out of Venice. Traditionally Venetians made their wealth exclusively in trade from the East, but by acquiring the printing dominance it gave them an additional important source of revenue. Aldo Manuzio was an eminent Venetian humanist and a leader in the printing world, making books accessible to ordinary citizens. He made many contributions, the most notable of which was to introduce European readers to ancient Greek literature and philosophy with works by Euripides, Sophocles, Aristotle and Plato. He is credited with the introduction of the first hand-held book for everyone. In essence, this was the forerunner of the paperback, which revolutionized the printing press. He introduced the italic character not for emphasis as we do today but this feature enabled him to squeeze more words into a single page. A small size book meant a more affordable price and most importantly allowed books to be carried virtually everywhere.
The Biblioteca Marciana saved thousands of ancient Greek manuscripts from being burned by the Turks.
In addition to heralding the printing press, the Venetians ought to be credited also with housing some of most celebrated extant manuscripts in the world, coming from notable authors as Homer, Aristotle, Herodotus, Sophocles, Hippocrates, and many others. In 1468, the Greek cardinal, Basilios Bessarion, asked the Venetian authorities to build a library in order to house thousands of codices of ancient Greek manuscripts so that they could be saved from being burned by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Venice agreed to it and eventually went on to build the Biblioteca Marciana, which houses the largest collection of extant manuscripts from ancient Greek literature and philosophy, thus giving the Western world access to a wealth of ideas. Affording access to the world of classical antiquity to Italian humanists was arguably a seminal event that empowered scholars everywhere to discover and to recapture the essence of inestimable intellectual wealth that structured the basis of Western thought. It is worth noting that the Marciana library was completed long after the Greek cardinal died and did not see the wonder created by the humanist architect, Jacopo Sansovino, which brought Renaissance architecture to its highest level, leaving behind a classical appearance in Piazza San Marco that continues to astonish visitors to this day.
The architecture of Andrea Palladio greatly inspired Thomas Jefferson
The Renaissance spirit is not limited to the architecture of Sansovino, Andrea Palladio was also an architect in his own right who went on to further the development of classical structures, transforming the landscape of Venice and the Veneto region. His architecture inspired Thomas Jefferson whose University of Virginia rotunda reflects a Palladian vision of symmetry and harmony. Palladio constructed numerous villas on the mainland, which enabled Venetians to display their wealth but, most importantly, it was an innovative approach to architecture in that it added functionality to luxury.
Designing and erecting a building in Venice is only part of a challenge because in addition to pre-occupying oneself with the aesthetic and the function of a structure, one has to contend with the maintenance process, which is ongoing. The canals must be dredged on a regular basis, as there is a build up of mud and stilt. So, too, structures have to be restored from time to time because of shifting foundations. In order to do this, canals have to be dammed to hold back the water. Indeed, nothing can sit for long without being attended, as water is insidious. This scenario gives us a good understanding of what life must have been for the early settlers, as well as the present dwellers of the city that must forever contend with the challenges of the sea.
The artistic success of Venice is not relegated to architecture rather it is equally represented in the visual arts. Indeed, the height of Venetian painting spans nearly five centuries of extraordinary accomplishments during which a considerable contribution was made, most notably with the introduction of oil techniques, as well as color, depth and perspective. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Giorgione who died in his early thirties, nearly all the masters of Venetian painters died in their late seventies and eighties. Longevity may be closely connected to the quality of lifestyle that a large segment of the population on the lagoon enjoyed as opposed to its European counterpart who lived on the mainland and possibly did not experienced adequate social services.
Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna in the Church of San Zaccaria (1439-1516)
One of the earliest masters of the Venetian school of painting is Giovanni Bellini (1439-1516) who is credited with having transformed painting by introducing oil color technique and, most importantly, with having established a movement from which Giorgione (1477-1510), Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526) and Titian (1488-1576) emerged as unique giants of the Venetian style. Bellini came from a family of painters, his father Jacopo and his brother Gentile, both of whom left an indelible mark in the history of art. Giovanni’s art, however, leaves behind an inimitable expression. Many of his masterpieces can be seen today in some of the world’s best museums. Of notable importance there lies the portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan whose posture emanates the self-confidence associated with the leadership of a Doge, as well as reflecting Venice’s opulence. The robe worn by the Doge is made of silk and it is richly embroidered in gold and silver thread. What makes this portrait significant is its three-dimensional effect. Bellini’s painting is more like a sculpture than a pictorial image. The robe, which gives the impression of looking at a drapery, especially accentuates this, a technique widely used, known as the panneggio effect during the Renaissance for creating a sculptural effect.
