essential architecture
essential site map

contact

top ten world architecture
image use
Venice, Italy www.essential-architecture.com    the architecture you must see
001-DogesPalace.jpg (49004 bytes)002b.jpg (58354 bytes)
01 Doge's Palace02 Rialto Bridge03 Piazza of San Marco
004-palladio7.jpg (57103 bytes)006d.jpg (80906 bytes)
04 Redentore Church05 San Giorgio Maggiore06 St. Mark's
07 Bridge of Sighs08 Accademia09 Venetian Arsenal
10 La Fenice11 Ponte dell'Accademia12 Ponte degli Scalzi
 
View to Venice from St Mark's Campanile

View of Venice to San Giorgio Maggiore island from St Mark's Campanile.

View of Venice to San Giorgio Maggiore island from St Mark's Campanile. 

The Venetian Republic was a major sea power and a staging area for the Crusades, as well as a very important center of commerce (especially the spice trade) and art in the Renaissance.

History

Origins and History
According to legend Venice was founded in 421 by Roman refugees fleeing from the Goths. However no historical records exist about the origins of Venice. The city was probably founded as a result of the influx of refugees into the marshes of the Po estuary following the invasion which ravaged northern-eastern Italy starting from that of Quadi and Marcomanni in 166-168 AD, who destroyed the main center in the area, the current Oderzo. The Roman defences were again overthrown in the early 5th century by the Visigoths and, some 50 years later, by the Huns led by Attila. The last and most enduring was that of the Lombards in 568: this left the Eastern Roman Empire a small strip of coast in the current Veneto, and the main administrative and religious entities were therefore transferred in this remaining dominion. New ports were built, including those of Malamocco and Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. The Byzantine domination in central and northern Italy was largely wiped out by the conquest of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751 by Aistulf. In this period the seat of the local Byzantine governor (the "duke", later "doge") was located in Malamocco: the settlement in the islands of the lagoon increased probably in correspondence with the Lombard conquest of the Byzantine territories. In 775-776 the bishopric seat of Olivolo (Helibolis) was created. During the reign of duke Agnello Particiaco (881-827) the ducal seat was moved from Malamocco to the best protected Rialto (Rivoalto, "High Shore") island, the current location of Venice. Here were subsequently built the monastery of St. Zachary, and the first ducal palace and basilica of St. Mark, as well as a walled defence (civitatis murus) between Olivolo and Rialto. In 828 the prestige of the new city was increased by the stealing of the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, which were placed in the new basilica. The patriarcal seat was also moved to Rialto. As the community continued to develop and as Byzantine power waned, an increasingly anti-Eastern character emerged, leading to the growth of autonomy and eventual independence.

Expansion
From the ninth century through twelfth century Venice developed into a city state (an Italian thalassocracy or Repubblica Marinara, the other three being Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi). Its strategic position at head of the Adriatic made Venetian naval and commercial power almost invulnerable. The city became a flourishing center of the trade between Western Europe and the rest of the world (especially the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world).

In the 12th century the essentials for the power of Venice were laid: the Venetian Arsenal was under construction in 1104; Venice wrested control of the Brenner pass from Verona in 1178, opening a lifeline to silver from Germany; the last autocratic doge, Vitale Michiele, died in 1172.

The Republic of Venice seized the eastern shores of the Adriatic before 1200, mostly for commercial reasons, because pirates based there were a menace to trade. The Doge already carried the titles of Duke of Dalmatia and Duke of Istria. Later mainland possessions, which extended across Lake Garda as far west as the Adda River, were known as "Terraferma", and were acquired partly as a buffer against belligerent neighbours, partly to guarantee Alpine trade routes, and partly to ensure the supply of mainland wheat, on which the city depended. In building its maritime commercial empire, the Republic acquired control of most of the islands in the Aegean, including Cyprus and Crete, and became a major power-broker in the Near East. By the standards of the time, Venice's stewardship of its mainland territories was relatively enlightened and the citizens of such towns as Bergamo, Brescia, and Verona rallied to the defence of Venetian sovereignty when it was threatened by invaders.

