A city built on the islands of a swampy lagoon on the Adriatic coast of north-eastern Italy, Venice certainly has a unique foundation—in more ways than one.
Consisting of 118 small islands linked by 150 criss-crossing canals and 417 bridges, Italy’s ‘Floating City’ was first inhabited in the 5th century A.D. by the Veneti—a mainland Italic tribe who sought refuge from the barbarians after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. By the end of the 6th century, these Mediterranean islands were expanded and permanently inhabited by growing numbers of persecuted peoples, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims, with numerous sea defences put in place to protect the city from enemy invasion.
Due to the sandy nature of the ground, however, building on a lagoon was no easy task. The new Venetian population constructed solid foundations for the city by first driving huge wooden stakes through layers of mud, clay, and dense sand. Wooden platforms were constructed upon the stakes, and the buildings were then erected on top of these solid foundations. It was an ingenious method of construction. As a result of being submerged in water, the wood has not been exposed to the eroding effects of oxygen, thus the foundations have petrified into a solid, stone-like material. These stakes and platforms continues to support the incredible buildings of Venice to this day, including St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)—the signature landmark of the city that is a must-see when exploring Venice.
A Burgeoning Independent Republic
In 726, the first leader, or Doge (Duke), of Venice was elected. By 1082, following decades of conflict, the city finally became a republic independent of the Byzantine empire. Venice came to be a great maritime power in the Mediterranean—the principal crossroads between the East and West—and the most prosperous commercial and cultural centre of the civilised world. Its mercantile interests were further strengthened in 1204 when the Venetians participated in the Fourth Crusade, capturing the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Thereafter, Venice dominated trade throughout the Byzantine empire, eventually ruling the adjoining mainland province of Venetia, as well as Cyprus and a number of Greek islands.
Venice remained an independent republic for over 1000 years and was the only city in Italy to avoid invasion. Heavily influenced by the Byzantine style, which is particularly evident when visiting the Doge’s Palace, Venice became known as one of the most enlightened artistic centres in the world. It rivalled Rome and Florence during the Renaissance, contributing masterpieces from artists such as Titian, Jacopo and Giovanni Bellini, Tintoretto, and Veronese. However, the power of this cosmopolitan metropolis began to decline after it lost dominion over Cyprus in the 16th century, finally succumbing to Napoleon during the French invasion of 1797.
The End of The Venetian Empire
Marking the end of the world’s most Serene Republic, the Venetian empire was briefly handed to Austria, eventually joining the independent kingdom of Italy in 1866. Since then, Venice has managed to preserve its extraordinary architectural heritage, but it continues to face significant challenges. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it has been necessary for the city to implement large-scale engineering projects to tackle the subsidence and flooding caused by rising tides, or ‘acqua alta'. The lagoon that protected Venice and its inhabitants for so long has now become the foremost threat to its survival, with the most notable flood taking place in 1966.
In spite of these issues, Venice continues to be a tourist magnet and leading cultural centre, attracting more than 20 million visitors each year. Hosting the world’s largest and oldest art festival, the Venice Art Biennale, the city offers myriads of remarkable art, architecture, craft, music, and literature—not the mention the romantic allure of a Gondola ride through the evocative Grand Canal and winding labyrinth of waterways. The charm and sheer resilience of the city of Venice is simply astounding. As Petrarch once said, it’s “another world”. With so many enchanting antiquities, magnificent Piazzas, and secret gardens, it’s no surprise that Italy’s Floating City is considered one of the most beautiful destinations in the world.