Venice is one of the few cities in the world that can truly be described as unique and its history deserves our attention. Under very adverse situation, surrounded by the invading enemies, they began to build their city in a desolated lagoon. It survives against all the odds, building on low lying marshy banks, amid the tidal waters and regularly flooding. From this beginning, they built one of the enduring systems of government lasting for over a thousand years. Their system imposes limited power on their rulers and allowed limited participation of citizen. This bought loyalty of the citizen to the state. From the salt trade, Venice developed into a most prosperous commercial centre of Europe and a naval force, once the most powerful in the world. With the adoption of the factory system of production, some 300 years before the Industrial Revolution, they built one of the greatest naval power, with 3000 ships, dominated the Eastern Mediterranean. During the 16C onward Venice was in decline, due to the discovery of new sea routes to the Orient and the discovery of the New World and the expanding Ottoman Empire. Venetian had to re-invent itself, as a city of pleasure and vice. Even today it still one of the world most desirable destination as a holiday retort. The Venice Republic was finally ended by Napoleon. During its existence, Venice also made many artistic a achievements. Amongst them were Bellini(s), Giorgione, Titan, Tintoretto, Veronese, Canaletto, Guardi, Canova etc. In architecture, we have the Venetian Palazzo along the Grand Canal and the Estate Architecture of Palladio. In music we have the traditional barcarole tunes sung by gondoliers as well as the music of Vivaldi and Moneverdi. In literature we have the adventure of Marco Polo and Casanova. I find the history of Venice very inspiring. In a small way it makes me think of Hong Kong which also becomes a world city from a barren island in the South of China and Hongkong had changes to cope with a changing world.
Venice the serene_maritime_republic_jd
Venetian Wing Lion on the pediment of the St. Mark Basilica, Venice
History of the Serene Republic
410 Sacking of Rome
In 410 Rome was attacked by the Visigoths. For the first time
in 800 years Rome had fallen to a foreign enemy. This
marked the end of the Western Roman Empire.
421 - 800
A series of illustration by Piero Ventura published by Kingfisher, 1988.
421 AD Refuge on the lagoon
To avoid caught up in the invasions of the Germanic
tribes, some Roman Italian took refuge in the
Venetian lagoon. The founding of Venice was
traditionally, began in 421 AD.
The lagoon was created
6000 years ago. It was
once the Po delta where
the river met the sea
currents. The sea currents
created a chain of off-
shore islets. Together they
form the outer sea wall of
the lagoon. In the case
Venice, three such coastal
islets can be found today.
Inhabitants of Venice was protected from invaders of the mainland by the water of the lagoon. While the chain of coastal islets and
shallow mud flats deterred any seaborne invaders.
Early Venice was a desolate place, with swampy ground. Boats were necessary for moving around. Farming was out of the
question and fresh water have to bought in from the mainland. Early Venetian lived as hunter, fishermen and boatman. The
place was not worthy for anyone to invade.
The oldest community in the lagoon was Torcello. It was established between 5C-6C and said to have a population of 20,000.
So 5C-6C Venice is unlikely to be a significant place. The subsequent decline of Torcello was due to the rise of Venice.
Photo shows the Church of Santa Fosca built in the 11C-12C.
- The origin of Wealth
The Venetian found a way to make a living, by producing salts. By the 8C the Republic was dominated by the salt trade,
which became the foundation for its maritime trade. Venice became prosperous.
Salt marshes being rebuilt in southern part of the Venetian lagoon, with their shore line protected to prevent erosion. Photo by Luka
First appointed Doge in 697
Earlier doges, governors of Venice were
appointed by Byzantine Emperor, as city regarded
itself as part of the Byzantine Empire.
Later doges were elected by the public.
Candidates went through 21 layers of selections
and eliminations (listed on the Golden Book) of
vetting before chosen to be doges. At some
stage a lot was drawn from a hat by a child
plucked off the street to ensure randomness and
no one family or group can be in power
In one or two incidences doges can also be
forced out of office by the Council of Ten, which is
responsible of state security.
In addition, there were post-boxes known as
Bocca di Leone (Lion’’s Mouth) for anyone to use
to expose or to denounce anonymously any
corruptions in the city.
A Bocca di Leone (Lion’s Mouth) post-box for anonymous
Denunciations in Venice. With the inscription, “Secret
Denunciations against anyone who will conceal favours and
services or will collude to hide the true revenue from them”.
Venice was by no means insensitive to the welfare
of its poorer subjects. Surprisingly the system
worked as intended. Venice enjoyed great stability.
No citizen was above the law and the city
commanded the loyalty of its citizen. The republics
lasted well over a thousand years.
