History of Venice – City and former republic in NE Italy, in Venezia province, Veneto region, 162 mi E of Milan, built on 118 small island s in the Lagoon of Venice, at the N end of the Adriatic Sea. There are approximately 150 canals between the island s, crossed by some 400 bridges. The main traffic route in the city is the Grand Canal. Once one of the most powerful city-states in Europe, Venice long ago lost its military and commercial glory, but it continues to be one of the world’s great cities for its unique plan, its watery way of life, and its many cultural treasures.
With Istria, Venice was a Roman province in the fifth century a.d. According to tradition, after the Huns invaded northern Italy in 452, refugees from Aquileia and other towns fled S and settled the island s that now make up the city. Nominally part of the Byzantine Empire until c. 650, in 697 these island villagers and fishers joined forces under a leader called the doge, dialect for duce or “duke.” By the ninth century they had formed the city, the location of which prevented its conquest by the Carolingian Empire and encouraged the hand ling of trade between the Byzantine East and the interior of Italy and northern Europe. By the 11th century Venice possessed Istria and most of northern Dalmatia, the regions on the northeastern side of the Adriatic Sea. These areas swayed between Venice, the revived Byzantine Empire, and the Slavs until taken by the kingdom of Hungary in 1108. By the 12th century Venice had gained favorable trading privileges with the Byzantines and controlled trade in the Levant.
Near the end of the 12th century there rose to power the Dand olo family, which produced four doges and other leaders. One of them, Enrico, encouraged the members of the Fourth Crusade, of 1201 to 1204, to pay Venice for supplying passage to the Holy Land by helping attack Zara and other towns and island s along the Dalmatian coast and by finally taking Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was sacked by the crusaders in 1204 and its empire dismembered. In the course of this nefarious bargain, ultimately condemned by the pope, Venice also acquired trade monopolies in the Byzantine capital and throughout the old empire, and control of Crete and ports in the Peloponnesus. Venice was, with Genoa and Pisa, a major shipper and supplier to the Latin Crusader states in the East from the 11th to 14th centuries and grew rich carrying spices, cloth, luxury goods, and pilgrims across the Mediterranean, Its pilgrim routes were especially well used and carried thousand s between the Levant and Venice every year.
Nominally a republic, Venice took on the forms of a rigid oligarchy much sooner than other major Italian city-states. It was governed through most of the Middle Ages by the Great Council, or assembly of the great merchants. In 1297 membership in the council was made hereditary and restricted to a small number of families. In 1310, after a plot to establish a despotism was destroyed, the Great Council formed the ruling Council of Ten, which became an absolute governing body, eliminating its enemies through secret denunciations and purges. Nevertheless, this oligarchy retained many of the councils, courts, and other institutions of a republic and managed to merge the business interests of its citizens with those of the state. The city itself owned the merchant and war fleets, and its wealthy capitalists formed its administrative and military corps. Among the city’s main activities was the maintenance of the Arsenal, the great military depot and shipbuilding center, still in use. It employed thousand s of workers and had established a full-blown capitalist enterprise by 1300, setting wages, working hours, and production quotas and establishing a complete specialization of labor and management positions. Venice was so aware of the importance of its control of the seas that the doges annually celebrated a symbolic marriage with the Adriatic.
For many years Genoa was Venice’s chief rival, and several naval battles were fought in 1379 and 1380 off the city of Chioggia, at the S end of the Lagoon of Venice. The city’s power peaked in the 15th century, controlling over 12 island s in the eastern Mediterranean and annexing Cyprus in 1489. Its domination of East-West trade made it enormously wealthy. This position began to decline somewhat after 1453, the year in which the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople and cut off much of Venice’s trade with the Levant. A half century later the discovery of the New World and the establishment of Atlantic routes to the East began to shift trade from the Mediterranean to the West; nevertheless, Venice’s trade routes via Alexand ria and the Levant continued to prosper, with occasional interruptions, into the 17th century.
