The first traces of occupation relate back to the Roman period. The first inhabitants of the lagoon region lived on fishing and the exploitation of salt, but settlements remained scattered and did not form an urbanized center. This area was part of the Roman Empire.
Then, there were the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, and in the sixth, people pushed to seek refuge in these difficult areas. Officially, Venice was founded on March 25, 421 AD, although the actual date is probably later.
The collapse of the Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire had collapsed, and it is the Roman Empire of the East who gets on the offensive and releases Italy in 540 AD for a short period. This conquest by the Byzantine general Belisarius is significant because it places Venice under the control of Byzantium. Venice will choose to remain faithful to his mistress, and from far away too, when resisting invasions of the Franks.
Populations continue to settle on several islands of the lagoon, some of which become real cities. The city of Torcello became the Episcopal center of the region with its cathedral founded in 639 AD. These residential centers were scattered, eventually uniting into the Rialto area of Venice, as a political center. This is when Venice then starts to become a real major urban center.
The lagoon gradually develops but experiences its first major crisis when Charlemagne sent his son Pepin to conquer Venetia. Resistance against the attempted sea control makes him fail in his conquest. The empire of Charlemagne and the Byzantine Empire signed a peace treaty.
Charlemagne renounces his views of Venice which remains under Byzantine domination. This is a major event in the history of Venice as this treaty allowed him to officially remain in the Byzantine area, limiting the risk of invasions of its neighbors. In addition, these special ties with Byzantium enabled him to establish a successful business relationship with one of the richest cities in the world!
The center of political power
It was after these events that Rialto region began to grow, to accommodate political power and form a city that will eventually become Venice. In the early days, Doges are appointed by Byzantium and directly elected by the Venetians.
In 828 AD, the body of St. Mark in Alexandria is stolen by merchants and brought back to Venice. The precious relic is kept in the Basilica of the same name. Saint Marc is the patron saint of the city, replacing Saint Theodore, also marking this way his independence is taken over by Byzantium. The winged lion is now the symbol of Venice.
The body of St. Mark arrives at the Mosaic Saint Mark’s Basilica
Around 1000, and Venice is completely independent. Its main asset is its position. The lagoon protects it from its enemies and makes it difficult to capture. Its location between the East and the West allows it to serve as a commercial bridge between these two regions, ensuring the fortune of the city.
Importantly, whenever possible, Venice remains neutral in conflicts between neighbors, but fights against sea pirates and installs trading posts in the Mediterranean.
Diplomatic ties itself to the city
Venice also knows how to impose a diplomatic point of view. In 1177, it acted as a mediator between Pope Alexander III and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who had been at war for years. Reconciliation was sealed in Venice, a major event in the Venetian diplomatic life that allows the city to impose itself on the international stage.
The 12th and 13th centuries were the Crusades, whereby Venice took advantage by marketing its marine services and negotiating land and benefits of the conquests made by the Crusaders. In 1204, Venice managed to divert the 4th Crusade in its favor by asking the Crusaders to conquer Constantinople before Jerusalem. The capital of Eastern Christendom is well taken and plundered, an east Latin Empire was born a few years. This tragic event will precipitate the final fall of the Byzantine Empire to be conquered by the Turks.
The capital of Eastern Christendom is well taken and plundered; an east Latin Empire was born a few years. This tragic event will precipitate the final fall of the Byzantine Empire to be conquered by the Turks. Venice brings the plunder of Constantinople treasures in huge quantity, which among other things, enriched and beautified the city.
It was also during these times that the political system of Venice begins to take final form. This will continue until the eventual fall of the Republic. First elected by the people, the Doge is then elected by a board, which will be increasingly controlled by the noble families of the city.
Throughout the history of Venice, the guideline will be to appoint Doge by counsel, to make this the safest choice possible to prevent the establishment of dynasties. Gradually, the real power of the Doge decreases in favor of various boards.
This system was put in place to allow Venice to keep such political stability over the centuries. The other important point of political life is that the church is not a party to the Venetian, unlike other European countries. Here we have already a real separation of church and state.
The fourteenth century was the century of great peril for Venice. The first crisis of the century appears in 1309 for control of the city of Ferrara, claimed by several members of the same family. The Pope, siding with the opposite side of that of Venice, throws the ban on the city! The enemies of the city confiscate their property, ships are attacked, merchants prisoners … it is the ruin of the Venetian
The enemies of the city confiscate their property, ships are attacked, merchants are taken prisoner. It is the ruin of the Venetian economy, however, it does not yield. Venice is on the verge of civil war between the supporters of peace and those who want to continue the war.
A failed coup
A coup was organized against the Doge, which is foiled. This leads to the creation of the famous Council of Ten, body with special powers, making decisions with the Doge and his six councilors. Its decisions had the same value as that of the Grand Council, to finally have a quick decision circuit.