Restrictions on the Doge
The whole system was designed to protect the
republic from being dominated by any group or family
in collusion with an external power. The average age
for an incoming doge was 72. As doges served for
life and this help to prevent doges to have power too
Here are some of the restrictions on a doge :-
No doge’s family could hold political office during his
A doge could not conduct any personal business or
A doge’s every daily move was supervised.
A doge’s sons could not leave the republic.
None of a doge’s children could marry without the
A doge was paid a ridiculously enormous salary, so
that no external power could afford to bribe them.
Many of the early doges were either exiled,
assassinated, or resigned to become monks. But
since late 11C through to the end only two doges
were forced from office. Effectively the power of the
doge was limited, an early version of limited
government. The Doge Leonardo Loredan. 1501-04. Oil on poplar. 65x45 cm.
Giovanni Bellini. Italian. National Gallery, London
The original Doge’s Palace was a square, fortress-like building with high walls and corner towers. As the Doge’s residence and the
seat of the government, magistrate, armories, courtrooms and dungeons. Rebuilt in 1340 and 1424 the building was transformed
into the palace that we see today.
The Venetian government and its institutions were obligatory reference point in every area of political thought from the 17C. The
Venetian regime appeared to be unaffected by the passing of time. The Republic was a harmonious combination of monarchical
aristocratic and democratic principles, in the form of the Doge, the Senate and the Grand Council. Powers were shared between
different organs of the state. This is the Grand Council Room in the palazzo.
Venice Marriage to the Sea
The prosperity of Venice was depended on the maritime trade. Once every year, the Doge travelled in his official ship, the
Bucintoro to entrance of the lagoon and threw a gold ring into the sea, a symbolic gesture of Venetian marriage to the sea.
The journey was accompanied by a flotilla of small ships and boats, with young men, who dived into the sea to retrieve the gold
ring, Despite the end of the Republic, the ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea continues to this day.
The Bucentaur Departs for the Lido on Ascension Day. 1775-1780. Painting by Francesco Guardi. Musee du Louvre.
828 St Mark Relics
Mosaic above the doorway on the far right of San Marco Basilica, showing how the relics of St Mark’s body was smuggled
from Alexandria underneath slides of pork.
Venice invented her own history. The founding of the city in 421 and the visit of St Mark to Aquileia, a small town near Venice,
lack authenticity. In 828 to put Venice among major Christian cities, Venetian smuggled the relics of St Mark from Alexandria
back to the city. Thus Venice became an important place on the Christian maps but the truth is that the myth was invented.
Medieval Venice often looked east for inspiration. St Mark’s Basilica is the best example of Italo-Byzantine architecture.
Earliest consecration was 1084 and completed in 1092. Its architecture is unlike others in Italy. Its plan is based on the Greek
cross (orthodox Christian) and the Basilica has five cupolas, rather than a single dominant dome. Many of the decorations were
bought back from the East.
1084 -1092 – St Mark Basilica
Procession in St. Mark’s Square. 1406. Oil on canvas. 367x746 cm. Gentile Bellini. Venetian. Accademia Galleries. Venice.
Rising Naval Power
A model of a Venetian galley, manned with rowers. Note the cannons positioned in the front of the warship. Other galleys were
equipped with lateen sails. Museo Storico Navale. Venice.
Venetian Naval Power
Around 841, Venice sent a fleet of 60 galleys (each carrying 200 men) to assist the Byzantines in driving the Arabs from
Crotone, but it failed (Wikipedia – Republic of Venice). In other words Venice already has a powerful navy. More often the
Venetian warships were galleys with lateen sail (triangular). By late 11C and throughout the 12C, Venice traded with
Egypt, crusader states and Byzantine Empire. Trading voyages normally in group of 10-12 transport galleys, one or two
large sailing ships and a few escorting war galleys. In 1123, it provided a transport fleet a total of up to 120 ships for the
northern crusaders. By supporting the Crusaders, Venetian often gained exclusive trading rights for ports.
Construction of the dockyard began c1104. It became the largest industrial site of its days. It produced the majority of Venice’s
maritime ships. It operated an assembly lines, with prefabricated parts like rigging, munitions etc. With its mass-producing
method, it could produce nearly one ship each day, with standard fit out parts. This was some 300 years before the Industrial
Revolution in the 18C. The dockyard Arsenale was a major reason why Venice was so successful in dominated the maritime
trade for such a long time.
The Arsenale dockyard in Venice today.
In historical times, Arsenal was not only able to function as a major ship building yard, but also responsible for the routine
maintenance for galleys. Historically the Venice Republic spent almost 10% of its revenue on Arsenale. .
