The history of Venice

A shore primer on the history of Venice

As barbarian hordes washed back and forth across the Alps during the decline of the Roman Empire (starting in the 4th century), inhabitants of the Veneto flatlands grew tired of being routinely sacked and pillaged along the way.

By the 6th century, many had begun moving out onto the mudflat islands of the marshy lagoon, created by what was in ancient times the Po River delta, to take up fishermen's lines or trading ships.

When they saw that one barbarian horde, the Lombards, had stayed to settle the upper Po valley (still called Lombardy), these Veneti decided to remain on their new island homes and ally themselves instead with the eastern remnant of the old Roman Empire, Byzantium.

Oddly, what we now consider central Venice was the last area settled. After Attila the Hun rampaged through, citizens of the Roman town of Altino moved out onto Torcello and founded a tidy commercial empire under the control of the Byzantine emperor—ironic, since Torcello's star has long since fallen and it is now the least built-up of all of greater Venice's major inhabited islands.

Townsfolk from Oderzo moved to Malamocco and made it the lagoon's political capital (the original site is now underwater, and the Malamocco that survives nearby is a fishing village on the southern stretch of the Lido, near the golf course).

After barely defeating Charlemagne's son Pepin there in 810, the capital was moved to the more protected Rialto islands—now central Venice.

Greater Venice's oldest surviving structure is the cathedral on Torcello, founded in AD 639 but largely 9th and 10th century now. In fact, sparsely populated Torcello is one of the best glimpses into how early Venice must have looked—scattered buildings and canals banked by waving rushes and reeds, everything outlined by the dotted lines of wooden piles hammered down into the mud.

This construction is what underlies all those stone palazzi of central Venice: a framework foundation of sunken tree trunks, hammered down into the caranto (a solid clay layer under the surface of mud and sand) and preserved in the anaerobic atmosphere of their muddy tomb, overlain with Istrian stone.

As its power began to peak in the early 13th century, Venice led the fourth and most successful Crusade, capturing Constantinople itself. She went on to conquer territories across what are today Turkey, the Greek isles, and Crete—and eventually became the capital of Italy's inland provinces, now the Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli.

By 1300, Venice was one of the largest cities and leading maritime republic of Europe and the Mediterranean. Although the Black Death carried off over half the population from 1347 to 1350, Venice bounced back and remained a maritime power until the 18th century, when trade through the new American colonies would increasingly steal much of the city's thunder.

By the end of the 18th century, Venice had run out of steam commercially and, after centuries of fighting the Turks (who slowly regained most of Venice's Aegean and Greek territories), militarily. By the time Napoléon came along in 1797, the Venetian Republic offered little resistance.

Napoléon gave control of Venice to Austria, under whose rule it remained for almost 70 years. Daniele Manin did stage an unsuccessful mini-revolution in 1848 and 1849, during which Venice was privileged to become the first city attacked from the air—from a fleet of hot-air balloons armed with long-fused time bombs.

The risorgimento (unification) movement and its king Vittorio Emanuele II defeated the Austrians, gained control of the Veneto, and made it a part of the newly minted state of Italy in 1866.

In its position at the crossroads of the Byzantine and Roman—later eastern and western—worlds, Venice over many centuries acquired a unique amalgamated heritage of art, architecture, and culture.

And although hordes of traders and merchants no longer pass through as they once did, Venice nonetheless continues to find itself at a crossroads: an intersection in time between the uncontested period of maritime power that built it and the modern world that keeps it ever-so-gingerly afloat.