It was only in 1313, with another Doge at the head of the republic, as Venice capitulates to Pope enabling the city to resume operations serenely and regain some years of peace and prosperity. But the power of Italian neighbors of Venice was growing. The Verona territory stretched around Venice, blocking its trade routes. An alliance allowed to defeat the threat and especially in Venice to expand its possessions on the mainland, something it had never desired so far.
At the same time, new tensions arise with the city’s rival, Genoa, as the two wrestled trading posts in the dying Byzantine Empire. The war with Genoa erupts again in 1378. A serious naval defeat left Venice defenseless on the marine side. Fighting the armies of the Hungarian and Padua, Genoa and its allied land is reclaimed, but Venice cannot be reached, as it is protected by the lagoon. Following this, Venice builds defenses around the city.
Chioggia, to the south, falls into the hands of the enemies of the Republic. Despite the critical situation in Venice, the city manages to build some galleys and to resume the offensive. During the winter, the Genoese troops find themselves actually themselves besieged in Chioggia, the second war fleet arriving in Venice of the East! The situation was critical for both camps but it was the Genoese who surrender. Peace is signed and Venice gains nothing but the ability to recover fairly quickly, unlike its enemy, Genoa, who declined and eventually was incorporated under the French empire.
Bringing in the golden age
The fifteenth century is the expansion and the golden age of Venice. Venice decided to conquer its hinterland. By mid-century, its empire on land then extends over Istria and Dalmatia in the East, the Po in the West and the Alps in the North.
The year of 1453 marks the fall of Constantinople, as it was conquered by the Turks. The situation becomes much more difficult for Venice who must deal with these conquerors, who are much less flexible than the Byzantines. The second half of the century saw the decline of Venice in the East, the conquering Turks held several islands and ports belonging to the Serenissima.
The sixteenth century began badly for Venice, which had become too ambitious in its claim on surrounding land. In 1508 Venice declared war against the League of Cambrai, combining France, the Pope, the Holy Roman Empire and Aragon. The Venice territories were quickly won over by the alliance and Venice found itself besieged, all but protected by the lagoon.
Venice eventually fell into the lap of the Pope but other alliance members continued the war, raising fears the fall of the Serenissima. Finally, the alliance of Cambrai disintegrated by itself and the Pope recreated a new alliance; this time with Venice, and against France! It is finally with a new change of alliance that France finds itself allied to Venice in 1516; Venice was finally recovering its lost territory on the mainland thanks to French!
Despite this, the power of Venice was definitely weakened.
The loss of Cyprus
The rest of the century saw the rise of the Turks in Europe and in the Mediterranean, while Venice lost the island of Cyprus in 1571. Meanwhile, Venice established an alliance with the Pope and Spain, which led to a great naval victory, the battle Lepanto in 1571, which is glorified on many Venetian artworks. Unfortunately, it will be a hollow victory and one of the last of the Republic against the Turks.
In the seventeenth century, Venice must now face the European countries. Indeed, the various states forming Italy were absorbed or were controlled by neighboring countries (for example Milan under Spanish rule). Venice escaped an attempted conquest by guile in 1618. The Spaniards were gradually introduced in small groups in the city and even tried to take over the city, a fleet of ships arriving just in time.
In 1630, Venice, French allies oppose the Spanish attempt to takeover Mantua. With the French victory, Mantua, although ravaged remains free. But a plague eventually killed three-quarters of the population and spread to Venice where it suffered more than 45,000 deaths, In the Mediterranean, Crete will eventually be lost to the Turks in 1669. Venice still tries to fight against the Turks, taking up to a few years post Morea, but Venice will no longer be able to compete militarily.
The decline of a great city
In the eighteenth century, the decline of the city is now clearly visible, and it will remain mostly neutral in conflicts between its larger neighbors. It succeeded during the War of Spanish Succession, but still struggled with Austria against the Turks. The Treaty of Passarowitz ends this war and sets the last frontiers of Venice. Its territory extends up to Bergamo in Italy, but also Friuli, Istria and Dalmatia. In the Mediterranean, it still has a few islands like Corfu and Paxos. The bulk of the century is quiet for Venice but it still prospers.
Venice tries to remain neutral during the French Revolution and the battles of General Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy against Austria. Venice refuses the suggested alliance with France. Having conquered Austria, Venice takes on too much and gets overtaken, ending its reign as a Republic. Venice is occupied for the first time in its history.
Ceding to Austria
In the nineteenth century, Venice was ceded to Austria by Bonaparte before being integrated into the kingdom of Italy by Napoleon. Venice will nevertheless be returned to Austria from 1815 to 1866 when Venice joins the Kingdom of Italy. It is here that we stop the history of Venice, which is now part of Italy.