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Origins of Venice

Extracts, author unknown, originally published in the early 1900s, 27 September 2008

The district between Verona and the sea, known to the Romans as Venetia, seems in the most ancient times to have been inhabited by an Etruscan population.

Later, however, it was occupied by the Veneti, an Illyrian tribe, whose name still survives in that of Venice and in the district known as Il Veneto. But much Etruscan blood must have remained in the land even after their conquest: and it is doubtless to this persistent Etruscan element that the Venetians owe their marked artistic faculty.

The country of the Veneti was assimilated and Romanised (by nominal alliance with Rome) in the third century BC. Under the Romans, Venetia, and its capital Padua, grew extremely wealthy, and the trade of the Lombard plain (as we now call it), the ancient Gallia Cisalpina, was concentrated on this district.

The Po and the other rivers of the sub-Alpine region bring down to the Adriatic a mass of silt, which forms fan-like deltas, and spreads on either side of the mouth in belts or bars (the Lido), which enclose vast lagoons of shallow water.

These lagoons consist near the mainland of basking mudbanks, more or less reclaimed, and intersected by natural or artificial canals; further out towards the barn or Lidi, they deepen somewhat, but contain in places numerous low islands.

Barbarian incursions

During the long troubles of the barbaric irruptions, in the fourth, fifth, and subsequent centuries, the ports of the lagoons, better protected both by land and sea than those of the Po, began to rise into comparative importance; on the south, Ravenna, on the north; Altinum, acquired increased commercial value. The slow silting up of the older harbours, as well as the dangers of the political situation, brought about in part this alteration in mercantile conditions.

When Attila and his Huns invaded Italy in AD 453, they destroyed Padua, and also Altinum; and though we need not suppose that those cities thereupon ceased entirely to exist, yet it is at least certain that their commercial importance was ruined for the time being.

The people of Altinum took refuge on one of the islands in the lagoon, and built Torcello, which may thus be regarded in a certain sense as the mother-city of Venice.

Subsequent waves of conquest had like results. In 568, the Lombards, a German tribe, invaded Italy, and completed the ruin of Padua, Altinum, and Aquileia. The relics of the Romanised and Christian Veneti then fled to the islands, to which we may suppose a constant migration of fugitives had been taking place for more than a century. The Paduans, in particular, seem to have settled at Malamocco.

The subjugated mainland became known as Lombardy, from its Germanic conquerors, and the free remnant of the Veneti, still bearing their old name, built new homes in the flat islets of Rivo Alto, Malamocco, and Torcello, which were the most secure from attack in their shallow waters. This last fringe of their territory they still knew as Venetia or Venezia; the particular island, or group of islands, on which modern Venice now stands, bore simply at that time its original name of Rivo Alto or Rialto (the Deep Channel).

Founding the republic

The Romanised semi-Etruscan Christian Republic of Venezia seems from the very first to have been governed by a dux or doge, (duke, in English) in nominal subjection to the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople. The Goth and the Lombard, the Frank and the Hun, never ruled this last corner of the Roman world.

The earliest of the doges whose name has come down to us was Paulucius Anafestus [Paoluccio Anafesto], who is said to have died in 716, and whose seat of government seems to have been at Torcello.

Later, the doge of the Venetians apparently resided at Malamocco, a town which no longer exists, having been destroyed by submergence, though part of the bank of the Lido opposite still retains its name. Isolated in their island fastnesses, the Venetians, as we may now begin to call them, grew rich and powerful at a time when the rest of Western Europe was sinking lower and lower in barbarism; they kept up their intercourse with the civilised Roman east in Constantinople, and also with Alexandria [which by now had been conquered by the Islamic empire], and they acted as intermediaries between the Lombard kingdom and the still Christian Levant.

The Doge's Palace in Venice by Renoir

The Doge's Palace in Venice by Renoir, 1881

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When Charlemagne in the eighth century conquered the Lombards and founded the renewed (Teutonic) Roman Empire of the West, the Venetians, not yet established in modern Venice, fled from Malamocco to Rivo Alto to escape his son, King Pepin, whom they soon repelled from the lagoons.


About the same time they seem to have made themselves practically independent of the eastern empire, without becoming a part of the western and essentially German one of the Carolingians. Not long after, Malamocco was deserted, partly no doubt owing to the destruction by Pepin, but partly also perhaps because it began to be threatened with submergence: and the Venetians then determined to fix their seat of government on Rivo Alto, or Rialto, the existing Venice.

For a long time, the new town was still spoken of as Rialto, as indeed a part of it is by its own inhabitants to the present day; but gradually the general name of Venezia, which belonged properly to the entire Republic, grew to be confined in usage to its capital, and most of us now know the city only as Venice.

Pepin was driven off in 809. The doge's palace was transferred to Rialto, and raised on the site of the existing building (according to tradition) in 819. Angelus Participotius was the first doge to occupy it. From that period forward to the French Revolution, one palace after another housed the duke of the Venetians on the same site.

This was the real nucleus of the town of Venice, though the oldest part lay near the Rialto bridge. Malamocco did not entirely disappear, however, until 1107. The silting up of the harbour of Ravenna, the chief port of the Adriatic in late Roman times, and long an outlier of the Byzantine empire, no doubt contributed greatly to the rise of Venice: while the adoption of Rivo Alto with its deep navigable channel as the capital marks the gradual growth of an external commerce.

A career of commerce

The republic which thus sprang up among the islands of the lagoons was at first confined to the little archipelago itself, though it still looked upon Aquileia and Altinum as its mother cities, and still acknowledged in ecclesiastical matters the supremacy of the Patriarch of Grado.

After the repulse of King Pepin, however, the republic began to recognise its own strength and the importance of its position, and embarked, slowly at first, on a career of commerce, and then of conquest. Its earliest acquisitions of territory were on the opposite Slavonic coast of Istria and Dalmatia; gradually its trade with the east led it, at the beginning of the Crusades, to acquire territory in the Levant and the Greek Archipelago.

This eastern extension was mainly due to the conquest of Constantinople by Doge Enrico Dandolo during the Fourth Crusade (1204), an epoch-making event in the history of Venice which must constantly be borne in mind in examining her art-treasures. The little outlying western dependency had vanquished the capital of the Christian Eastern Empire to which it once belonged.

The greatness of Venice dates from this period; it became the chief carrier between the east and the west; its vessels exported the surplus wealth of the Lombard plain, and brought in return, not only the timber and stone of Istria and Dalmatia, but the manufactured wares of Christian Constantinople, the wines of the Greek isles, and the oriental silks, carpets, and spices of Islamic Egypt, Arabia, and Bagdad. The Crusades, which impoverished the rest of Europe, doubly enriched Venice: she had the carrying and transport traffic in her own hands, and her conquests gave her the spoil of many eastern cities.

It is important to bear in mind, also, that the Venetian Republic (down to the French Revolution) was the one part of western Europe which never at any time formed a portion of any Teutonic empire, Gothic, Lombard, Frank, or Saxon. Alone in the west, it carried on unbroken the traditions of the Roman empire, and continued its corporate life without Teutonic adulteration.

The Rialto Bridge in Venice
The Ponte di Rialto's stone arches have crossed the Grand Canal for over 400 years




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