- For other uses, see Venice (disambiguation).
Venice is known for its waterways and gondolas
Venice (Italian Venezia), the city of canals, is the capital of the region of Veneto, population 274,000 (2003). The city stretches across numerous small islands in a marshy lagoon along the Adriatic Sea in northeast Italy. The saltwater lagoon stretches along the shoreline between the mouths of the Po (south) and the Piave (north) Rivers. The Venetian Republic was a major sea power and a staging area for the Crusades, as well as a very important center of commerce (especially the spice trade) and art in the Renaissance.
See also Veneti.
"The Grand Canal, Venice", painted 1835 by J.M.W. Turner
The city was founded as a result of the influx of refugees into the marshes of the Po estuary following the invasion of northern Italy by the Lombards in 568. In the mid-8th century, the Venetians resisted the empire-building efforts of Pepin III and remained subject to the Byzantine Empire, at least theoretically. As the community continued to develop and as Byzantine power waned, however, an increasingly anti-Eastern character emerged, leading to the growth of autonomy and eventual independence. Venice was a city state (an Italian thalassocracy or Repubblica Marinara, the other three being Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi). Its strategic position at head of the Adriatic made Venetian naval and commercial power almost invulnerable.
In the 12th century the essentials for the power of Venice were laid: the Arsenal was under construction in 1104; Venice wrested control of the Brenner pass from Veronia in 1178, opening a lifeline to silver from Germany; the last autocratic doge, Vitale Michiele, died in 1172.
The Republic of Venice seized the eastern shores of the Adriatic before 1200, mostly for commercial reasons, because pirates based there were a menace to trade. The Doge already carried the titles Duke of Dalmatia and Duke of Istria. Later mainland possessions, which extended across Lake Garda as far west as the River Adda, were known as "Terrafirma", and were acquired partly as a buffer against beligerent neighbors, partly to guarantee Alpine trade routes, and partly to ensure the supply of mainland wheat, on which the city depended. In building its maritime commercial empire, the Republic acquired control of most of the islands in the Aegean, including Cyprus and Crete, and became a major power-broker in the Near East. By the standards of the time, Venice's stewardship of its mainland territories was relatively enlightened and the citizens of such towns as Bergamo, Brescia, and Verona rallied to the defence of Venetian sovereignty when it was threatened by invaders.
Venice became an imperial power following the Fourth Crusade, which (with Venetian aid) seized Constantinople in 1204 and established the Latin Empire. Considerable plunder was brought back to Venice, including the Winged Lion of St. Mark, symbol of Venice. Only Venetian ships could efficiently transport the men, supplies, and (especially) war horses.
The Four Emperors
in a corner near the Doge's Palace and St. Marks - plunder brought back from Constantinople
A small canal in Venice (Rio de la Verona)
The Venetian governmental structure was a mix of Byzantine and Islamic systems, but the social order was entirely feudal. Church and various private properties were tied to military service, though there was no knight tenure within the city itself. The Cavalieri di San Marco was the only order of chivalry ever instituted in Venice, and no citizen could accept or join a foreign order without the government’s consent. Venice remained a republic throughout its independent period and politics and the military were kept completely separate. War was regarded as a continuation of commerce by other means (hence, the city's early production of large numbers of mercenaries for service elsewhere).
The chief executive was the Doge (duke), who, theoretically, held his elective office for life. In practice, a number of Doges were forced by pressure from their oligarchical peers to resign the office and retire into monastic seclusion when they were felt to have been discredited by perceived political failure.
Though the people of Venice generally remained orthodox Roman Catholics, the state of Venice was notable for its freedom from religious fanaticism and it enacted not a single execution for religious heresy during the Counter-Reformation. This apparent lack of zeal contributed to its frequently coming into conflict with the Papacy. Venice was threatened with the interdict on a number of occasions and twice suffered its imposition. The second, more famous, occasion was on April 27, 1509, by order of Pope Julius II (see League of Cambrai).
Venetian ambassadors sent home still-extant secret reports of the politics and rumours of European courts, providing fascinating information to modern historians.