Venice in summer
Venice in summer

Venice became an imperial power following the Fourth Crusade, which (with Venetian aid) seized Constantinople in 1204 and established the Latin Empire; Venice herself carved out a sphere of influence known as the Duchy of the Archipelago. Unfortunately, this seizure of Constantinople would ultimately prove to be as much a factor ending the Byzantine Empire as the loss of the Anatolian themes after Manzikert. Though the Greeks recovered control of the ravaged city and Empire a half century later, the Byzantine Empire was effectively powerless, and existed as a ghost of its old self until Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror took the city in 1453. Considerable plunder was brought back to Venice, including the Winged Lion of St. Mark, symbol of Venice. Only Venetian ships could efficiently transport the men, supplies, and (especially) war horses.

A small canal in Venice (Rio della Verona).
A small canal in Venice (Rio della Verona).

The Venetian governmental structure was similar in some ways to the republican system of ancient Rome, with an elected executive power (the Doge), a senate-like assembly of nobles, and a mass of citizens with limited political power - which eventually disappeared entirely, but which originally consisted of the power of citizens to grant or withhold their approval for each newly elected Doge. Church and various private properties were tied to military service, though there was no knight tenure within the city itself. The Cavalieri di San Marco was the only order of chivalry ever instituted in Venice, and no citizen could accept or join a foreign order without the government’s consent. Venice remained a republic throughout its independent period and politics and the military were kept completely separate, except when on occasion the Doge personally led the military. War was regarded as a continuation of commerce by other means (hence, the city's early production of large numbers of mercenaries for service elsewhere, and later its reliance on foreign mercenaries when the ruling class was preoccupied with commerce).

The chief executive was the Doge (duke), who, theoretically, held his elective office for life. In practice, a number of Doges were forced by pressure from their oligarchical peers to resign the office and retire into monastic seclusion when they were felt to have been discredited by perceived political failure.

Though the people of Venice generally remained orthodox Roman Catholics, the state of Venice was notable for its freedom from religious fanaticism and it enacted not a single execution for religious heresy during the Counter-Reformation. This apparent lack of zeal contributed to its frequently coming into conflict with the Papacy. Venice was threatened with the interdict on a number of occasions and twice suffered its imposition. The second, more famous, occasion was on April 27, 1509, by order of Pope Julius II (see League of Cambrai).

Venetian ambassadors sent home still-extant secret reports of the politics and rumours of European courts, providing fascinating information to modern historians.

Venice began to lose its position as a center of international trade after the end of the Renaissance. However, the Venetian empire was a major exporter of agricultural products and, until the mid eighteenth-century, was a manufacturing center.

Map of Venice (historical center).
Map of Venice (historical center).

Modern Venice
After 1070 years, the Republic lost its independence when Napoleon Bonaparte on May 12, 1797, conquered Venice during the First Coalition. The French conqueror brought to an end the most fascinating century of its history: It was during the "Settecento" that Venice became perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe, greatly influencing art, architecture, and literature. Napoleon was seen as something of a liberator by the city's Jewish population, although nowhere else in Italy had they lived over the centuries with lesser restrictions than in Venice. He removed the gates of the Ghetto and ended the restrictions on when and where Jews could live and travel in the city.

Venice became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 12 1797. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798. It was taken from Austria by the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 and became part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy, but was returned to Austria following Napoleon's defeat in 1814. In 1848 a revolt briefly reestablished the Venetian Republic. In 1866, along with the rest of Venetia, Venice became part of Italy. After 1797, the city fell into a serious decline, with many of the old palaces and other buildings abandoned and falling into disrepair, although the Lido became a popular beach resort in the late 19th century.

Naval and military affairs

Several gondolas docked on a canal of Venice.

Several gondolas docked on a canal of Venice.

By 1303, crossbow practice had become compulsory in the city, with citizens training in groups. As weapons became more expensive and complex to operate, professional soldiers were assigned to help work merchant sailing ships and as rowers in galleys. The company of "Noble Bowmen" was recruited in the later 14th century from among the younger aristocracy and served aboard both war-galleys and armed merchantmen, with the privilege of sharing the captain's cabin.

Though Venice was famous for its navy, its army was equally effective. In the 13th century, most Italian city states already were hiring mercenaries, but Venetian troops were still recruited from the lagoon, plus feudal levies from Dalmatia and Istria. In times of emergency, all males between seventeen and sixty years were registered and their weapons were surveyed, with those called to actually fight being organized into companies of twelve. The register of 1338 estimated that 30,000 Venetian men were capable of bearing arms; many of these were skilled crossbowmen. As in other Italian cities, aristocrats and other wealthy men were cavalrymen while the city's conscripts fought as infantry.

