the story of venice -- 11/28/23

Today's selection -- from The Map of Knowledge by Violet Moller. The origins of Venice in the fifth and sixth centuries CE:

“The story of Venice begins in the fifth and sixth centuries, as the Roman world crumbled from within and was attacked from without. The hard, straight roads that had carried Roman legions, merchants and pilgrims efficiently around the empire for centuries became avenues of terror as invading armies marched down them towards Rome. On their way, they passed the great cities of northern Italy--Aquileia, Altino and Padua, pausing only to wreak havoc by siege, sword and flame. Those who managed to escape fled towards the sea, carrying the few possessions they had been able to save. When they reached the water's edge, they found themselves in a strange new world. In the north-eastern corner of Italy, there is no clear definition between land and sea, no cliffs with bays and beaches, no rocky division between the two realms. Here, where the coast curves around the top of the Adriatic Sea, the two elements unite across a vast, flat expanse. The water slips over the fluctuating sands, islands appear and disappear, forests of reeds grow in the marshy ground, and the light, shining through billions of droplets of evaporating water, appears pearlized, supernatural, conjuring mirages on the horizon, a luminescent haze separating the bright blue of the sky from the pale aquamarine of the water. 

“Over millennia, the great rivers, the Po and Piave, had deposited huge quantities of silt into the bay, carried down from the mountains. The currents formed the silt into a curved line of sand bars, running parallel to the coast, creating a huge lagoon of shallow water in between, cut off from the open sea apart from a few channels that fed water in and out as the tide rose and fell each day. A haven for birds, fish and mosquitoes, but also for the refugees who had managed to reach the shifting, grassy islands in small, flat-bottomed boats--the only craft that could navigate the unpredictable waters. These tenacious people built their lives in this flat, watery world, protected by the sea that separated them from the mainland, but at the same time constantly threatened by the high tides, the acqua alta, that could inundate their homes at any moment, and occasionally floods the city to this day. Known as the Veneri, they learned to survive and, eventually, to flourish. They lived off the abundant fish in the lagoon and they sank huge tree trunks into the water as foundations for their houses, returning to the ruined cities on the mainland for stone, marble, bricks and wood--any building materials they could find and transport.

“Small communities began to grow on the cluster of little islands in the centre of the lagoon. A society developed with its own particular system of government, ruled by a dux (Latin for leader, which, over time, morphed into the word doge), who was elected for the first time in AD 697 to rule over the nascent city of Venice. The Venetians were resourceful and determined. They laid bridges across the narrow channels of water, they constructed dams against high tides and drained the land, they built narrow, flat-bottomed boats that could dip and glide smoothly across the waters. They developed effective ways of making the most of life in the lagoon. The sea could not yield crops, but they made it profitable by constructing salt pans--areas of very shallow water that evaporated in the sun, leaving acres of shining minerals, which they broke up with rollers and rowed to the mainland to barter for wheat and barley. This lack of self sufficiency forced them to trade, to sail not only up the great rivers to the markets at Cremona, Pavia and Verona, but also out into the open sea and down the Istrian coast. Controlling the Adriatic was fundamental to the Venetians' ability to trade in the Mediterranean and the East, and they soon established a string of trading posts along the coast, offering the inhabitants protection from the vicious pirates who terrorized the region, in return for power. In 998, the Doge of Venice added Dux of Dalmatia to his list of titles.

The foundation of Venice as depicted in the Chronicon Pictum in 1358. 

“Right from the very beginning, the Venetians were independent. They turned their isolation to an advantage by keeping out of politics on the mainland, while focusing on trade and diplomacy. Geographically, their growing city was perfectly placed between the two major political powers of the time: the Byzantine Empire to the east, and the Frankish kingdom to the west. In 814, the inhabitants of Venice made a treaty that articulated their unique position. They would be a province of the Byzantine Empire, but would, at the same time, pay tribute to the Franks. This could have given them the worst of both worlds, but, in fact, it put the Venetians in a privileged space between the two empires and, most importantly of all, it gave them trading rights and the freedom to use Italian ports. In 1082, the Byzantines extended Venetian trading rights, exempting them from taxes and customs duties across the empire, marking another crucial moment for the city's commercial growth. By 1099, there was a lucrative spice trade with Egypt, and Venice was on course to create the most successful maritime empire the world had ever seen.

“Stable, relatively democratic government, rigorous organization and an absolute devotion to the city lay at the heart of Venice's extraordinary success. That devotion was not only practical, it was religious, too. Venetians believed their city had divine foundations, they worshipped it, creating unusually high levels of loyalty and social cohesion. While the rest of Europe was yoked under the feudal system, with noble families tearing themselves and everyone around them apart in violent power struggles, Venice prospered as the first republic of the post-classical world. Its inhabitants were fervently united around a shared enterprise: the glorification of their beloved city, which they called La Serenissima--The Most Serene Republic. This unity was born out of the challenges of living in the lagoon. The Venetians were forced to work together just to survive, to overcome the problems posed by their inconstant environment. This precarious existence meant that they prized stability above all else, especially when it came to the city's governance. Organization, cooperation and control were of fundamental importance to everyone's survival, and an efficient administrative framework soon evolved, overseen by the doge and patricians--members of the founding families of the city. 

“The city grew, but not in the same haphazard, sprawling way as cities on the mainland. Every new row of houses, every canal, every campo had to be carefully planned. Like Baghdad and Cordoba, Venice zoned different types of manufacture in different areas, its island structure perfectly suited to this form of town planning, a novelty in Europe at the time. This idea was probably brought back to Venice by merchants who had visited those cities and been impressed by their design and organization. The island of Murano became the centre of glass-making when the foundries were moved there, in the thirteenth century, to protect the city from fire-the roaring furnaces that smelted the glass posed a danger to its tightly packed, wooden buildings. From the twelfth century onwards, the north-eastern corner of the city was home to the Arsenale (from the Arabic dar sina'a, meaning "place of construction"), the Venetian shipyard, where a community of workers known as arsenalotti, numbering somewhere between 6,000 and 16,000 men, built ships of every kind, which were sold and sailed around the globe. This was the engine room of the Venetian Empire, the birthplace of its navy, its fleet of trading vessels and the warships that were eagerly purchased by major powers throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods. The Arsenale's greatest challenge came in 1204, when the Venetian state agreed to fit out the entire Fourth Crusade--a massive financial risk, but one that eventually turned out well. The Venetians regained control of the city of Zara, now Zadar, and were paid in full by the leaders of the Crusade. They even managed to orchestrate the redirection of the Crusade against Constantinople itself, and the resulting sack of the city, led by the legendary blind doge, Enrico Dandolo, furnished Venice with a vast sum of money and piles of priceless artefacts, including the four bronze horses which are now reproduced on the facade of the Basilica di San Marco--the originals are kept inside to protect them from the weather.”



Violet Moller


The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found




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