You may be surprised to learn that Venice, the most romantic city in the world, has its roots in something as unromantic as the basic human fight for survival. The parts of the future city first appeared in the sixth century when a diverse group of people from the surrounding areas came to live on these almost inaccessible marshlands in an attempt to flee the Barbarian invasions that threatened to swallow the entire once mighty Western Roman Empire. The Venetian lagoon, separated from the mainland by water and from the sea by a barrier island, provided the perfect cover for those trying to escape the barbarian threat. However, this location proved so inhospitable that it itself threatened the very existence of their city. Yet despite the floods, precious little land, and difficulties of building on the marshlands, the ingenious Venetian people managed not only to survive, but to prosper and eventually create the most advanced and wealthy society of the middle ages.
In the sixth century Venice was just an area populated by several isolated groups of people living on clusters of various islands in the lagoon and making their modest living by way of fishing and harvesting salt from the sea. Then, in the ninth century, several political and religious developments spurred the creation of the real city that we now know as Venice. In 726 Venetians, who were until then formally under control of the Byzantine emperor, elected their own ruler which they called the Doge. That first attempt at independence failed, but in 814, as a result of skillful Venetian diplomacy, Byzantium finally granted Venice political independence and the Doge rule was reinstated for good. From that point onward the city of Venice started forming and rapidly expanding to accommodate its growing commercial importance and the influx of the new residents. Venetians quickly realized that their location allowed for perfect access to the Middle East and beyond as well as Western Europe, while offering stability and shelter from the invaders. With strong enough fleet and sophisticated armory they could capitalize on the lack of trade between the two regions and become a rich and prominent state. Thus, a strong bastion was built around the Lagoon-facing edge of the city, Arsenal was constructed, and shipbuilding along with armory production became major industries.
To accommodate these commercial and military ambitions, the small and fragile two-story buildings gave way to larger multi-story structures that stood on the wooden pilings installed under the water and anchored into the mud to provide adequate support. This ingenious way to build on the water allowed Venetians to create a suitable luxurious residence for their Doge. By that time the emerging class of Venetian merchants started building their homes that dubbed as warehouses along the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal was the way into and out of the city for the ships carrying commercial merchandise, thus making it a perfect location for the merchants' warehouses. The best commercial and strategic location on the Grand Canal, where it meets the Lagoon, was selected as the spot for the Doge's residence, and in 814 grandiose Palazzo Ducale (Doge's palace) was built.
Despite Venetian advances in trade, in the middle ages the commercial success was not a solid enough foundation for a thriving new city. Religious importance and recognition were a necessary conditions to ensure lasting political and strategic dominance. In 829 AD, in an effort to get the proper recognition and raise the religious prestige of the developing city state, the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was stolen from Alexandria and brought to Venice. To provide a suitable shrine for the precious remains, the basilica of San Marco was built shortly thereafter. Thus, the religious importance of Venice became undisputed, making it a place of pilgrimage for the countless believers, and the nucleus of the city was established.
Over the next centuries the city continued to gain commercial and military importance and eventually became a major military and commercial power. In 1081 when the fear of barbarian invasions spread in Europe and the ports on the Adriatic effectively fell under barbarian control, the desperate Byzantine emperor offered Venetians free trading rights throughout the empire in return for their military assistance in the sea. This was the turning point in making Venice a major trading power on the Adriatic and beyond. The consequent events all served to strengthen this position of Venice. In the fourth crusade of 1202 Venice exerted its diplomatic and financial influence on the crusading army to conquer Constantinople on its behalf, which eventually enabled the Doge to take control of the Eastern Mediterranean. Many priceless treasures from Constantinople, including the famous bronze horses that used to grace the facade of Basilica San Marco, were brought back to Venice, making it even richer and more enviable to its enemies.
Over the next several centuries Venice was constantly engaged in bitter warfare with other states over its prized land and sea possessions. One of its main enemies on the Mediterranean, the city-state of Genoa, was conquered in 1380 after four bloody wars that lasted over a century. Following Venice's victory over Genoa, for over two hundred years the Ottoman Turks fought with Venice and other powers and eventually took Constantinople, Greece and many strategically important Mediterranean islands. This victory of the Turks was the beginning of the end for Venice. Following the discovery of America, ocean trade started to gain force and the different type of ocean vessel took strategic prevalence making smaller Mediterranean galleys that Venice skillfully built for centuries lose their attractiveness for merchants and fighters. On top of that, multiple religious and political conflicts between the various states that form modern Italy and with foreign powers (mainly France and Spain) brought turmoil to Venice and caused continuous warfare during the 16th century. From that point onward Venice had been gradually loosing its military and commercial prominence and shifting to the sidelines of the European politics.
From the moment of its creation, Venice had always been well visited by people from near and far who marveled at its richness and variety of goods, architectural wonders and religious importance. But as the warfare subsided and trade dominance faded, in 17th century Venice started to emerge as the premier tourist attraction. A beautiful and unusual city built on the water and decorated with some of the best mosaics, architecture and paintings in Europe, as well as the home of the thriving theaters and the first Opera house in the world, it grabbed attention of the curious and the wealthy. It quickly became a mandatory destination within the Grand Tour- an educational journey of the premier European cities undertaken for educational purposes by the young European mobility from 17th to the 19th century.
Today, the city built on water continues to amaze and attract. Just like in the Middle Ages, visitors from every corner of the world come here en masse every year to appreciate the unique beauty, art and history. Venice's most important attractions- the Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, Basilica San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, its churches, palazzos and canals have changed little in the hundreds of years since they were built. There is an air of precious antiquity in Venice's alleyways, splashes of water in the canals and golden rays of sunlight reflecting off of its half-sunk palaces. And there is a distinct desire that every visitor has had since the Middle Ages to somehow capture and bring home a piece of this city and its rare atmosphere. And what they've always found to perfectly satisfy that desire is Murano glass. Today this precious product of Venetian ingenuity can be found all over Venice in the form of chandeliers in its hotels and homes, colorful jewelry, vases and sculptures sold in its stores, and even in everyday accessories like the keychains and corkscrews used by its residents. Like the city itself, this ancient art has changed little over the centuries. With its colors that seem to capture Venetian air and water, its exquisiteness and uniqueness, glass of Venice is the way to cherish this city forever.
Learn top interesting facts about Venice.