By 1450, more than 3,000 Venetian merchant ships were in operation, and most of these could be converted when necessary into either warships or transports. The government required each merchant ship to carry a specified number of weapons (mostly crossbows and javelins) and armor; merchant passengers were also expected to be armed and to fight when necessary. A reserve of some 25 (later 100) war-galleys was maintained in the Arsenal. Galley slaves did not exist in medieval Venice, the oarsmen coming from the city itself or from its possessions, especially Dalmatia. Those from the city were chosen by lot from each parish, their families being supported by the remainder of the parish while the rowers were away. Debtors generally worked off their obligations rowing the galleys. Rowing skills were encouraged through races and regattas.

Early in the 15th century, as new mainland territories were expanded, the first standing army was organized, consisting of condottieri on contract. In its alliance with Florence in 1426, Venice agreed to supply 8,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry in time of war, and 3,000 and 1,000 in peacetime. Later in that century, uniforms were adopted that featured red-and-white stripes, and a system of honors and pensions developed. Throughout the 15th century, Venetian land forces were almost always on the offensive and were regarded as the most effective in Italy, largely because of the tradition of all classes carrying arms in defense of the city and official encouragement of general military training.

The command structure in the army was different from that in the fleet. By ancient law, no nobleman could command more than twenty-five men (to prevent against sedition by private armies), and while the position of Captain General was introduced in the mid-14th century, he still had to answer to a civilian panel of twenty "wise men". Not only was efficiency not degraded, this policy saved Venice from the military takeovers that other Italian city states so often experienced. A civilian commissioner (not unlike a commissar) accompanied each army to keep an eye on things, especially the mercenaries. The Venetian military tradition also was notably cautious; they were more interested in achieving success with a minimum expense of lives and money than in the pursuit of glory. The canals date back to the 5th century when regional inhabitants built nascent Venice in a swampy, sparsely settled lagoon in order to escape the swords of the invading Barbarians.

Transport

The Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs.

The Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs.

Venice is world-famous for its canals. It is built on an archipelago of 118 islands formed by about 150 canals in a shallow lagoon. The islands on which the city is built are connected by about 400 bridges. In the old center, the canals serve the function of roads, and every form of transport is on water or on foot. In the 19th century a causeway to the mainland brought a railway station to Venice, and an automobile causeway and parking lot was added in the 20th century. Beyond these land entrances at the northern edge of the city, transportation within the city remains, as it was in centuries past, entirely on water or on foot. Venice is Europe's largest urban carfree area, unique in Europe in remaining a sizable functioning city in the 21st century entirely without motorcars or trucks.

Gondola on Grand Canal beside Rialto Bridge.
Gondola on Grand Canal beside Rialto Bridge.

The classical Venetian boat is the gondola, although it is now mostly used for tourists, or for weddings, funerals, or other ceremonies. Most Venetians now travel by motorised waterbuses ("vaporetto") which ply regular routes along the major canals and between the city's islands. The city also has many private boats. The only unmotorized gondolas still in common use by Venetians are the traghetti, foot passenger ferries crossing the Grand Canal at certain points without bridges.

Venice is served by the newly rebuilt Marco Polo International Airport, or Aeroporto di Venezia Marco Polo, named in honor of its famous citizen. The airport is on the mainland and was rebuilt away from the coast so that visitors now need to get a bus to the pier, from which a water taxi or Alilaguna waterbus can be used.

Demographics
visited by tourists, of course; but of the permanent population 3.8 % are foreigners as well: from all around the world, and especially from Asia and Eastern Europe.

The International Economy Evaluation Association (INEEA for short) breaks down the population as:

96.13% Italian 
0.47% Turkish 
0.33% Moldavians 
0.28% Ukrainian 
0.19% Romanian 
Other populations include Bulgarian, Tunisian, Albanian, and Macedonian.

Sestieri
The sestieri are the primary traditional divisions of Venice. The city is divided into the six districts of Cannaregio, San Polo, Dorsoduro (including the Giudecca), Santa Croce, San Marco and Castello (including San Pietro di Castello and Sant'Elena).

