A malarial swamp seems like a strange place to found an empire, unless you consider the circumstances: from the 5th to 8th century AD, Huns, Goths and sundry barbarians repeatedly sacked Roman towns along Veneto’s Adriatic coast. Crafty settlers rose above their swampy circumstances, establishing terra semi-firma with wood pylons driven into some 100ft of silt. The lagoon islands formed a loose federation, with each community electing representatives to a central Byzantine authority in Ravenna. When the Byzantine grip slipped, Venice seized the moment: in AD 726 the people of Venice elected their first doge (duke), whose successors would lead the city for more than 1000 years.
Next Venice shored up its business interests. The city accepted a Frankish commission of 84,000 silver marks to join the Crusades, even as it continued trading with Muslim leaders from Syria to Spain. When the balance wasn’t forthcoming from the Franks, Venice claimed Constantinople ‘for Christendom’ – but sent ships loaded with booty home, instead of onward to Jerusalem. After Venice was decimated by plague, Genoa tried to take over the city in 1380. But Venice prevailed, controlling the Adriatic and a backyard that stretched from Dalmatia to Bergamo.
Like its signature landmark, the Basilica di San Marco, the Venetian empire was dazzlingly cosmopolitan. Armenians, Turks, Greeks and Germans were neighbours along the Grand Canal, and Jewish communities and other groups persecuted elsewhere in Europe found refuge and work here. By the mid-15th century, Venice was swathed in golden mosaics, imported silks and clouds of incense to cover the belching, sulphuric smells that were the downsides of a lagoon empire.
But events beyond Venice’s control took their toll. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Venetian territory of Morea (in Greece) in 1499 gave the Turks control over Adriatic Sea access. The Genovese gained the upper hand with Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492, calling dibs on New World trade routes. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1498, opening up new trade routes that bypassed the Mediterranean – and Venetian taxes and duties.
As it lost its dominion over the seas, Venice changed tack and began conquering Europe by charm. Venetian art was incredibly daring, bringing sensuous colour and sly social commentary even to religious subjects. The city became a playground for Europe’s upper crust; nunneries in Venice held soirées rivalling those in ridotti (casinos) and Carnevale lasted three months. Venetian nobles’ illegitimate daughters were trained as musicians in ospedaletti (orphanages) by the likes of Vivaldi, and Venetian courtesans were widely admired tastemakers. By the end of the 16th century, Venice was known across Europe for its irresistibly catchy music and 12,000 registered prostitutes.
But when Napoleon arrived in 1797, Venice had been reduced by plague and circumstances to less than 100,000 people, and Venetian reputations as fierce partiers did nothing to prevent the French and Austrians from handing the city back and forth as a war trophy. By 1817, one-quarter of Venice’s population was destitute. When Venice rallied to resist the Austrians in 1848–9, a blockade left it wracked by cholera and short on food. The indignity would fester until Venice joined the independent kingdom of Italy in 1866.
The glamorous empire gradually took on a workaday aspect, with factories springing up on Giudecca and a roadway from the mainland built by Mussolini. Italian partisans joined Allied troops to wrest Veneto from Fascist control, but the tragedy of war and the shock of mass deportation of Venice’s historic Jewish population in 1943–44 shook Venice to its very moorings and many Venetians left for Milan and other postwar economic centres.
On 4 November 1966, disaster struck: record floods poured into 16,000 Venetian homes, stranding residents in the wreckage of 1400 years of civilisation. But once again, Venice’s cosmopolitan nature was a saving grace: assistance from admirers poured in – from Mexico to Australia, millionaires to pensioners – and Unesco coordinated some 27 private organisations to redress the ravages of the flood.
Today, with 60,000 official residents easily outnumbered by day-trippers, Venetians may seem scarce in their own city. Yet despite dire predictions, Venice has not yet become a Carnevale-masked parody of itself or a lost Atlantis. The city remains relevant and realistic, continuing to produce new music, art and crafts even as it seeks sustainable solutions to rising water levels. Venice remains anchored not merely by ancient pylons, but by the people who put them there: the Venetians.