1888 German map of Venice
After 1070 years, the Republic lost its independence when Napoleon Bonaparte on May 12, 1797, conquered Venice during the First Coalition. The French conqueror brought to an end the most fascinating century of its history: It was during the "Settecento" that Venice became perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe, greatly influencing art, architecture, and literature. Napoleon was seen as something of a liberator by the city's Jewish population. He removed the gates of the Ghetto and ended the restrictions on when and where Jews could live and travel in the city.
Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 12 1797. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798. It was taken from Austria by the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 and became part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy, but was returned to Austria following Napoleon's defeat in 1814. In 1866, along with the rest of Venetia, Venice became part of Italy. After 1797, the city fell into a serious decline, with many of the old palaces and other buildings abandoned and falling into disrepair, although the Lido became a popular beach resort in the late 19th century.
Naval and military affairs
By 1450, more than 3,000 Venetian merchant ships were in operation, and most of these could be converted when necessary into either warships or transports. The government required each merchant ship to carry a specified number of weapons (mostly crossbows and javelins) and armor; merchant passengers were also expected to be armed and to fight when necessary. A reserve of some 25 (later 100) war-galleys was maintained in the Arsenal. Galley slaves did not exist in medieval Venice, the oarsmen coming from the city itself or from its possessions, especially Dalmatia. Those from the city were chosen by lot from each parish, their families being supported by the remainder of the parish while the rowers were away. Debtors generally worked off their obligations rowing the galleys. Rowing skills were encouraged through races and regattas.
Several gondolas sail down the canals of Venice
By 1303, crossbow practice had become compulsory in the city, with citizens training in groups. As weapons became more expensive and complex to operate, professional soldiers were assigned to help work merchant sailing ships and as rowers in galleys. The company of "Noble Bowmen" was recruited in the later 14th century from among the younger aristocracy and served aboard both war-galleys and armed merchantmen, with the privilege of sharing the captain's cabin.
Though Venice was famous for its navy, its army was equally effective. In the 13th century, most Italian city states already were hiring mercenaries, but Venetian troops were still recruited from the lagoon, plus feudal levies from Dalmatia and Istria. In times of emergency, all males between seventeen and sixty years were registered and their weapons were surveyed, with those called to actually fight being organized into companies of twelve. The register of 1338 estimated that 30,000 Venetian men were capable of bearing arms; many of these were skilled crossbowmen. As in other Italian cities, aristocrats and other wealthy men were cavalrymen while the city's conscripts fought as infantry.
Early in the 15th century, as new mainland territories were expanded, the first standing army was organized, consisting of condottieri on contract. In its alliance with Florence in 1426, Venice agreed to supply 8,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry in time of war, and 3,000 and 1,000 in peacetime. Later in that century, uniforms were adopted that featured red-and-white stripes, and a system of honors and pensions developed. Throughout the 15th century, Venetian land forces were almost always on the offensive and were regarded as the most effective in Italy, largely because of the tradition of all classes carrying arms in defense of the city and official encouragement of general military training.
The command structure in the army was different from that in the fleet. By ancient law, no nobleman could command more than twenty-five men (to prevent against sedition by private armies), and while the position of Captain General was introduced in the mid-14th century, he still had to answer to a civilian panel of twenty "wise men". Not only was efficiency not degraded, this policy saved Venice from the military takeovers that other Italian city states so often experienced. A civilian commissioner (not unlike a commissar) accompanied each army to keep an eye on things, especially the mercenaries. The Venetian military tradition also was notably cautious; they were more interested in achieving success with a minimum expense of lives and money than in the pursuit of glory.
Venice is famous for its canals. It is built on an archipelago of more than 100 islands in a shallow lagoon. In the old center, the canals serve the function of roads, and every form of transport is on water or on foot. In the 19th century a causeway to the mainland brought a railroad station to Venice, and an automobile causeway and parking lot was added in the 20th century. Beyond these land entrances at the northern edge of the city, transportation within the city remains, as it was in centuries past, entirely on water or on foot. Venice is Europe's largest carfree area, unique in Europe in remaining a sizable functioning city in the 21st century entirely without motorcars or trucks.
The classical Venetian boat is the gondola, although it is now mostly used for tourists, or for weddings, funerals, or other ceremonies, due to its cost. Most Venetians now travel by motorised waterbuses ("vaporetti") which ply regular routes along the major canals and between the city's islands. The city also has many private boats. The only unmotorized gondolas still in common use by Venetians are the traghetti, foot passenger ferries crossing the Grand Canal at certain points without bridges.