Piazzas and campi of Venice
Piazza San Marco 
Campo San Polo 

Palaces and palazzi
Doge's Palace 
Palazzo Grassi 
Ca' d'Oro 
Ca' Rezzonico 
Peggy Guggenheim Collection museum 
Palazzo Labia 

Churches
Basilica di San Marco 
Other churches 

Other buildings

Accademia 
The Arsenal 
La Fenice opera house 
Teatro Malibran 

Bridges and canals
Rialto Bridge 
The Bridge of Sighs 
Accademia Bridge 
Scalzi Bridge 

Sinking of Venice
The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wood piles (under water, in the absence of oxygen, wood does not decay) which penetrate alternating layers of clay and sand. Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations rest on the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The buildings are often threatened by flood tides pushing in from the Adriatic between autumn and early spring.

Six hundred years ago, Venetians protected themselves from land-based attacks by diverting all the major rivers flowing into the lagoon and thus preventing sediment from filling the area around the city. This created an ever-deeper lagoon environment.

During the 20th century, when many artesian wells were sunk into the periphery of the lagoon to draw water for local industry, Venice began to subside. It was realised that extraction of the aquifer was the cause. This sinking process has slowed markedly since artesian wells were banned in the 1960s. However, the city is still threatened by more frequent low-level floods (so-called Acqua alta, "high water") that creep to a height of several centimeters over its quays, regularly following certain tides. In many old houses the former staircases used by people to unload goods are now flooded, rendering the former ground floor uninhabitable. Thus, many Venetians resorted to moving up to the upper floors and continue with their lives.

Some recent studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking [citation needed], but this is not yet certain; therefore, a state of alert has not been revoked. In May 2003, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, inaugurated the MOSE project. MOSE, the acronym for the experimental model created to test the gates' performance (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), will lay a series of 79 inflatable pontoons across the sea bed at the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 centimetres, the pontoons will be filled with air and block the incoming water from the Adriatic sea. This challenging engineering work is due to be completed by 2011.

However, sea levels are rising anyway, and in fact, the whole east coast of Italy is sinking (although very slowly). Some experts say that the best way to protect Venice is to physically lift the City to a greater height above sea level - by pumping water into the soil underneath the city. This way, some hope, it could rise above sea levels, protecting it for hundreds of years, and eventually the MOSE project may not be necessary (it will, controversially, alter the tidal patterns in the lagoon, damaging some wildlife). A further point about the "lifting" system would be that it would be permanent - the MOSE Project is, by its very nature, a temporary system: it is expected to protect Venice for "only" 100 years. If sinking is prevented, today's engineers hope that future generations will - perhaps in thousands of years time - remember the current work being done, for saving one of the most romantic cities in the world.

Typical masks worn during the Carnival of Venice.
Typical masks worn during the Carnival of Venice.

Venice in culture, the arts, and fiction
In the 14th century, many young Venetian men began wearing tight-fitting multicoloured hose, the designs on which indicated the Compagnie della Calza ("Trouser Club") to which they belonged. The Senate passed sumptuary laws, but these merely resulted in changes in fashion in order to circumvent the law. Dull garments were worn over colourful ones, which then were cut to show the hidden colours — which resulted in the wide spread of men's "slashed" fashions in the 15th century.

During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers of Europe, marked by a characteristic style of composition (the Venetian school) and the development of the Venetian polychoral style under composers such as Adrian Willaert, who worked at San Marco. Venice was the early center of music printing; Ottaviano Petrucci began publishing music almost as soon as this technology was available, and his publishing enterprise helped to attract composers from all over Europe, especially from France and Flanders. By the end of the century, Venice was famous for the splendor of its music, as exemplified in the "colossal style" of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, which used multiple choruses and instrumental groups.

Canvases (the common painting surface) originated in Venice during the early renaissance. These early canvases were generally rough.

Life in 1750s Venice is illustrated by the biography A Venetian Affair, which is based on the prolific love letters between a Venetian nobleman and his illegitimate half-English lover.