By the late 14th century the mainland around Venice, the terra firma, began to come under the city’s control and eventually included large areas to the N and W of the city, now in the regions of the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. These brought the republic into the emerging balance of power politics of the Italian Peninsula. Throughout the Renaissance Venice formed or broke alliances with one or more of the major powers, including Milan, Florence, the Papal States, and Naples. This balance was finally recognized by the Peace of Lodi in 1455. In the Italian Wars of 1494 to 1559 this balance came to an end, and Venice was forced to challenge both the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, which with France, Spain, and England formed the League of Cambrai in 1508. The city-state could not match these new nations, and in 1509 the French defeated Venice at Agnadello and occupied much of its territory.
By the 15th century the Venetian nobility had begun to turn from trade and banking and was establishing large agricultural estates on the terra firma. These later supported the magnificent building projects of the Veneto, the most famous of which are Palladio’s villas around Venice and Vicenza. On October 7, 1571, however, the city reasserted its prestige when its ships led a Christian fleet in a crushing defeat of the Ottoman Empire off Lepanto, Greece. Nevertheless, the Turks captured Cyprus that year, took Crete in 1669, and despite Venetian conquest of the Peloponnesus in 1699, this too fell to the Turks in 1718. Despite Venice’s commercial and political exhaustion from its long struggle with the Turks, it remained a center of European culture and fashion into the 18th century and was the only republic to survive in Italy. Although Venice tried to stay neutral between Austria and Napoleonic France, the Treaty of Campo Formio made by those nations in 1797 gave Istria, Dalmatia, and a good deal of Venetia to Austria; the Ionian Island s to France; and other Venetian land s to the newly created Cisalpine Republic. In 1848 a revolt drove out the Austrians, but Austria besieged and captured the city in 1849. Venice became part of the new, united kingdom of Italy in 1866.
Culturally Venice was a major force during the Renaissance and the early modern periods, and as a free republic stayed immune from the pressures of the Roman, Protestant, and national inquisitions and censors. It offered a haven to scholars, writers, scientists, and thinkers of all types. The University of Padua, ruled by Venice, is famous for the freedom it gave to scientists and thinkers like Galileo. The city itself was the home of such painters as the Bellinis, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, and Canaletto; of architects like Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio, and the Lombardo family; and of the pioneer printers Nicolas Jenson and Aldo and Paolo Manutius. Its great families included the Dand olo, Contarini, Foscari, and the Tiepolo. Venice was one of the first states to establish a diplomatic service, with representatives permanently stationed in foreign land s; it named two merchants to represent it in London as early as 1496. Today the city faces new perils as it slowly sinks into the Adriatic in the face of official inability to implement plans to save it.
Venice’s most famous land mark is the Byzantine basilica of St. Mark, whose symbol of the winged lion and book became Venice’s emblem and remains a testimony of its former power from Verona to Crete. Here is also the Piazza of San Marco, with its famous bell tower and medieval Doge’s Palace, one of the most perfect urban spaces in the world. Here is also the Bridge of Sighs, where those awaiting execution took their final steps, and the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, erected between 1588 and 1591. Here too are Palladio’s masterpieces, the churches of the Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore; and many palaces, including the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ca’ Foscari, both on the Grand Canal. The city also boasts numerous museums, churches, and many smaller squares, or campi, one of the finest examples of urban planning in the West. The city has been the subject of writers from Shakespeare to Casanova to Thomas Mann and of painters from Bellini to Turner. Among its famous citizens are Marco Polo, the famous traveler to the court of Kublai Khan in China; the geographer Marino Sanudo; the humanist Pietro Bembo; the church reformer Gasparo Contarini; the explorers John and Sebastian Cabot; writers Paolo Sarpi and Carlo Goldoni; several popes; the composers Giovanni Gabrieli and Antonio Vivaldi; and Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist.