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Venice, Italy

View from Accademia Bridge on Grand Canal in Venice

Venice, Italy

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Venice, Italy

Located in the Northeast of Italy, Venice lies in a unique natural position inside the enclosed Venetian lagoon. This area lies between the Po and Piave rivers, and periodically rises and falls depending on the tides. The Venetian lagoon itself has numerous islands, with the city of Venice itself stretching across a series of over a hundred islands, linked by Venice‘s intricate network of bridges, canals and waterways. Known as “La Serenissima” amongst other titles, the city of Venice is internationally renown as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with its unique landscape, rich cultural heritage, and architectural styles setting it apart from any other. Getting around in Venice is easily one of the most memorable things about the city, with many of the smaller canals and waterways being traversed by gondola, or by small boats, without even so much as a road for cars to drive on. With this in mind be sure to bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes on any tour of Venice.

Venice is situated across a group of 118 small islands, separated by canals.

Early History and Ascent

Venice‘s earliest history can be traced back to the Roman era, with the Venetian lagoon serving as a home for local fishermen. However, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, successive waves of Germanic, and Hunnic invasion sparked a refugee crisis, with an enormous amount of internal displacement, and migration across the Italian peninsula. Some of these Roman refugees sought refuge in the Venetian lagoon region, establishing a settlement in the area and coming under the protection of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, with their client state ‘The Exarchate of Ravenna’ administering the Venetian region. In the following centuries, around the 8th century AD, the fall of the Exarchate at the hands of the Lombard’s left Venice increasingly isolated, now one of the only Byzantine outposts left on the Italian peninsula. Venice‘s isolation led to it becoming an increasingly autonomous city, gaining lucrative trading concessions from the Byzantines whilst also serving as a safe haven for migrants and refugees, all of which swelled the city‘s size and prestige. The early 9th century AD saw the city singled out and threatened, with its rising power drawing the attention of the Lombard King Pepin, Charlemagne‘s son, who laid siege to the city. Despite the immense power of Charlemagne’s Kingdom, the city‘s geography prevented Pepin’s success, with Pepin himself dying from the lagoon’s fevers shortly afterwards. This victory firmly asserted Venice‘s role at the nexus of two great powers, with its locus allowing it to flourish as a centre of trade between the east and the west.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian and members of his court

Venetian Golden Age

Venice‘s position between at both the periphery and intersection of east and west afforded the city a unique position. Through the leveraging of its relationships, as well as its own mounting wealth and power, it gained an incredible amount of autonomy from Constantinople, negotiating internationally and administering the city much to the designs of Venice‘s patricians alone. This gradual drift from the Byzantine orbit eventually culminated in the city‘s de facto independence around the late 9th century, whilst still retaining its lucrative trading rights in the east. As Venice‘s power and influence grew, cities and territories along the Adriatic coast were incorporated under Venice‘s control, largely as a means to deny pirates space to operate, as well as expanding the reach of Venice‘s navy. Venetian naval dominance in this region is largely what underscored much of its power, being able to protect and facilitate trade between Byzantium, Asia, and Western Europe. As Venice‘s power grew in relation to the Byzantines, tensions mounted between the two, with the seizure of Venetian businesses in Constantinople in the mid 12th century marking the beginning of a period of increasing animosity between the two. These tensions came to a head in the year 1204, when the fourth crusade saw Venetian soldiers sacking the city of Constantinople, looting much of the city‘s wealth and sacred artefacts, and establishing a catholic led ‘Latin Empire’, that usurped the Emperor in the east for roughly half a century. Following this event Venice‘s power stretched further into the east, seizing islands in the Aegean, as well as major centres such as Crete and Cyprus.

Around this time, Venice re-organized into its characteristic republican government form, with the mid 12th century marking the transition of its Doge from a monarchical type figure to Venice‘s chief bureaucrat. The apogee of Venice‘s power as a commercial and military powerhouse came soon after between the 12th-14th centuries, with its merchant fleet being the largest in Europe, and with the city itself being amongst the largest and in Europe, all despite being located on an island archipelago. This period was characterised by Venice‘s infamous power struggles, with powerful family and political intrigues ruling the day. Venetian merchants were also incredibly influential on the development of European trade and commerce throughout this period, with Venice acting as the prime commercial gateway between Western Europe and Asia, and merchants such as Marco Polo proving instrumental for the development of European commence, and cartography. Whilst other merchant city states vied with Venice for dominance, most notably the Genoese, Venice‘s position remained paramount for centuries to come, having a grip on key commodities and luxuries such as salt, and silks from the east.