10C-13C - The rise of Maritime Republic 1
From the late10C to the mid-11C, we saw the rise of the maritime city-state republic of Genoa, Pisa and Regusa, joining the
more established republic of Venice and Amalfi. Fleets of ships were being built to link up the trading network on the
eastern Mediterranean, to Egypt, Anatolia, the western Mediterranean and beyond to northern Europe. All these republics
have similar but not identical system of governments, dominated by the merchant class.
A Genoese fort in Sudak, Crimea, Black Sea.
10C-13C - The rise of Maritime Republic 2
Maritime Republic. Cont.
These republics also provided transport for the Crusaders and benefited from their conquests. They scrambled to setup
outposts and colonies on Mediterranean islands and coasts along the Adriatic, Aegean Sea, Black Sea and Greece. They
were the fore-runners of the European colonial empires,16C and after.
These maritime republics expanded their naval power to protect their merchant ships from pirate (Saracen), as well as
defending the overseas outposts against competitors. The rivalry between the two most successful maritime powers,
Venice and Genoa were particularly fierce.
One surprise about these maritime republic were their longevity and their stability. Venice lasted well over a thousand
years, others are not far behind, lasting about 8 centuries or so. These maritime republics were the distribution hubs for
trades on the silk route, linking Europe, the Middle East and the Orient in trade.
Dubrovnik was at the heart of the Ragusa maritime Republic.
Trade in the 1400 showing Venetian and Genoese possessions in the Mediterranean. The Venetian colonies were mainly in
the Adriatic Sea, the mainland Greece and in the Greek Islands, together with Crete and Cyprus. The Genoese
possessions were mainly on the Greek islands off the coast of Turkey.
Venetian Fortress in the Mediterranean
Kotor, Montenegro Trogir, Croatia
Othello Fort, Famagusta, Cyprus
Koules Fort, Heraklion, Crete.
Ancient Rome was split into Western and Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine). When the Western Empire was sacked by the
Germanic tribes, the Byzantine survived. Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was the capital of Byzantine. It was primary a
Greek Orthodox Empire.
Venice always looked to the east for inspirations. It has close ties with Byzantium. At one time Venice was under the Byzantine
influence. Venice merchants also traded the Middle East (Holy Land) and Egypt. As Venice became powerful, it signed a
defence pact in1082 with Byzantine that the Venetian navy would come to the aid of Byzantine if attack. In exchange Venice
gained trading concessions from Byzantine.
In 11C, as the maritime trades grew, many citizens from Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi, had their own quarters in the
Constantinople. They also fought each others in the city. In 1171 the Byzantine government stepped in and seized the goods
of many Venetians and imprisoned them all. Thus ended the co-operation between the two powers.
In 1182, 60,000 foreign traders were massacre in Constantinople, Massacre of the Latins. Some 4000 survivors were sold as
slaves to the Turkish Sultanate of Rum. Although trading relations re-established later, but the underlying hostility remained.
Byzantine & Venice
The Galata tower built by the Genoese, in 1348, dominate the skyline of the eastern half of the city, today.
Rise of Islam & Decline of Byzantine
Islam began in the early 7C. By the mid-8C 750, it
occupied nearly the whole of Spain, all along the north
African shore of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land on
the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The major loser
around the Mediterranean was the Byzantine Empire. By
mid-8C onward, it was confined to modern the eastern
Adriatic coast, Greece and Turkey. It lost all its territories
in North Africa and the Middle East.
The expansion of Islam was powered by the creation of
caliphate (Islamic religious successor) feeding on the
religious ideology of Islam, not unlike its opposite the
Turkish Seljuk couple polychrome bowl. 1200. made in
Kashan, Persia. David Collection Museum. Copenhagen.
The movement began, as a Christmas religious
response to the expansion of Islam. It consisted of a
series of religious wars, fuelled by the religious
ideologies. But in practice it was a military contest to
control territories, in the Middles East (Holy Land).
11C – 15C Crusader
The First Crusade was a land Crusade and ended in
a disaster. On entering Anatolia, the “people’s
crusade” was massacred by the Seljuk Turk. But
later crusades were better led by Frankish military
The crusaders were important to the maritime trading
republics, as they reopened the Mediterranean to
commerce and travel, on which the prosperity of
Genoa and Venice were depended.
The pillage of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders.
Although engaged in holy war, they frequently looted. -
Ref : The sack of Jerusalem by Antiochus (Jean de
Courcy La Bouquechardiere, French. 15C)
1204 Sacking of Constantinople
Byzantine protected Europe from the expanding
Islam on the eastern front. The Crusader set out on
a Holy War, ended up in destroying the only
Christian Empire in the east. It was a key turning
point in the decline of Byzantine. With this it opened
the door for rising Ottoman Empire.
