Venice1600. The history, origins and progressive development of Venice

Venezia1600. La storia, le origini e il progressivo sviluppo di Venezia.

The birth
Who was Venice founded by? And when? It is not known, the date of March 25, 421, which recently offered the starting point for the celebrations of the 1600th anniversary of his birth, is conventional, the result of a legend; as for its founding pedigree, an eponymous hero is missing: Rome has Romulus, Padua Antenor, Alexandria Alexander the Great, and, to a wider extent, America took its name from Amerigo Vespucci, who attributed it the dimension of the fourth continent.

Let’s go back to Venice.
Therefore it is not known who founded it, and when; the explanation lies in its Latin name: which is in the plural: Venetiae, meaning that at its origins we find more communities that, in waves, took refuge in the lagoons. They fled from the barbarians, Visigoths, Vandals, Alani, Goths; they sought shelter in the islands and then returned to the mainland, once the invasion of the invaders had receded. But not all of them left the natural defense of the lagoons, where the salt trade was already active, as we know from the description of the itinerary from Ravenna to Altino, completed in 537 AD. by Flavio Aurelio Cassiodoro.

The watershed, in history, occurred thirty years later, when in 568 the Lombards burst from the threshold of Cividale: there are not many, it is estimated about 60,000 people, including women and children, and yet they manage to conquer a large part of Italy (which however, it did not exceed four million inhabitants). They conquered and settled there, except for some areas (Lazio, Romagna) and the coastal areas, including the Venetian coast, which remained under Byzantine rule.

Then, in the sixth century Venice was a village of fishermen and salt workers; its population, therefore, lived almost literally in the sea. The lagoons protected it from the mainland and from the threats that could come from the sea, but, at the same time, isolated it from the sea; therefore it was precluded from any activity that did not originate from it.

Which does not explain at all why Venice has become a great naval power. The water represented a challenge: it could be collected, as happened for an infinite number of agglomerations – such as Chioggia, Caorle, Grado – on the low level of fishing and small-scale coastal fishing. Or it could be assumed at the highest level, that of intermediation in maritime exchanges between producers of different goods. A series of geographical opportunities and psychological thrusts allowed the inhabitants of the lagoons to play the most challenging option, and it was a winning choice.

The take-off
What were the causes of the success? Mainly three: 1. having remained under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire, that is Byzantium; 2. having navigable rivers behind them all year round (Po, Adige, Brenta); 3. to be the point where the sea penetrates most deeply into the European continent: and the sea, as we know, was the main, fast and cheap way of communication.

Let’s take a closer look at these three points.

Venice remained Byzantine, that is, it was never part of the Lombard kingdom, nor, later, of the Carolingian empire. Oh my God, it is not that Charlemagne did not try to conquer it: in 810 he sent an army to the lagoon under the command of his son Pippin, hoping that he would die – as indeed he did – because he could not stand it. Except that, before he crashed, he had managed to be beaten by a Byzantine fleet from Istria; after that, the Peace of Niceforo between Franks and Byzantines sanctions the latter’s dominion over Venice. This allowed the inhabitants of the lagoons not to know the fratricidal wars of the Carolingians and, later, the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the Whites and Blacks, in short, the feuds that bloodied Italy in the early Middle Ages; In fact, Venice did not follow the fate of the other states, but depended on a distant and increasingly weaker authority, which allowed it to gradually replace it, until it swallowed it up without ever disavowing its authority; the symbols of the doge (the umbrella, the broadsword, the chair, the horn, the eight trumpets, the mantle) are all borrowed from those of the emperor of Constantinople, as well as the red and gold colors of the banner of March.
The rivers. They were actually fast and cheap roads, which allowed the inhabitants of the lagoons to supply the cities of the Po hinterland with salt and other goods. By way of comparison, think of rival Genoa: when a galley reached its port, it had to unload the goods, load them on mules, cross the Apennines and take them to the Po Valley with an armed escort, in order to deter bandits, marauders and feudal lords inclined to robbery. The resulting costs were much higher than those faced by the Venetians.

Venezia e il mar Adriatico

o explain this point, namely that the tip of the Adriatic penetrated more than any other sea into the heart of Europe, I think the glance offered by this map, which I rotated 180 °, is sufficient.
Venice and the Adriatic Sea
The advantages so far; the downside was the lack of food and water resources: the islands that formed the realtina community, immersed in the lagoon, did not have sufficient extension to offer agricultural production of any interest; but there was also another problem, apparently trivial but important indeed: there were no rivers in the lagoon, and without the river, in an age where water power is the only driving force, the blades of the mills don’t turn. So you couldn’t grind wheat and make bread; Venetians needed a watercourse and this was the Sile, the sweet and sinuous river with warm waters, the most beautiful in the Veneto. Therefore in 1339 Venice first obtained Treviso and Conegliano, with a federalist pact on the basis of a Statute recognized by both sides, as it will be for all the territories of the Serenissima.