Map of Venice, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum by Georg Braun, 1541-1622 and Franz Hogenberg, 1540-1590, engraving

Venice‘s Decline

Venice‘s slow decline follows the progression of key historical turning points that dismantled the foundation of Venice‘s trade monopoly between east and west. The first of these came in the early 15th century, with Ottoman troops seizing Venice‘s Greek holdings in Thessalonica, following which they eventually captured the strategically vital Constantinople in 1453, effectively cutting Venice off from its trade routes coming through the Bosporus and Black Sea, and putting a final end the the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. These events, coupled with the capture of the Christian cities in the levant, left Venice‘s access to eastern trade routes severely diminished. Venice‘s ill fortunes were further compounded with the discovery of the New World following Columbus’ 1492 voyage, which saw the beginning of the Columbian exchange, and brought vast wealth to western Europe, mostly through the gateways of Spain and Portugal. The final significant event in Venice‘s decline was Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama‘s 1499 discovery of an alternative route to India, around the Cape of Good Hope. This route circumnavigated the Mediterranean entirely, and negated the need for western European powers to rely on traditional trade routes and intermediaries.

In response to the loss of its traditional revenue streams, Venice instead directed its resources regionally, expanding provincially to some of the rich areas of mainland Italy. Unfortunately for Venice, the intricate alliances and delicate balance of power amongst the Italian states proved too volatile, ultimately provoking a coalition response in the War of the League of Cambrai, which marked the beginning of series of wars that would crush Venetian ambitions. Following Venice‘s decline as a merchant republic, the city experienced European history much like many other Italian cities, now subject to the power and influence of their much larger neighbours. The Venetian republic remained independent, though much weakened, until the late 18th century when it was incorporated in to Habsburg Austria, here it largely remained until the final formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

Jacopo de’ Barbari’s 1500 map of Venice (retouched version). Photo source.

Travelling to Venice

Venice is one of the most distinctive and unique cities in the world, with much of the city listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Unlike a trip to many other cities, a tour of Venice will most likely be a walking tour, though you may find yourself water-bound on a Gondola ride through some of the smaller canals. No cars are allowed in the city, though some parking can be found before entering, so be ready for a good walk on any tour to Venice. This having been said, a boat is also a great way to explore Venice, crossing under Venice‘s bridges and archways, while taking in its historic cityscape from this unique vantage point. Aside from the omnipresent beauty of the city‘s waterways and canals, there are a number of landmarks and historic buildings one should visit on their trip. The Piazza San Marco (or St Mark‘s square), is a good place to begin, easily being one of the most recognizable places in the city, and having been the social, religious, and political centre of Venice for centuries. Flanked on each of its faces with some of Venice‘s most famous buildings, the Piazza San Marco is the heart, and historical centre of the city. On the eastern face of the Piazza sits Saint Mark’s Basilica, originally constructed in in the 9th century AD, the Basilica was made to house the body of St Mark, famously stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants, who hid the body in a barrel of pork fat. St Mark‘s body, along with some of his relics went on to become some of Venice‘s most famous iconography, with the winged lion in particular becoming synonymous with the Republic of Venice. Today’s Basilica dates back to the late 11th century, and features a distinctive Italo-Byzantine architectural style that was popular during Italy‘s proto-renaissance, as well as an iconic bell tower, used to sight ships, and act as a guide for those coming into harbour.

Basilica San Marco and the Clocktower in Piazza San Marco, morning view

Also adjacent to the piazza is the Palazzo Ducale (or the Doge’s Palace), traditionally this served as the apartments for Venice‘s Doge, as well as functioning as the primary administrative centre of the city. Built in the late 12th century, it is characterised by its stunning façade and gothic architecture, and has been an influential building in informing architectural style across the western world. Today the Palazzo Ducale operates as an art museum, with pieces from Venice‘s storied past, as well as from across Europe. The final notable building of the Piazza is the Biblioteca Marciana (or Library of Saint Mark). Built to house manuscripts and classical texts, the building serves as one of Europe’s earliest public libraries, having been constructed in the late 15th century, and features a stunning façade that characterises Venetian Renaissance architecture. Some other sights and activities to check out on your trip to Venice include the famous Venetian Arsenal, the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, as well as the Rialto markets, all of which can are simply a walk away. Much like some of Italy‘s other great cities like Florence, or Rome, the sheer depth of history in Venice is staggering, with the long and storied history making for an unforgettable experience. Each of Venice‘s uncountable landmarks and buildings are steeped in the rich heritage of countless centuries. To this end, one of the best ways to experience what Venice has to offer is through a small group tour. Odyssey specialises in this kind of tour, offering an engaging and intimate tour to Venice that highlights what the city has to offer.

The Canals of Venice


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