The Crusade were financed by the church, the kings
and nobility, but also the maritime republics. The
maritime republics had the ships to take the
crusaders the Holy Land by sea.
On the Fourth Crusade, once the ships set sail, it
was diverted to Constantinople (Istanbul today), to
put Alexios Angelols on the throne. For that the
Crusaders would be pay off and continues their
journey. A popular uprising in Constantinople
deposed Alexios Angelots. The Crusaders were left
On 8 Feb 1204, the Crusader attacked, captured and
looted Constantinople. It was the time for the
Venetian to revenge for the massacres of the 12C.
Today we can see many of the Christians loots of
Constantinople’s treasures in Venice.
The Second Conquest of Constantinople (Detail).
1580-1605. Jacopo Tintoretto. Great Council Hall.
Palazzo Ducale. Venice.
Roman Triumphal Quadrige. Looted in 1204 from the Byzantine Constantinople, reinstall on St. Mark Basilica, Venice
The Pala d’Oro, a retable in Basilica San Marco made of silver, gold and 1927 gemstones, is recognized as one of the most
refined and accomplished works of Byzantine. Many of the pieces were probably looted during the Fall of Constantinople during
A close look at Archangel Michael on the Pala d’Oro.
Statue of the four Tetrarch looted from Constantinople c300
AD, reinstalled at the Basilica of San Marco.
Ornate bread with an embedded egg for the Easter meal a
design dating back to the Byzantine times. Still practice in
Trading hub of Europe
Venice was the trading hub of Europe. The is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on the Grand canal. It was the headquarters and
restricted living quarters of the city’s German merchants. It was first started in 1228. Other countries would have their own
trading quarters. The city also had a large Jewish population too. Normally, the ground floors were used as a warehouse for
goods. Expensive and exotic goods, like silk, spices, jewels from the Far East were dispatched from Venice to all over
Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire. It
was inevitable after the Venetian and the Crusaders
had weakened the Byzantine Empire.
The collapse of the Byzantine Empire allowed the
Ottoman Empire expanded into Greece, the Balkan
and the Adriatic. Venice started off well sending
Venetian artist Gentile Bellini to the court of Mehmed
II. Venice also negotiated with the Ottoman to gain
overland routes to Aleppo and Alexandria. Venice
remained as a major trading maritime power in the
Eastern Mediterranean, even doubling its fleet, until
the loss of Cyprus in 1571.
Left - Mehmed II
painted by Gentile
Bellini in 1479.
Right – Venetian and Turks would have met in
Constantinople, across the Golden Horn. 16C Ottoman
Venice continue trading into 16C
Venice continued trading with the East even after the discovery of sea routes to the Americas and to Asia.
Venetian Delegation at Damascus. c1513-16. From the workshop of Gentile Bellini. Italian. Musee du Louvre. Paris.
1450 The zenith of Naval Power
Wikipedia divides the history of Venetian navy into three main phases. Between 8C to 11C was the origins of Venice’s
naval power. Between 12C to first half 15C, with the construction of Venetian Arsenal, allowed Venice to dominate the
Mediterranean. By 1450, some 3800 Venetian merchant ships were in operation, both as supply ships for Venetian
merchants and as warships for the Venetian navy. The final phase between the second half of 15C to 18C, coping with the
expanding military power of the Ottoman Empire and the its declining maritime trade.
A galley was a type of ship that was propelled mainly by rowing. This was a typical design of the 16C war galley. Although it carried
several cannons on the ship, it relied mainly on their crews to fight the enemy in boarding actions.
During the 16C, the Ottoman Empire seemed unstoppable. The world’s trade between the East and the West were dominated
by Muslim traders. By the mid-16C, the Ottoman Empire was in control of all north African coasts, Egypt, the Middle East down
to the Persian Gulf. In the eastern Mediterranean, Venetian possessions were lost to the expanding Ottoman Empire including
Cyprus. The Turk was entering central and eastern Europe, Budapest was lost too and so were the shores of the Adriatic.
In 1571, the Holy League was form to engage the Turks in a sea battle, the Battle of Lepanto. The Holy League had about 200
warships and about 70,000 men and the Turks had about 250 ships with about 80,000 men. Venice provided over half of the
ships. Spain contributed a quarter of the ships and Genoa & others made up the rest. It was a decisive victory for the Holy
League. 137 Turkish ships were captured and 50 ship sunk. It was a turning point. It ended the Ottoman’s maritime ambition
The Battle of Lepanto of 1571 (Detail), painted in c1640 by Flemish artist Andries van Eertveit (1590-1652). Private collection.
