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.
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.
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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
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
The Doge's Palace in Venice by Renoir, 1881
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
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
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 Ponte di Rialto's stone arches have crossed the Grand Canal
for over 400 years
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