History of Venice

Origins Wreathed in Mist

The Veneto region was named after the Veneti, a tribe that occupied this area in the 6th Century BC. The Romans conquered the region in the 3rd Century BC. The local populace was granted full Roman citizenship in 89 BC. There are no written records of the origins of Venice, but legend has it that Romans, fleeing from the Goths, founded it in AD 422. Several decades later, the Huns, led by Attila, overthrew the Roman defenses. In AD 568 the Lombards’ arrival and settlement in the area was the most enduring, as the new ports of Torcello and Malamocco were created and developed in the Venetian lagoon.

During this time, central and northern Italy was dominated by the Byzantine Empire. Imperial power was concentrated in the Exarchate of Ravenna, which the Lombards conquered in AD 75, executing the last exarch, the spiritual and ceremonial head. The seat of the Byzantine governor (duke, later doge) was then located in Malamocco. The settlement in the archipelago grew as a result of the Lombard conquest.

Between AD 775 and 776, the Olivolo was created as a seat of bishops. In the 9th Century, under Duke Agnello Patriciaco, the ducal seat moved to Rialto island (‘hight shore’), the present-day location of Venice where the monastery of St Zachary, St Mark’s basilica and the first palace of the duke were built. The relics of St Mark the Evangelist were moved into the new basilica in AD 828. Eventually, Byzantium's influence waned and the community attained a distinctive anti-Eastern character, which led to the growth of autonomy and the quest for independence.

Venice and the Middle Ages

Venice developed into a city state between the 9th and the 12th Centuries among three other city states in Italy: Pisa, Genoa and Amalfi. Venice became a major naval power, exerting influence over commercial activity throughout Europe, thanks to its strategic location at the head of the Adriatic Sea. It became the centre of trade between Western Europe and other regions of the world, such as Asia.

Construction of the Venetian Arsenal shipyard began in the early 12th Century. In 1178, control of the alpine Brenner Pass passed from Verona to Venice, which enabled import of silver from Germany. By 1200, Venice had taken control of the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea, primarily for commercial reasons, but piracy in the region was a threat to trade. Later, some mainland possessions that extended westward to the Adda River came to be known as the Lombard districts of the Terraferma, which were acquired to guarantee alpine trade arteries, serve as defensive territory and ensure supply of wheat.

Venice gained control over many islands in the Aegean Sea, including Crete and Cyprus, and became influential also in the Middle East. After the Fourth Crusade, the city became an imperial power, playing a key role in the capture of Constantinople in 1204. As the short-lived Latin Empire was established, Venice, in turn, founded the Duchy of the Archipelago, which came to the fore.

By the early 14th Century, crossbow practice had become mandatory in Venice for citizens. However, weapons became more expensive and difficult to operate, and professional troops were hired to assist operations on merchant vessels and to row in galleys. Venice’s Army soon matched its formidable Navy. Whereas most city states in Italy were hiring mercenary troops by the 1200s, Venetian soldiers were still recruited from the lagoon. In times of emergency, all men between 17 and 60 years of age were compelled to serve in the Army. According to a register from 1338, about 30,000 Venetian men were able to bear arms. Aristocrats and other rich men served in the cavalry, while conscripts were assigned to the infantry.

Venice and the Ottoman Conquest

In 1453, Ottoman ruler Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople and Venice suffered plunder as a result, including the symbolic Winged Lion of St Mark. Venetian sea craft had auspicious reputations, transporting men, supplies, and war horses. Venice had become the most prosperous European city by the end of the 13th Century, with 36,000 sailors employed aboard 3,300 ships, which dominated commerce in the Mediterranean.

The wealthy Venetian families competed to build the most opulent palaces and support the work of the most famous and talented artists. The Great Council, comprised of the members of the most influential Venetian families, governed the city, electing the Senate and all public officials. The Senate elected the Council of Ten, a clandestine organisation which held power in the city administration. One member of this council became doge, the official ruler of Venice. The city’s governmental structure somewhat resembled the republican system of ancient Rome, including the absence of power on the part of the masses.

Wartime in Venice was considered to be an occasion for continuing trade in unorthodox ways, and indifference to religion was seen in the local government not imposing a single penalty for religious heresy during the Catholic Reformation. Instead, the Catholic Church sought twice to impose interdicts on Venice, as the Papacy often disputed with the government about its lack of fervor for the Church.

The War of the League of Cambrai broke out in 1508, involving Venice, France and the Papal States, as well as major powers in Western Europe at various points in time, including Spain, England, the Roman Empire, Scotland, Milan, Florence and the Swiss. Roman Catholic Pope Julius II had hoped that the war would limit Venice’s influence in northern Italy, and to this end established the League of Cambrai, a union against Venice. Members of the union were Louis XII of France, Ferdinand I of Spain and Emperor Maximilian I. Initially the league was a success, but it collapsed in 1510, and afterwards Julius formed an alliance with Venice against France.

In 1512, the French were driven out of Italy, as disagreements related to war booty led Venice to abandon alliance with the Pope and enter into one with France. After the French-Venetian victory at Marignano in1515, Venice regained its former territory. The 1516 Treaties of Noyon and Brussels effectively ended the war. Toward the end of the Renaissance era, Venice started to lose its status as an international trade centre, but remained a major production centre until the mid-1700s.

From French Invasion to Italian city

After Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, Venice came under the authority of Austria. From 1797 the city entered a decline, with many of its historical buildings abandoned and derelict. However, in the late 1800s Lido became a popular summer resort, and under the Treaty of Pressburg of 1805 Venice became part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. In 1814, it was restored to Austria as part of the Austrian-ruled Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. The city also received a rail connection to the mainland in 1846, and achieved independence briefly in 1848 with the re-establishment of the Venetian Republic. It wasn't until 1866 that Venice, after the Third Independence War, became part of Italy.  

Venice continued to flourish in cultural life, introducing in 1894 the first Biennale exhibition of Italian art. Since then, special exhibit pavilions in the Giardini di Castello have been built. On April 30 of that same year, the First International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice was officially opened with the assistance of Italian King and Queen, Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia. The event gathered 224,000 visitors.

Venice in Modern History

In 1902, the new Modern Art Gallery at Ca’ Pesaro was opened. However, in stark contrast, the old bell tower on St Marc's square, which has been immortalised on pictures and postcards, collapsed. The tower was rebuilt in 1912, the year the famous novella by Thomas Mann, 'Death in Venice', was published.

Venice suffered minor damage during World War I. In 1926, Porto Marghera industrial park was annexed to the city, which comprised oil refineries, aluminum smelting and other manufacturing facilities, and gradually the lagoon started giving in to landfill. In 1932, the first Venice Film Festival was held, which became an annual event since 1935. During World War II, the Germans and Allied powers did little harm to the city's historical district. However, the war’s effect ceased any artistic activity in the city. The Art Exhibition was suspended and reopened only in 1948.

In 1960, part of Venice’s lagoon landfill was transformed into the Marco Polo Airport, and one-fourth of the lagoon was filled for industry use. As channels for big ships were being dug as well, Venice's buffer against tides weakened. So when the flood of 1966 hit, the city’s streets and houses were some two meters under water. Some of the water level marks remain today on many churches and palaces.

Venice's population dropped to 70,000 in 1995, with an average age of 50. Two-thirds of the population in the greater area of Venice moved to more secure homes on the mainland.

Also, another disaster struck in 1996 with a fire in Teatro la Fenice. Reconstruction of the theatre was finally completed in 2004. The city today attracts thousands of tourists, especially in the winter for the Venice Carnival, which has been held since 1268 and features its infamous Venetian masks.