Venice is not just beautiful but also has a very long and particular history. This unique site has given rise to a unique urban structure. The original basis for the settlement were formed of a natural archipelago of around 100 islands that was slowly consolidated and enlarged over the centuries. The archipelago is separated from the Adriatic see by several small islets, locally known as lidi that offers natural defence from storms and physical protection from aggressors. Nobody could attack Venice from the mainland, because it was made of islands and nobody could attack it from the see because of the protection of the lidi. So, for centuries, Venice could enjoy a pretty relaxed way of living (well, relaxed for that time) and think just about her own affairs.
According to the ancient chronicles, Venice was founded on March 25, 421. There are several legends about the origin of Venice, most of those proposed that the early Venetians came from Trojan warriors who had found refuge in Venice after the sack of their city, but Venice has always been very good in creating myths and today we know that early Venetians just came here from the Terraferma (the mainland) after the invasions of Attila and the Lombards in 452 AC. Those people learnt to build boats, houses mounted on piles and, with time, beautiful, long-lasting palaces.
The structure of almost all the buildings is made of wood, bricks, stone and marble. The vertical wood pilings still form the foundation of the city. Those larch or pine piles were sunk into the lagoon bed up to 7 meters. They still survive today because the wood is not exposed to oxygen as it is submerged in water and mud and as a result it does not decay. In fact the wood became petrified, like a stone structure due to the constant flow of mineral rich water around and through it. Once all wood pilings were put into the mud of the lagoon as initial foundation, they were levelled off and a horizontal timber was laid. A stone foundation was then placed on top of the horizontal timbers. From there the building was built using bricks, stone and marble. The wood was gathered in forests in the mountains of the Terraferma near Treviso, Slovenia and Croatia and was then transported by water to Venice. Bricks were produced in the Terraferma around Mestre, Treviso and Padova. The principal source of stone was the peninsula of Istria, a Venetian possession for centuries, and the marble for decoration ad sculpture came from Greece, the middle East and from Tuscany.
They built for years, centuries until they become a real city, and a very peculiar one. For more than a thousand years Venice has been something unique. It was half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, placed between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam. So in 829 the city decided to call herself Serenissima, the most serene Republic in which people from different countries could live peacefully, where different religion could coexist.
In the High Middle Ages, Venice became very wealthy through the control of trades between Europe and the Levant, and began to expand into the Adriatic Sea and beyond. In the 12th century, the Republic built a big national shipyard (now known as the Arsenal) and also thanks to its powerful ships, it increased the control over the Eastern Mediterranean. During that period Venice cultural history was strongly influenced by the Muslim East. Even the Doge, the most important Venetian figure, was originally the representative of the Byzantine imperial power, but he gradually turned into a symbol of the autonomy and the independence of Venice until he became the living image of the Republic.
From the 12th century onwards other institutional offices grew in importance. Slowly a complex and sophisticated form of republican government evolved and survived for centuries, until the Napoleonic invasion in 1797. The ruling families of the Republic used the title of Patrician. From among those patricians was elected the Doge, who, along with other patricians, shared governance through the Maggior Consiglio (Great Council), the supreme legislative body of the State. The Maggior Consiglio, the real sovereign of Venetian State, was formally instituted in 1172 and locked in 1297. That is the date of the so called Serrata del Maggior Consiglio. From that moment on the admission to the Great Council was established on hereditary right, exclusive to the patrician families enrolled in the Golden Book of the Venetian nobility. So to be a member of a noble family was very important at the time in Venice because only who belonged to one of those families could be eligible for the Council. Originally that was not intended to give an aristocratic stamp to Venetian constitution, but only to ensure that the rapid growth of the population should not alter the composition of the supreme organ by introducing too many new men. Despite the original intention, that procedure gave rise to a very aristocratic society based on birth-rights.
The special character of Venetian society created a ruling class which was very different from the ones of the other Italian cities. In some way all the city was involved in the government, through its representative in the Maggior Consiglio. The strange fact is that people really trusted those noblemen, because they were from Venice. Venetians were (and are) so proud of their origins, their history and their State. They were convinced that the only way to defend their city was by preserving their freedom and democracy and just who was Venetian could understand the value of that concept. So people thought that the patricians of the Maggior Consiglio, being Venetian since generations, would have act for the common good by preserving their democracy and independence.