To seal the take-off: San Marco
To assert itself, however, Venice had to be free, not only from the Byzantine and Carolingian authorities, but also from the pontifical one, from Rome which appointed the bishops, who in turn controlled the parish priests in direct contact with the souls of the faithful. The close connection then in force between the ecclesiastical sphere and political power thus undermined the autonomy of Venice, whose bishop was obliged to swear obedience to the metropolitan of Aquileia, in imperial territory. Now, tradition maintained that the evangelist Mark had been sent by St. Peter to preach the Gospel right in Aquileia; after which, on the return journey, he had been shipwrecked in Rivoalto, where an angel in the form of a winged lion would have addressed the famous words to him: “Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum ”, peace be with you, Marco; in this place your body will rest. But then he was not in the lagoon, but in Alexandria in Egypt.

Complex situation. To get out of it, the Venetians devise a masterful blow: in the year 828 two merchant-sailors, Rustico da Torcello and Buono da Malamocco, manage to steal the body of St. Mark and bring it to Venice; which makes it its patron in place of the previous Byzantine San Teodoro (Tòdaro) and, to house it as it deserves, builds a basilica. That of San Marco, adjacent to the Doge’s Palace, that is to the political power, as if to underline a link destined to accompany the history of the future Serenissima. Hence the cult (and popularity) of this saint, because:

In Rome there was little, there was only passing, while – to say – Peter and Paul died there.
He was not an apostle, but an evangelist, that is a direct interpreter of the word of Jesus. In this way Venice sanctioned its spiritual independence from Rome, a disruptive concept in medieval times, and this explains why the Republic filled all its domains with Marcian lions. : Alberto Rizzi has cataloged more than seven thousand, despite the destruction carried out after the fall of the Serenissima.
The affirmation as a seafaring power
Until the beginning of the fourteenth century, as mentioned, the Realtina community did not extend beyond the lagoon enclosure, it only controlled the coast from Cavarzere to Grado: Mestre, to say, belonged – and always belonged until 1797 – to Treviso.

The maritime state was another thing, namely the maritime domains, obtained by Doge Pietro Orseolo II with a successful military campaign conducted in the year 1000, which gave Venice – which already owned Istria – the dominion of the Dalmatian coast.

Two centuries later the operation was completed with the so-called IV crusade, which marks the apogee of the history of Venice. It is the conquest of Constantinople, of the Byzantine Empire. We are in 1204: suddenly Venice seizes quartae et dimidiae partis totius imperii Romaniae, the fourth and a half of the Eastern Roman Empire, or rather, of what remained of it, thus ensuring an uninterrupted line for its merchants. of ports, ports of call, islands and peninsulas that lead them by the hand to the Levant: Istria, Dalmatia and then Corfu and the Ionian islands, and down to Crete, which later Cyprus will be added (and with Cyprus we are geographically in Asia). Here then is a sort of red thread that accompanies merchants from the upper Adriatic to the spice terminals, in front of the Syrian ports. In short, the ships of the Venetians will always find, along their route, a port, a warehouse, a fortress with the banner of the Serenissima.

The maritime “empire” was born along the millennial line of separation between two civilizations, where two economic circuits come into contact: on the one hand Europe, on the other the Levant; a border in which historically decisive clashes took place, from Azio to Lepanto.

The golden age, the age of Marco Polo however, ends in the fourteenth century due to the progressive expansion of a powerful enemy, the Turks, and the concomitant tendency of the municipalities of the Venetian hinterland to expand, to assume the dimensions of a province: the Carraresi in Padua, the Scaligeri in Verona.

Faced with the new reality, Venice must intervene; the saying of the chancellor Raffaino Caresini: († 1390) being a thing proper to Venice to cultivate the sea and let the earth be, was no longer in tune with the new times.

By Giuseppe Gullino.
Former Full Professor of Modern History at the University of Padua – Veneto Institute of Sciences, Letters and Art.
Among his works The saga of the Foscari. History of an enigma (2005), the Atlas of the Venetian Republic 1790 (2009), History of the Venetian Republic (2010).


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