The Greek quarters of Venice is a testimony of ethnic diversity
Venice offers a lesson in history in that for a millennium it was able to conduct a commercial, a cultural and a viable exchange with Muslim countries. In addition, though not a democracy, Venice managed to create a political system that was egalitarian in nature with opportunities for all its citizens. To this day, the names of the streets of Venice recall a diversity of ethnic areas where foreigners lived, as well as illustrating a fragment of its history. In the Middle Ages, Venice was the home of many ethnic groups. Thus, street names such as Calle dei Albanesi, dei Armeni, dei Greci, dei Tedeschi and dei Turchi, indicate a heavy presence of foreigners, all of whom lived in harmony with one another. In the Middle Ages, people lived where they worked. The names of the streets reveal what people did and this can still be seen today, whereby 31 such streets indicate an ancient activity. Thus, Calle del Forno denotes where the bakers worked and lived, Calle dei Saonieri for soap makers, Calle del Malvasia, for wine makers, Campo de le Becarie, for butchers, Ruga degli Orefici for goldsmiths. As Venice grew in stature it also became a center of trade with an international flavor. Foreigners were called forestier, meaning coming from de fuori, the outside. This term was not derogatory and it reflected a more benevolent view of foreigners. So, too, Venetian surnames are reflective of a heavy international presence in Venice. Thus, surnames such as Schiavon, Turco, Del Turco or Moro are reminiscent of a bygone era when foreigners were given equal access to the community. But there is also another interesting point to be made with respect to street names because in the Middle Ages people lived where they worked. Thus, the names of the streets reveal what people did and this can still be seen today, whereby thirty-one such streets indicate not only an ancient activity but where workers lived. Consequently, Calle del Forno denotes the residence as well as the work place of bakers; so, too, for Calle dei Saonieri for soap makers, Calle del Malvasia, for wine makers, Campo de le Becarie, for butchers, Ruga degli Orefici for goldsmiths.
A wooden bridge marks the entrance to the Jewish ghetto.
The presence of Jews in Venice was equally vibrant but they received a different treatment from the Republic with respect to other foreigners. Jews were allowed to live in Venice after they contributed money during the War of Cambrai in 1516. Nonetheless, Jews were allowed to live in the Ghetto and were only permitted to sell used books, to work as moneylenders and were forbidden to marry Christians. They also were not allowed to own property and had to be dressed differently from the rest of the Venetian population. The term “ghetto” is derived from the word “getar,” in that it was an area where casting took place. So, the term “geto” or ghetto, as pronounced by the Ashkenazi Jews, is indelibly associated with casting, marginalizing from a central area. The area is located in the Ghetto Nuovo of Venice and, at the time, it was an island segregated from the main lagoon. Despite these limitations, the Jewish community in Venice was very productive and it was rich in culture. The Italian Jewish writer, Giorgio Bassani, who became famous for his novel The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, which was turned into a classic film by Vittorio de Sica, has documented quite well the intellectual fabric of the Jewish-Venetian society.
Veronica Franco: a poet and courtesan embodies the role of Venetian women.
Similarly, just as Jews were discriminated, the Republic, too, did not treat women, with benevolence. Although the role of women expanded during the Renaissance, exerting great influence in society, they were not allowed to vote, much less taking on a leadership position. The Republic was complicit in the growth of prostitution during the sixteenth century, by allowing the creation of bordellos throughout the city. The Ponte de le Tette, which can still be seen today, was a famous meeting point where prostitutes exhibited their breast in order to attract clients. Venetian women, though, were not ordinary prostitutes rather they were like Japanese Geishas who were highly paid for their services, as they played music, recited poetry and held soirées during which time intellectual forums could be initiated. One of the most influential women was Veronica Franco, a courtesan and a poet in her own right.
After Rio, Venice’s Carnival is arguably one of the most colorful attractions in the world.