In Venice there were no kings and no dynastic changes. There was just the Republic, represented by the Doge. So Venice was like the king of itself, the immutable sovereign of its own people and the centre of every celebration. Everything here was a glorification of the city, of its values, beauty and longevity. Venice was extremely proud of its stability and cohesion. Expressions of this pride can be found in lots of images, for example in the Ducal Palace, the seat of the government and home of the doge, in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, where there are the 76 Doge’s portraits, from the ninth, Obelerio, to the eighty-first Francesco Venier, works of Tintoretto. Their aim was to preserve the memory of the city and show how long lasting the history of Venice was through its representative’s images.
The concept of memory was fundamental as was strictly connected to the city itself. Also betrayals were punished by discrediting the memory of that person. It didn’t matter if you were the Doge, a patrician, an artisan or a mendicant. If you weren’t faithful to the Republic, you would have been punished and the worst punishment you could inflict was to corrupt somebody’s memory. Let’s take the example of doge Marin Faliero. Faliero was a military commander, a diplomat and then was elected doge in 1354 in succession to Andrea Dandolo. Within months of being elected, Faliero organized a conspiracy, aiming to take effective power from the ruling patricians. The plot was badly organised, with poor communication between the conspirators, and it was quickly discovered. So Faliero was publically beheaded and his body mutilated. Faliero was also condemned to damnatio memoriae and accordingly his portrait displayed in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace was removed and the space painted over with a black cloth, which can still be seen in the hall today. An inscription reads: Hic est locus Marini Faletro decapitati pro criminibus (This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes).
During the following centuries Venetian empire continued to expand, power and population grew dramatically. The city became a vital centre for Mediterranean trade, an important port for spices and luxury goods from the middle East which were re-exported over Western Europe. It was in that period, is to say between the XIV and XVI century that the Myth of Venice became an integral part of the history of the city.
What is the Myth of Venice? Everything in Venice was carefully organized to spread an image of justice, beauty, power. They celebrated their internal political stability, their well ordered constitution and government through painting, architecture, literature, historiography and this auto-created image has come to be known as Myth of Venice. The Republic invented a number of legends, allegories, symbols and rituals to become admired by people from all over the world and, above all, to be respected by its citizen that (almost) always responded with loyalty, devotion and obedience.
The date of its foundation (March 25), was associated in the time of Ovidio with the legend of the founding of Rome and Christianity on this day celebrate the Annunciation of Virgin Mary. Paintings show Venice personified as the Virgin and the city used to refer to itself as Venetia Verginae, the immaculate city that had always defended Christianity against the unbelievers. An other figure that came to be identified with Venice was the personification of the Justice. The representation of Venice as Justice became very common in paintings and sculptures as it was an excellent tool of propaganda so artists portrayed innumerable female figures with sword, scale and lions, symbols pertaining both to the Justice and to Venice, and the throne of Solomon, the traditional seat of Justice, became the habitual chair personified Venice.
Everyone knows that the symbol of Venice is a lion, the king of beasts, a symbol of strength, pride, dignity and courage, all qualities that Venice saw in itself and of course the winged Lion of St. Mark is on the city’s flag. The flag consists in a gold winged lion on a red field with six decorations on a red band standing for the sestieri, the six districts into which Venice is divided. The six sestieri are Castello, the largest one, San Marco, Cannaregio, that takes its name from cannarecium because the area was once covered by reed (canne), San Polo, named after the ancient church of San Paolo, Santa Croce, also named after a church, and Dorsoduro that takes the name from osso duro, hard bone, because that land was higher and stronger, like a bone.
The winged lion is also a metaphorical representation of Mark the Evangelist. The lion appears with an open book in its hand, with the Latin words PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEUS (Peace to you, Mark my Evangelist). A Venetian legend claims that Saint Peter sent Saint Mark to evangelize Aquileia (a small city in the Terraferma). Surprised by a storm on his return to Rome, Mark was recovered by some shelters. They brought him to a small island where Mark debarked to spend the night. In a dream an angel came to the scared evangelist and said Pax tibi Marce. Hic requiescet corpus tuum (Peace to you Mark. Here will rest your body). So the angel reassured Mark that he still had much to accomplish for Christ, he described to him the glorious city that would someday be build there and the honour they would render to his relics. Of course this legend is without historical foundation and seems to have been a 13th century fabrication designed to justify the stealing of Saint Mark’s relics by claiming the transfer pre-ordained and legitimate.
