Venice, the early years

I haven’t really mentioned this yet, but perhaps my favorite topic (and place to visit) is Venice. I’m absolutely passionate about everything to do with Venice. Excuse me while I gush.

Me in my favorite place in the world. Venice.

Venice isn’t an ancient city but its a city whose history is so deep and rich that it carries more weight than much older cities. It’s also the city with the most character. When visiting the city, it’s not one or two landmarks that draw you there, but the city itself. Its the most beautiful city and also the most unique. But where did it come from? If it isn’t ancient, it had to come from somewhere.
Venice had its birth in the death of the Roman Empire. As unwashed heathen hordes of Huns, Visagoths and other barbarians swarmed over the dying body of the Empire, many people fled the mainland to the islands out in the ocean for safety. These islands had a few scattered huts of fishermen and salt gatherers, nothing like a real settlement. So, as the Romans, rich and poor alike, watched their cities burn from these islands, many decided to stay and set up shop. The Germanic barbarians weren’t very good swimmers I suppose.
There was a problem though, the islands were just soggy marshes and you really couldn’t build on them. So, they took these large wooden pillars and sunk them into the ground and built upon those. Here’s an interesting little fact, these wood pillars when submerged for a long time in salt water, petrify and become more durable than stone. Go figure. Now that these Roman refugees had something close to solid ground, they began building. But, the main settlement wasn’t on what we now call Venice, but on a smaller island a little further north called “Torcello.” Venice still didn’t really exist, but it was a collection of scattered and semi independent settlements. When something important happened, the leaders would gather together and talk it out. It was the beginnings of the Venetian Senate. It also made the Venetians very mistrusting of monarchs. They valued their voices being heard in government. They never had a king and the Catholic Venetians even didn’t like taking orders from Pope and frequently (but politely) told the Pontif to stuff it.
Then the Byzantines moved into Italy with dreams of reuniting the Roman Empire. They took most of Italy and declared the settlements in the Lagoon to be a colony of Byzantium. That meant they were left to themselves but Byzantium would come by once in a while, collect a tax or two and protected Venice from invasion. Well, most of the time. When the Franks invaded Italy they saw all the money Venice was making from the salt trade. (they were traders from the very beginning.) The Franks thought the lagoon was an easy target because “Venice” didn’t have a real army. The Venetians (I’ll just call them Venetians from now on.) did however, know the Lagoon and all its complexity. The Venetians set up their little militia army on one of the many sandy islands and acted like they would put up a last/first stand. The Franks, tired of bug hunts and wanted a stand up fight, gladly took the bait and landed all their men on the island. Meanwhile…. a small group of Venetian special forces with night vision goggles, head bands and silencers snuck in and torched all of the boats the Franks had brought with them.

A Venetian soldier looking at the Franks (French) and being unimpressed.

As soon as the Franks’ boats went up in fiery explosions, the Venetian army quickly jumped back in their boats and sailed away. Well, the Franks were left there scratching their heads and trying to get a cell phone signal. But what they didn’t know was that the island wasn’t really an island, but a sand barge and when the tide came in, the water rose and drowned the entire Frankish invasion force. Oops.
This isn’t the last time the sea would protect Venice. In fact, due to the treacherous waters around Venice and the skill of their sailors, Venice was never invaded, never taken over by force and remained intact throughout its long history. Rome, Paris, Constantinople, Moscow could never boast of that. So eat it land lubbers!
Eventually, the Venetians became more populace, rich and organized. Instead of some lame megalomaniac king and his inbred family, they opted for an organization more like a democracy mixed with a corporation with the CEO being called a “Doge” which is their term for “Duke.” The Venetians never liked cults of personality and preferred faceless, powerless bureaucracies. The Doge, with only a few exceptions, was never strong or powerful.
The Venetians also got their own diocese and a cardinal of their own. Torcello was the most populace of the islands so the Cardinal set up shop there.

Today, Torcello is a lonely, desolate, melencholy island and perhaps my favorite spot in Venice.

The church on the left is the oldest church in the lagoon, where the Cardinal was. The Church on the right is a latter Byzantine one.

The Doge eventually set up shop on the island of Rialto, “High River” because it had a river on it. The river eventually became the “Grand Canal.” Because the Doge brought the government there, eventually it became more populated than Torcello.
The Venetians claimed that St. Mark visited the Lagoon and promised to be buried there one day. The Venetians always remembered this. One day, a group of Venetian Merchants down in Alexandria found the tomb of St. Mark. But it was under control of the Muslims. So, they stole the body, covered it in pork and went down to the docks. The Muslim cargo inspectors wouldn’t touch the pork so the Venetians snuck out and sailed to Venice. The Venetians loved Mark so much that they built a huge church just to house the body. Thus we get St. Mark’s church.

They blinged the church up with loot and plunder from around the world.

The Venetians then began to grow in power, but not from military conquests, from trading. They were traders like no others. Their military navel ships, when out fighting pirates or turks, were trading. They had the only warships that were half cargo ships. So, when they weren’t fighting pirates or Normans, they stopped at ports and did some hagglin’. Unlike the nobility of other European countries, the nobility in Venice got their wealth from trading. The different families were very competitive and much of the entertainment from Venetian history comes from all the intrigues, plots and assassinations the Venetians loved so much.
Eventually they threw off the Byzantines and became an economic super power. All cargo from the east came through Venice before it went to the rest of Europe. Venetian coins were the most accepted currency around the Mediterranean.
During this early time of Venice, they didn’t care about land acquisitions and just wanted to make money. Eventually, they did start gaining land but that comes later.

End of Part I

4 comments on “Venice, the early years

  1. Anna Komemna says:

    St. Mark’s is modeled after “The Church of the Apostles” in Constantinople. Its the only surviving way you modern historians know what it looked like. It’s the traditional symetrical cross shape and when it was first built, St. Mark’s was very plain. In fact, at the base of the domes you can still see plain brick, which was how it used to look. But over the years the merchants were asked to bring back bits and pieces to decorate the facade of the church. So when you look at it now, you’ll see that no two parts match. It’s a quilt.
    And, to the eternal shame of the Venetians, much of those decorations come from my beloved Constantinople! May Dandolo burn for his treachery.

  2. Desert Rat says:

    There really need to be more movies that feature Venice which are not romantic comedies. The only movie I can think of that fits the bill is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

    I enjoy the times you write about Venice. It always comes through just how much you love the city. I like that. I like getting swept up in someone else’s enthusiasm about a place.

  3. Waterloosux1815 says:

    Ha! Those stinking Venetians did not know how to fight! They just sit around eating fish and making love all day. Pah! They do not have the proper fighting spirit of a Frenchman!

    • zacharyhill says:

      Now now Mr. Boneparte, The Venetians were well trained in the art of war. They spent centuries spreading and defending their territory. When Anna Komnene’s father, Alexios I needed help against the Normans, he called in the Venetian navy. For a full century they fought off the Turks almost single handidly. Also, they helped capture Constantinople and fought at Lepanto. Their military history is nothing to sneeze your smelly french nose at. But, I will be getting into all of that latter on.

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