The Carnival of Venice is another shining example of Venetian traditions, which attracts as many 150,000 tourists during the event. But unlike other carnivals in Italy that are noted for their satire, the Venetian festivity focuses on recapturing its bygone past of wealth, dominance and luxury. This annual festival, which culminates with a Mardi Gras celebration before Lent, is well-known for its elaborate masks that are reminiscent of the Baroque period with its artistic emphasis on ornamentation, grandeur and convoluted designs. The masks are made out of porcelain or papier maché and they evoke the Golden Age of Venice during which the world renown theater of the Commedia dell’Arte produced such memorable characters as Arlecchino, Pantalone, Zanni.
The loss of commercial advantage on account of the Turkish expansion with its Ottoman Empire and the opening of the New World brought about the economic demise of the Venetian Republic mark the beginning of Venice’s decline. Its glory will bask forever in its past and in a sense it remains locked in within its historical boundaries, as well as its traditions, unable to project into the future. The famous art historian, John Ruskin, admonished Venice against becoming modernized and argued for preserving the historical character of the city. Fortunately, the city rejected proposals that would have included a subway system, modern electrical lampposts everywhere, which would have altered dramatically its unique look. This is a real challenge for Venice absorbed between the desires to conserve a way of life versus a more upbeat modernization effort.
Hotel Danieli frequented by artists since the 19th century
With the conquest of Napoleon in 1796, the Venetian Republic is officially ended. The occupation of French troops had devastating consequences resulting with the pillaging of numerous art works, as well as stripping buildings of gold. Nonetheless, Venice managed to survive and to emerge as a singular city in the world for its glorious past and its precious landscape. In the Nineteenth century, Venice acquired the reputation of being a romantic city. It attracted hundreds of artists. Lord Byron was one of the first poets to associate the city with Romanticism, as opposed to the cold calculating rationality of the Age of Enlightenment. Eventually, Corot, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Browning, Dickens, Henry James, Manet, Whistler, Renoir, George Sand and Wagner duplicated the notion that Venice represented a unique force. Palazzo Dandolo was where supposedly Byron stayed and would take regular swims in the canal at night. The Palazzo was eventually refurbished into the now famous hotel Danieli. The artists contributed in creating a major industry for the Venetians, namely tourism.
Site of the Caffè Florian one of the oldest cafés in Europe
In the 2016, it was reported that 20 million tourists visited Venice and the number keeps on growing each year. Tourism is an old business in Venice, which goes back as far as the Crusades, when people used this Adriatic city as a point of departure for Jerusalem. The sad part is that most visitors come to Venice only for a day excursion, thus without affording themselves the opportunity to discover the city’s past in greater depth.
A flood similar to the one of 1966 is a stark reminder of Venice’s vulnerability.
The flood of 1966 was a turning point for Venice in that people began to realize that the time had come to begin planning for the future, as the expansion of the industrial component of the city started to show irreparable damage to the lagoon lest one can begin to reverse the process. Since the beginning of time, Venetians managed to control the flow of water. Many of the rivers that flow onto the lagoon were formed naturally. As time went on, however, the Venetians themselves widen the natural rivers and allowed seawater to enter the lagoon. This man created intervention was gradually responsible for the rising water level. The city realized that it needed cultural rather than industrial expansion if Venice was to remain the jewel of the Adriatic Sea.
An engineering feat was undertaken in an effort to stop the rising water levels. The MOSES project consists of a series of gates designed to stop the flow of seawater from going into the lagoon when a high tide occurs. This mechanism protects Venice from being flooded and eventually reduces the risk of sinking. There are approximately 80 gates whose main function is to protect three major areas, namely, Chioggia, Lido and Malamocco. The cost for this project is estimated to have been somewhere around 5 billion Euros. Environmentalists have protested vehemently because they point out that stopping the natural flux of seawater into the lagoon may seriously threaten the survival of wildlife.
Venice: a preserve of a bygone civilization
There may be divergent views as to how Venice would need to be managed in the future. What is indisputable though is that Venice will be forever the preserve of a bygone civilization. UNESCO has recognized Venice as a historical landmark, which must be preserved forever as a living testimony of man’s dignity in the face of adversity, a universal human strength of creativity, capable of achieving the highest possibilities in the face of the unknown.
Horodowich, Elizabeth. Venice: A New History of the City and its People. Philadelphia: Constable & Robinson Running Pr., 2009.
Madden, F. Thomas. Venice: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2012.
Gary Wills. Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire. New York: Washington Sq. Pr., 2001.
Alvise Zorzi. Venice 697-1797: A City, A Republic, an Empire. New York: The Overlook Pr., 2001.