The legend of the ‘rescue’ of the body claims that in 827 ten Venetians ships on a voyage to the East were forced to seek refuge from a storm in the Arab-controlled port of Alexandria (‘forced by a storm’ as at that time Venetian could not enter in Alexandria). Among the merchants, there were Buono and Rustico who became friendly with a monk called Theodore from the Christian church that hosted the remains of Saint Mark. Fearing that the Muslims might destroy the relics, Theodore proposed the two Venetians to rescue the body from the potential danger. Theodore helped them smuggle the body past the Arab customs inspector by covering it with pork. When they returned to Venice, Doge Giustiniano was very happy about the news of the relics and he welcomed the two merchants with a big procession. Then he began to build a splendid church to contain the relics next to his palace, the original Basilica di San Marco.
During the 15th century while Venetians were acquiring islands on the route to the Middle East, they also started to gain control of a large part of the Italian mainland. Very strong families like the Sforza from Milan and the Carraresi from Verona were threaten Venice territories so the Republic begun a series of war to protects its areas and take possession of new strategic points. The first territory to be won was the city of Treviso and then Padua, Vicenza, Brescia, Udine and many others. For the first time in centuries, Venice came in touch with the rest of Italy and with the complex system of wars, invasions and politic games. Until that moment Venice rhythms were regulated by the sea and by trades only. But from that moment on everything changed. Lots of people, include the current Doge Foscari, took position against the Terraferma expansion because they believed that the source of their power lied in the sea and in their separation from the Italians conflicts. But the need to preserve their fluvial trades routes and the forests from where they stock the wood for constructions, made the decision inevitable.
During the 15th century Venice reached its greatest power. By the mid-15th century Venetian Empire extended from the Alps to the Po’ river and included several island in the Adriatic and Mediterranean sea like Crete. On May 29, 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, but Venice managed very well to maintain a colony in the city and some of the former trade privileges it had had under the Byzantines.
The rule on the Terraferma brought new prosperity and also had a very strong effect in local culture. Many new artists arrived in Venice. Paolo Veronese for example, and many others from Tuscany, Northern Europe, Rome, passed trough the city bringing new concepts and styles. Slowly Venice art moved away from its peculiar style half Italian, half Byzantine and became the art of Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Carpaccio, Veronese.
The political and military success of the Republic caused lots of resentment and arouse the hostility of its neighbours, in particular of Milan and the papacy. So, after its expansion, the Republic started to become involved in a series of wars because other Italian courts and Sates didn’t want a so powerful Republic as neighbour. Until Venice just took care of its own affairs without step in the Italian affairs, it was inoffensive. But now that she had expanded her territory she became a danger for other Italian and European states. On December 10th 1508, an alliance of Pope Julius II, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, Louis XII of France, and Ferdinand II of Aragon, called Legue of Cambrai, was formed. Apparently the purpose was to defeat the Turks but actually was to attack the Republic of Venice and divide its possessions among the allies. Mantua and Ferrara, that also had lost possessions to Venice, were included in the league. However the four allies were unable to act together because of their individual ambitions. The only one significant military operation acted against Venice by the Legue of Cambrai, happened on May 14, 1509, at Agnadello, a city near Milan and a territory ceded to Venice by France a few years earlier. Pope Julius recovered his cities in the Romagna; Maximilian took Verona, Vicenza, and Padua and Ferdinand received back territory in Apulia, in Southern Italy, including the port of Brindisi. The league collapsed one year later, in 1510, but the defeat at Agadello changed the position of Venice in the`international affairs.
Those yeas were the worst ever experienced by Venice in centuries. Not just the defeat but also plague, famine, fires and taxes increase afflicted Venice. Moreover the news that the Portuguese ships reached India arrived in Venice causing a hard psychological offense because once Venice was the leader in spices trade but the Portuguese founded new routes just when Venice lost some her most valued colonies.