1348 And 1630 Plague
Venice Republic experienced two major
outbreak of plagues in her history, the 1348
Black Death and the Bubonic plague in 1629-
31. The 1348 plague followed the Silk Road
from Central Asia to Crimea from there the
maritime trade carried the plague to Venice
and Genoa. There no reliable data on the
1348 Black Death, some suggested half of the
population was killed. On the 1630s plague,
research suggests that a third of Venetian
were dead. This happened when the
Mediterranean maritime trade was under
threat from the newly discovered sea routes
to Asia. The shortage of Venetian to defend
its Mediterranean possessions, maybe been a
factor on the decline of Venice in the 17C.
Santa Maria della Salute was built in
thanksgiving for the deliverance of the city
from the 1630 plague, on the Grand Canal.
Painting (detail) by Barnado Bellotto cI743.
The paint is now part of the Getty Museum
Collection in Los Angeles.
Discovery of New Sea Routes
The Age of Exploration began in Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sailing down the West African coasts, in early 15C
(c1420s). By 1488, the Portuguese reached the Cape of Good Hope and discovered the route to the Indian Ocean. In
1492, Columbus set sail from Spain westward and reached the West Indies, in the Americas. In 1498, Vasco da Gama, a
Portuguese reached Calicut of India, where the Portuguese could buy valuable goods at favourable prices. In 1511 the
Portuguese reached and establish a colony in Malacca. In 1516, 5 years later Portuguese sailing on a Malaysian junked
reached Guangzhou, China and began direct trade between an European with the Chinese.
The Arrival of a Portuguese Ship. 1620-1640. depicting the arrival of a Portuguese ship for what the Japanese called the Namban
Trade. A six panel folding screen of Japanese origin. Asian Art Museum. San Francisco.
Rise of Atlantic Maritime Colonial Empire
With the discovery of new sea routes to the East and the New World, we saw centre of political power and prosperity shifted
from the Mediterranean Italian city-states to the larger Atlantic nation-states. We saw the rise of Spain as a superpower,
controlling large part of Europe from the Netherlands, Italy and other Hapsburg territories like Hungary and Austria together
with the New World. Later other colonial empires followed and established own colonies. First was the Dutch then the
On the other hand, Venice was facing wars with the rising Ottoman Empire and the declining of its maritime trade.
An illustration of Spanish naval power, the Armada assembled for the invasion of England. It was made up of some 160
Spanish war galleons and about 100 armed merchant ships, with 2500 guns and 30000 soldiers and sailors.
Venice reinvent itself
With the declining maritime trade, Venice needed to reinvent itself. It became the pleasure city of Europe, the theme park of
the aristocrats and the wealthy. With it we saw the flourishing arts, the like of Canaletto and Vivaldi, It became the
pleasure seekers’ destination, the city of decadence and vices, where the faces can be hidden behind masks.
The pleasure seeking crowd of the Grand Tour
The Piazza San Marco, looking East (Detail- the Pleasure seeking tourists) c1710-15. painted by Lucas Carlevarrijs,
Italian. Kiplin Hall.
In Vivaldi’s time, convent parlour like the one depicted above, was a social setting where games and music were played.
Glass making is one of the enduring industry of the city. It still exist today It now mainly on the island of Murano. Its glass is
world renowned for being colourful, elaborate and skilfully made. Byzantine craftsmen played an important role in the
development of Venetian glass. After the sacking of Constantinople, some artisans came to Venice and settled here.
The End of the Serene Republic
A view of 19C Venice, Snow and Fog on the Grand Canal. 1840. Ippolito Caffi. Galleria d’Arte Moderna. Ca’Pesaro.
In 1796 Venice has no powerful navy. Napoleon crossed into neutral its territories and Venice surrendered unconditionally,
thus ended just over one thousand one hundred years history of the republic. During its existence, Venice has created a
stable, effective and enduring government. It invented the factory production system long before anyone else. From its
humble and desolate beginning in the marshy lagoon, it created one of the most power and prosperous state of its time.
Venice also has to reinvent itself after the collapse of its maritime trade. Venice also left behind a wealth of artistic
achievements. The era of city-states had ended, superseded by the rise of the nation-states and colonialism.
Music – Spring – Large, from Vivaldi’s Four
Seasons, performed by Nigel Kennedy.
Seen on Bigfun.beSeen on Bigfun.be
Author: Jerry DaperroAuthor: Jerry Daperro