Once the center of a prosperous empire, Venice is a unique city
and one of the historic and artistic treasures of the world.
The historic center is comprised of 118 islands separated by
canals that are joined together by a multitude of bridges.
In the 5th century AD , a group of island communities situated in the
middle of a vast tidal lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea
banded together for mutual defense. In the 8th century the Pope
recognized the authority of their elected leader, the Doge.
The islands of Venice were low and were comprised mainly of sandy
soil. As the city grew, heavy structures were built on wooden pilings
driven into the soft mud and sand to prevent them from sinking.
An important city needed the protection of an important saint.
In 828, merchants from Venice stole the remains of Saint Mark
from Alexandria, the site of his martyrdom and burial.
The remains were supposedly smuggled in a basket beneath a layer
of pork to discourage close examination by Moslem inspectors.
From the 8th to 12th century Venice evolved into a powerful
maritime republic. Trade with the Islamic world and the Byzantine
Empire to the east gave it riches enough to build a powerful fleet.
War galleys were mass-produced at the
Arsenale di Venezia, the huge, state-owned shipyard.
At the peak of it’s power Venice had 3,300 ships of various
types, and dominated trade in the Mediterranean sea. The
city-state exerted control over large portions of northern Italy,
Crete, Cyprus, most of the Greek Islands, and numerous
outposts in Europe and the Middle-east.
During the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Venetian and Crusader forces
conquered Constantinople. The sack of the city resulted in
widespread rape, slaughter and pillage. Vast sums of money were
returned to Venice. The four horses on the façade of Saint Mark’s
Cathedral were seized from the Hippodrome of Constantinople
In 1570, Venice joined Pope Pius V’s Holy League. This coalition of
many of the Catholic powers of the Mediterranean was assembled to
combat the expanding naval power of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1571, the Christian fleet defeated the Ottoman fleet in a battle
which effectively ended Moslem domination of the Mediterranean.
In the 17th century, Portuguese traders began to ship goods around
Africa which previously came into Europe by way of Venice.
In the 18th century competition from neighboring Trieste and
Livorno on the west coast greatly reduced Venice’s domination of
the commercial traffic of the Mediterranean.
In 1797, French armies commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte
conquered Venice and most of Italy.
For the next 17years, Napoleon was to dominate Italy, either directly
or through client states, often ruled by relatives.
Venice became part of
Austria’s dominions
after Napoleon’s
downfall in 1814.
In 1866, Venetians
held a referendum and
voted to become part
of the new, united
Kingdom of Italy.
Nonetheless the
Venetian language still
continues to be used,
versus standard
Italian, in many places.
The historic center of Venice received very little damage during
the Second World War. Surrounding industrial areas in the vicinity
of the city were heavily damaged by Allied bombing.
In April of 1945, Venetian partisans captured the German garrison
as Allied troops advanced upon the city.
1,100 years of Venetian independence is not an idea that dies
easily in some quarters. In 1997 a group of Venetian separatists
staged a peaceful, symbolic ‘attack’ on the Piazza San Marco using
an improvised ‘tank’. Peaceful political efforts by like-minded
groups continue to this day with limited success.
The Piazza San Marco is surrounded by buildings formerly
housing the government offices of the Republic. The Piazza is
the larger square to the west. The Piazzetta is the smaller
square opening onto the lagoon.
Piazza San Marco
Torre dell'Orologio
(Clock Tower)
(Bell Tower)
Procuratie Vecchie
(Old Offices)
Ala Napoleonica
(Napoleonic Wing)
Procuratie Nuove
(New Offices)
Torre dell'Orologio
(Clock Tower)
(Bell Tower)
Basilica San Marco
Palazzo Ducale
(Doge’s Palace)
Palazzo delle Prigioni
The Torre dell'Orologio or
Clock Tower was built as
a public monument to
the power of the
Venetian Republic. It was
positioned such that the
clock could be read from
the water. When it was
inaugurated in 1499 the
tower was covered in
expensive ultramarine
paint and gold leaf. The
figures of the “Moors”
who strike the bell on the
roof were also gilded.
In 832, work began on a church worthy to house the remains of St.
Mark. The church took a number of forms as years passed and
changes were made.
The present Basilica di San Marco was consecrated in 1673.
The Campanile of St.
Marks was
completed in 1549.
That tower collapsed
in 1902 was rebuilt
in 1912.
The tower is 323 feet
tall and is topped by
a belfry housing 5
bronze bells. The
weathervane on the
spire is a golden
figure of the
archangel Gabriel
The Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Place was completed in
1442 and served not only as the Doge’s residence but
as the seat of government for the Republic.
The Bridge of Sighs
was constructed in
1602 to provide a
secure passageway
between the
Chambers in Doge’s
Palace and the
Palazzo delle
Prigioni or “New
Along the waterfront of the Piazzetta are two columns. The Column
of San Marco is topped with a winged lion, the emblem of Venice.
The column of St Theodore bears a statue of Saint Theodore, the
patron saint of Venice before the adoption of Saint Mark.
The buildings surrounding the western end of the piazza, the
Procuratie Vecchie, Ala Napoleonica, and Procuratie Nuove, once
housed the administrative offices of the Republic. They now house
a series of museums and other tourism related sites.
In 1591 the Rialto Bridge was completed. Designed by
Antonio da Ponte, the bridge has defied it’s critics and
stayed standing for over 400 years. It remains the oldest
of the four bridges spanning the Grand Canal
The newest bridge over the Grand Canal is the
Ponte di Calatrava, completed in 2008
Boats figure prominently on a island laced with Canals.
A Vaporetto is a
waterbus that runs
a scheduled route
between stops.
There are numerous types of utility
boats being used for everything from
UPS deliveries to picking up garbage.
The famous Venetian Gondola was once
the most common mode of
transportation in Venice. Today they are
almost exclusively used to provide rides
for tourists. The left side of the boat is
longer than the right in order to
counteract the turning action of being
rowed from the right side.
A Traghetto (ferry) resembles a
standard Gondola but has one
rower in the front and another in
the back. For a small fee
Venetians skip the crowds on the
Grand Canal bridges and cross on
one of the many Traghetti.
Most day tourists never stray beyond the Piazza San Marco. A
proper tour of Venice would take many days because few cities
are as stuffed with historic palazzos, museums, churches,
fashionable shops and general curiosities as is Venice.
The historic center of Venice depends heavily upon tourism.
The mainland boroughs are heavily industrialized, which has
caused trouble with the delicate wetland ecosystem of the lagoon.
Another problem is the fact that the city is sinking into the lagoon at
a rate of almost .08 inches per year while at the same time sea
levels have been rising. Since the 1960s flooding has been a
constant problem. The ground floors of most homes are unoccupied.
A large scale project called MOSE is under construction in an
attempt to limit flooding in the lagoon. A series of inflatable
flood gates is being built at each of the inlets to the lagoon.
Still another concern is the steady flight of people who actually
live and work in the city. Mass tourism, the high cost of living ,
and rising rents are driving native Venetians off the island. It is
estimated that within 30 years Venice will become little more
than a vast museum and tourist theme park