Almost miraculously in the following years Venice managed both to survive and to win back her territories. By 1517 the Terraferma had been recovered and by 1520 the spices trade had become profitable as before. However something was changed. From that moment onwards (right down the final fall of the Republic in 1798) Venice’s foreign policy was no longer one of expansion but of damage limitation. But the change didn’t affect just the future political and diplomatic decisions. For the first time in centuries, Venice had to face a defeat. She wasn’t invincible. All the Republic was involved in a sort of self-criticism because in Venice didn’t exist the winner or the guilty. Everybody were winner or loser, and to be the losers was unacceptable for Venicians.
So, after the catastrophic events at Agnadello, Venice really needed to lift up again her economy and especially her public image. Venetians had to put faith again in their government, now more than before. Paintings and literature were the best vehicle to do it. Books started to stress all the qualities of Venice. She was described as a city perfectly governed by a wise ruling class, without social tensions, and therefore so stable and so to be able, against all the odds, to remain independent and strong. Images emphasized the ability of the Republic to rise again in a such a short time and stessed the most important quality of the city: its longevity.
Let’s take Veronese’s Apotheosis of Venice (1585) as an example. It was created for the ceiling of the Hall of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace, and it is so called because it shows an allegorical representation of the city being taken up to heaven. The scene consists of three parts. In the upper portion is the enthroned Venice modeled after the Virgin Mary, with scepter in hand and surrounded by the Virtues. She is flanked by the towers of Venetian Arsenal, symbol of the city’s military power. Above her flies a winged Victory who crowns her. In the central portion of the painting, there are some Venetian citizens, well dressed for the solemn occasion. Below the balcony on which the figures stand, there is the Venetian army. In the center of the lower level, the lion of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice, is clearly visible. The scene combines allegorical, political, and religious elements to underline the glory of Venice, and its enjoyment of divine protection.
We don’t have to forget that images are not reality. The Republic tried might and main to remain at the top, but from the beginning of the 16th century a gradual descending trend involved the city. Slowly Venice lose her power more and more, the myth survived (perhaps until today) thanks to the representative ability of the Republic. But the era of glory and splendour was finished. So the happiest time for Venetian art don’t correspond with her political and economic splendour. Maybe the Republic and so the painters were more motivated or maybe now they had more to prove. Whatever the reason, the result was a wonderful symphony of forms and colours.
An other important historical event that affected the arts and culture in general has been the so called Reformation, the religious revolution that took place in the Western Church in the 16th century and became the basis for the founding of Protestantism. Italy (with Spain) was one of the greatest centre of the Counter-Reformation. In those counties the Roman Catholic Church was very strong and had lot of power. Then the Council of Trent established some rules that Catholic countries were expected to observe. Venice however, did not agree with certain specific points. The main fact was that Venice had always been very independent and Venetian believed that the origin of their power lied in their freedom. So they were determined not to submit to someone else rules. However after the defeat at Agnadello their position in international relations was weaker so they had to accept every new rule to preserve their privileges.
That situation also affected the cultural sector. The cultural world was very dynamic and energetic because of the centuries old presence of all over the world people but after the Council of Trent artists and intellectuals felt themselves limited and controlled. They didn’t want to accept any restriction, but if they wanted to sell their paintings, books and sculptures they had to find some tricks, stratagems.
This is the reason why some very famous Venetian painting are full of details expressing dissent. Titian’s religious painting, for example, are full of those details. He was hostile to the Catholic and bureaucratic rules and aimed for a more spiritual religion, more understandable and more personal. He followed the Evangelical doctrine because he aimed for a religion based on Christ and not on the Church, without impositions. Despite his way of thinking, in his paintings he had to hide his beliefs to not have problems with the Catholic Church.