A remarkable, and unflattering, portrait of Venetian politics appears in The Bravo, published in 1831 by American novelist James Fennimore Cooper. A bravo is an assassin under contract to the state, typically carrying out his assignments with a stiletto. Cooper's novel depicts Venice as a brutal dictatorship, governed through intrigue and murder, masked by the placid facade of the Repubblica Serenissima (serene republic).

Other major works involving Venice include:

Literature
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1594-97) and Othello (1603-04) 
Ben Jonson's Volpone 
Friedrich Schiller's Der Geisterseher (The Ghost-Seer) 
Henry James' The Aspern Papers (1888) 
Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig), a 1912 novella by Thomas Mann 
Orhan Pamuk's short stories "Batsin Bu Dünya" (1983) and "Emrah Gülle Gel de Gülme" (1983) 
T. S. Eliot's "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" (1920) 
The Silent Gondoliers, a fable told by William Goldman's S. Morgenstern 
Jeanette Winterson's The Passion (1987) 
Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series (8 book series) 
John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels (2005) 
Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven 
Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord 
Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the COurtesan (2006) 
Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees 
Michelle Lovric's The Floating Book and Carnevale and The Remedy 

Films
From Russia with Love, a James Bond novel (1957) and film (1963) 
Moonraker, a James Bond novel and film 
Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film Don't Look Now, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier 
Solamente Nero (also known as The Bloodstained Shadow), directed by Antonio Bido (1978) 
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) 
Nikita (also known asLa Femme Nikita) (1990) 
Dangerous Beauty (1998), a film based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal about the life of Veronica Franco 
The Italian Job (in its 2003 remake incarnation) 
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) 
The Merchant of Venice (2004) 
Casanova (2005 film loosely based on the life of Giacomo Casanova) 

Video Games
The catacombs and the church of San Barnaba are visited in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure. 
Venice appeared in Core Design's Tomb Raider 2. 
Venice was a multiplayer level in Free Radical Design's Timesplitters: Future Perfect. 
A fighting arena based around Venice can be found in Soul Calibur II. Your opponent can be pushed into the water following an attack, much like the real Venice. 

Miscellaneous
The city's patron is St. Mark the Evangelist. 
Venice is also famous world-wide for its unique carnival (1). 
Venice and its lagoon are listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. 

Others closely associated with the city include:

Titian, painter. 
Veronica Franco, poet and courtesan during the Renaissance 
Italo Calvino, Italian writer and novelist 
Antonio Vivaldi, famous composer and violinist of the Baroque Era 
Giacomo Casanova 

Foreign words of Venetian origin
arsenal, ciao, ghetto, gondola, lazaret, lagoon, lido, Montenegro. 
"Venezuela" means "little Venice". 

Scholarship
Chambers, D.S. (1970). The Imperial Age of Venice, 1380-1580. London: Thames & Hudson. The best brief introduction in English, still completely reliable. 
Contarini, Gasparo (1599). The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice. Lewes Lewkenor, trsl. London: "Imprinted by I. Windet for E. Mattes." The most important contemporary account of Venice's governance during the time of its blossoming. Also available in various reprint editions. 
Drechsler, Wolfgang (2002). "Venice Misappropriated." Trames 6(2), pp. 192-201. A scathing review of Martin & Romano 2000; also a good summary on the most recent economic and political thought on Venice. For more balanced, less tendentious, and scholarly reviews of the Martin-Romano anthology, see "The Historical Journal" (2003) "Rivista Storica Italiana" (2003). 
Grubb, James S. (1986). "When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography." Journal of Modern History 58, pp. 43-94. The classic "muckraking" essay on the myths of Venice. 
Martin, John Jeffries and Dennis Romano (eds). Venice Reconsidered. The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297-1797. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP. The most recent collection on essays, many by prominent scholars, on Venice. 
Muir, Edward (1981). Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. The classic of Venetian cultural studies, highly sophisticated. 
Rösch, Gerhard (2000). Venedig. Geschichte einer Seerepublik. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. In German, but the most recent top-level brief history of Venice. 

Other
Ruskin, John (1853). The Stones of Venice. Abridged edition Links, JG (Ed), Penguin 2001. ISBN 0141390654. Seminal work on architecture and society 
di Robilant, Andrea (2004). A Venetian Affair. Harper Collins. ISBN 184115542X Biography of Venetian nobleman and lover, from correpondence in the 1750s.

Links