Venice is served by the newly rebuilt Marco Polo International Airport, or Aeroporto di Venezia Marco Polo, named in honor of its famous citizen. The airport is on the mainland and was rebuilt away from the coast so that visitors now need to get a bus to the pier, from which watertaxi or Aliliguna waterbus can be used.
Places of note
Venice and surroundings in false colour, from TERRA satellite. The picture is oriented correctly (north at the top).
The sestieri are the primary traditional divisions of Venice. The city is divided into the six districts of Cannaregio, San Polo, Dorsoduro (including the Giudecca), Santa Croce, San Marco and Castello (including San Pietro di Castello and Santa Elena).
Piazzas and Campi of Venice
Bridges and channels
Sinking of Venice
Water damage on building lower.
The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced poles (made of a wood specially chosen because it strengthens with age), or pilings, which penetrate alternating layers of clay and sand. Most of these pilings are intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations rest on the pilings, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The buildings are often threatened by flood tides pushing in from the Adriatic between autumn and early spring.
During the 20th century, when many artesian wells were sunk into the periphery of the lagoon to draw water for local industry, Venice began to sink. It was realised that extraction of the aquifer was the cause. This sinking process has slowed markedly since artesian wells were banned in the 1960s. However, the city is still threatened by more frequent low-level floods (so-called Acqua alta, "high water") that creep to a height of several centimeters over its quays, regularly following certain tides. In many old houses the ground floor is unoccupied due to the periodic floods, but people continue to live and work in the upper stories.
Some recent studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking, but this is not yet certain; therefore, a state of alert has not been revoked. In May 2003, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, inaugurated the "Moses" project, which will lay a series of 79 inflatable pontoons across the sea bed at the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 centimetres, the pontoons will be filled with air and block the incoming water from the Adriatic sea. This challenging engineering work is due to be completed by 2011.
Venice in culture, the arts, and fiction
In the 14th century, many young Venetian men began wearing tight-fitting multicolored hose, the designs on which indicated the Compagnie della Calza ("Trouser Club") to which they belonged. The Senate passed sumptuary laws, but these merely resulted in changes in fashion in order to circumvent the law. Dull garments were worn over colorful ones, which then were cut to show the hidden colors -- which resulted in the wide spread of men's "slashed" fashions in the 15th century.
During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers of Europe, with the development of the Venetian polychoral style under composers such as Adrian Willaert, who worked at San Marco. Venice was the early center of music printing; Ottaviano Petrucci began publishing music almost as soon as this technology was available, and his publishing enterprise helped to attract composers from all over Europe, especially from France and Flanders. By the end of the century, Venice was famous for the splendor of its music, as exemplified in the "colossal style" of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, which used multiple choruses and instrumental groups.
View over the roofs of Venice from St Mark's Campanile.
The "Bacino Orseolo", a canal behind St Marks Square
Foreign words of Venetian origin
- Chambers, D.S. (1970). The Imperial Age of Venice, 1380-1580. London: Thames & Hudson. The best brief introduction in English, still completely reliable.
- Contarini, Gasparo (1599). The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice. Lewes Lewkenor, trsl. London: "Imprinted by I. Windet for E. Mattes." The most important contemporary account of Venice's governance during the time of its blossoming. Also available in various reprint editions.
- Drechsler, Wolfgang (2002). "Venice Misappropriated." Trames 6(2), pp. 192-201. A scathing review of Martin & Romano 2000; also a good summary on the most recent economic and political thought on Venice.
- Grubb, James S. (1986). "When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography." Journal of Modern History 58, pp. 43-94. The classic "muckraking" essay on the myths of Venice.
- Martin, John and Dennis Romano (eds). Venice Reconsidered. The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297-1797. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP. The most recent collection on essays, many by prominent scholars, on Venice.
- Muir, Edward (1981). Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. The classic of Venetian cultural studies, highly sophisticated.
- Rösch, Gerhard (2000). Venedig. Geschichte einer Seerepublik. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. In German, but the most recent top-level brief history of Venice.
View of Saint Mark's Square
View of Saint Mark's Square