Let’s see an example. Inside the church of San Salvador, near Rialto Bridge, is preserved a beautiful altarpiece by Titian representing the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. On the right, near the Virgin, it is written IGNIS ARDENS NON COMBURENS (now the picture is a little dark and dirty so maybe you wouldn’t be able to read it). The sentence means ‘burning but non consuming fire’. It is a quote from Exodus related to Mary’s untouched virginity, in spite of being mother. But other elements in the picture seem to deny the Catholic dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity, just like the Evangelical doctrine which believe that Jesus Chris had brothers (to be more precise for the Catholic Church Giuseppe was widow when he met Mary and Jesus had just half-brothers, but for the Evangelicals those brothers were sons of Mary and Joseph). The more telling symbol is the pitcher, usually full of clean water and associated to Mary’s purity. Generally painters were very careful in painting a very clean and transparent pitcher to distinguish it from the dark pitcher that goes with Mary Magdalene (that symbolize the oils used during the feet washing). Here the pitcher is not transparent but dark and full of flowers in flames, apparently referring to the quote (he had to justify in some way his daring choice) but he remain ambiguous, because these are not just flames, but burning flowers and a burning flowers have always been a symbol of passion. An other interesting detail is the lack of the lilium always delivered from Gabriel to Mary, and the most important symbol of her virginity. Then there is Mary, that look toward the angel raising her veil. This gesture is very ambiguous because traditionally associated to marriage(even today), when women were allowed to finally reveal their face to the future husband. Than other small details, such as the young age and beauty of both the characters, Mary’s pronounced breast, her pulpy lips and her gaze that is not scared or surprised as usual, but a kind of satisfied, a little languid.
I must point out that this interpretation is not accepted by all art historian. For some of them Mary is lifting up her scarf and showing the angel her ear because that was the organ through which the holy spirit entered and impregnated her. But personally I don’t think that she is showing Gabriel her ear.
Let’s make an other example by Titian, Mary Magdalene at the Heremitage Museum. The subject of the Magdalene as a sinner and fallen woman returned to the right path by Jesus was very popular in the 16th Century. Normally she was represented as a penitent woman that wants to expiate her sins and to do it she made a public conversion, she went to Simon’s house and washed Jesus’ feet, she follow Jesus during all his Passion and also under his Crucifix. She is usually represented with a dark pitcher that symbolize the oils used during the feet washing. The Magdalene painted by Titian is different because she is no more penitent. She already obtained the absolution and now she is in contemplation. We can understand it from the pitcher, usually dark but here full of clean water. Normally the transparent pitcher was associated to Virgin Mary’s purity, so the message here is that also Mary Magdalene in pure, she has been forgiven because she has been a woman of faith. For the Catholic Church penitence and good deeds were necessary to obtain salvation, but for the Evangelical belief, a soul could be saved just through faith, and Mary Magdalene had faith.
Finally I would take as an example Tintoretto’s Last Judgment at Madonna dell’Orto Church. Here he presents all the character of the Old and New Testament under Jesus Christ with a lilium, symbol of purity and mercy, and a sword, symbol of justice. The Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist are introducing to him the soul of the people under them. The figure in the group closer to Jesus is a woman carrying two babies, symbol of divine love. At the bottom, there is a dark see full of damned souls, skeletons and demons. Over the black see there are some figures trying to reach salvation. They met the Archangel Gabriel with his scale. But the scale has no plates, it is useless because to obtain salvation money has no value. Unlike the Catholic thought, for the Evangelicals money, donations, gifts are not a way of salvation. Just through your faith you will achieve the paradise. So the Archangel Gabriel doesn’t need his usual scale, given that faith is something that can not be weighed.
Coming back to the history of Venice. From the mid-16th Century onwards the Republic maintained a cautious neutrality. Venice only purpose was to defend its Mediterranean possessions from the Turks. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1570 caused a big Christian response, so a joint Spanish and Venetian fleet defeated the Turks decisively at Lepanto in 1571. But only two years later, in 1573, Venice was forced to cede the island to Turkey, and a century later, in 1669, the Turks finally took possession of another important Venice colony, the island of Crete.
New maritime powers like Britain and the Dutch now dominated the see. While losing its political and economical importance, Venice found a new role as a place of pleasure, culture, beauty and delight, Europe’s most interesting tourist attraction. The city became integral part of the fashionable Grand Tour and people from all over the word came here to enjoy the exotic carnival and the masked parties, to see its strange palaces floating on water, to experience the rich culture and the relaxed way of living.
The Republic came to an end in 1797, when Napoleon’s French army forced the city to accept a new ‘democratic’ government. Then Venice was shortly Austrian after a peace treaty with Napoleon, but became French again after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. The fall of Napoleon from power saw Venice placed back under Austrian rule. There was short independence in 1848-9, when some Venetian patriotic rebels ousted Austrians, but the latter empire defeated the rebels. Finally in the 1860s Venice became part of the new Kingdom of Italy, where it remains to this day.