Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Veneto - the Rise and Fall of the Most Serene Republic of Venice

When I first moved to Uzbekistan and visited the local history museum, it amazed me to discover a whole timeline of history that I had no idea existed.  It was like a parallel history to the one I had been taught in school, which focused on Europe and Ireland.  Suddenly discovering a whole new set of kings, wars and revolutions, was incredibly bewildering and I'm still not sure I've managed to get my head around the complexity of the history of Central Asia.  I then had a similar experience in Thailand - wars with the Khmer and the Burmese that somehow echoed the turbulent contemporary history of Europe, but happened for reasons that seem somehow unfathomable and involved kings and rulers whose names I find impossible to remember.

Doges, democracy and decadence

With the Veneto, being in Europe, I thought I would have a head start but, oddly, it's been a similar experience.  Until I read Elizabeth Horodowich's excellent overview A Brief History of Venice, I had no idea just how different Venice's history is.  Although it's part of Europe and was affected by and engaged in events that were happening around it, there is a whole parallel world of Doges, democracy and decadence that is often at odds with the history of Europe, as I learned it in school. 

I guess Venice is unique in every way and it should come as no surprise that a city built on water, turned its back on the feudal system of the mainland and built a different kind of society that was surprisingly modern and democratic in appearance.  Comparing the history of mainland Italy with that of Venice, Horodowich notes that Venice's history is shrouded in mystery.  No one can be entirely sure whether or not Venice was indeed the Most Serene Republic with a functioning democracy that engaged its citizens, or whether the reality was a lot more sinister than we imagine. That Venice was some kind of medieval totalitarian state, secretive and repressive to the extent that its darker side has been obscured by the mists of time. 

The Veneto in Roman times

Although there was a region in Roman Italia called Venetia et Histria, the city of Venice didn't exist in Roman times.  As the Roman Empire went into decline, Germanic tribes from the north, most importantly the Lombards, began to take over northern Italy.  The people of the Veneto found themselves at the crossroads of the conflict and raiding, which encouraged many mainland Venetians to get out of the way and seek sanctuary in the islands of the Venetian lagoon, safe from harm and a boat journey away from the marauding tribes.  As Venice turned its back on the chaos of the mainland, it began to build a new civilisation, nominally still under the control of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire with the nearest regional capital being Ravenna. 

It is widely recognised that Venice tended to look east to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), rather than west to Rome and I think this is a major factor that led to Venice developing a parallel history to Rome, the rest of Italy and the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, which is now Western Europe.  When Ravenna fell to the Lombards in the 8th century, Venice found itself in the position of being cut off from the Western Roman Empire and many miles away from the Byzantine capital.  From its very early days, Venice nurtured an independent streak that would be characteristic of the republic for the one thousand or so years of its existence.

The Rise of the Venetian Empire

Starting out as an 'island nation', it's hardly surprising that the Venetians became incredible boat-builders.  I'm sure we've all heard of the Atlantic Slave triangle, which brought many West African slaves to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and North America.  It surprised me to learn that this concept had a precedent in medieval times, where astute traders from Venice, Genoa and Pisa, would take slaves from the Black Sea and, what is, modern-day Russia, bring them to the Middle East, notably Egypt and return to Italy with exotic goods to sell to their Germanic neighbours. 

Venice dominated the spice trade of the Middle Ages.  With protectionist measures that meant the spices they brought back could only be bought or sold in Venice, the city became an incredibly multicultural 'shopping mall' where traders from all around western and northern Europe came to find spices like cinnamon and ginger.  I don't know if it's testament to our mediocre food, but the spice trade was incredibly important to Europe and proved to be the driving force of European expansion in Africa, Asia and the Americas.  For a while Venice had it good and the spice trade brought immense wealth to the city.  Although never particularly concerned about maintaining a land-based empire, the Venetians began to hold onto important trading posts such as Durazzo (Durres in Albania), Crete, Negroponte (Evia in Greece) and Cyprus. 

The role of Venice during the Crusades

The rise of the Franks and Normans in the west and the Seljuk Turks in the east brought about the Crusades, with knights and warriors travelling from Western Europe to recapture the Holy Lands and drive back the growing influence of Islam.  Although the Venetians were more interested in trading peacefully with Muslim tribes, than making war on them, they found themselves in the perfect position to supply the crusading armies, with goods and ships that could transport them to the Middle East. 

By the time of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century, the Venetians had managed to convince the Norman and Frankish crusaders to take a detour via Constantinople, then the heart of Orthodox Christianity, to settle some grievances the Venetians had with the Byzantine Empire.  The crusaders ransacked Constantinople, massacring their fellow-Christians and plundering the city's great wealth.  They never made it to the Holy Land during this particular Crusade!

Venetian 'democracy'

One of the reasons for Venice's great success in the early modern period was because of their system of government.  Whilst most European people at this time were landless peasants, who had little direct engagement with government or the decisions of their Kings/leaders, the Venetian doges were elected by a complex lottery voting system that, whilst it didn't involve every citizen of Venice, it did widen the participation of the nobility in the government of the Venetian state.  One doge, Marin Falier, famously tried to usurp power in the 14th century and was publicly beheaded as a grim reminder to future doges that the Venetian people, not the doge, were ultimately responsible for the management of the Venetian state!

Other progressive systems of civic engagement, such as the colleganza form of trading, which encouraged talented individuals to get involved in trading, regardless of their actual wealth and without having a lot of upfront capital, helped Venice thrive and its citizens prosper.  The first ever giro or banking system was used in Venice, as Venetian merchants found that they didn't want to be carrying around large sums of gold.  Venetians were incredibly adept at doing business and turning a profit and its not without good reason that Shakespeare wrote about The Merchant of Venice, rather than The Merchant of Genoa or The Merchant of Pisa

Another very obvious factor that helped 'democratise' Venetian society is that the republic's wealth wasn't built on land ownership, as was the case in the rest of medieval Europe, but on trade.  Even small traders could make it in Venetian society and the ideology of the state ensured that Venetian citizens worked together for the greater prosperity of the city.  On the darker side of this were the Signori di Notte, one of Europe's first police forces and the Council of Ten, a secretive group of nobles that took measures to safeguard the security of the state.

Venice in the 14th century

Horodowich argues the decline of the Venetian Republic started as far back as the 14th century.  Three events combined to bring the Venetians to their knees and knock them off their pedestal as a dominant power in southern Europe.  The earthquake of 1348 killed hundreds of people in Venice and coincided with the start of the Black Death.  That both things happened at the same time must have seemed like some kind of vengeance from God.  Venetian and Genoese ships brought rats carrying fleas infected with the bubonic plague back to Europe from Caffa (modern-day Azov in Russia), where the Venetians and Genoese had (uncustomarily) united to fight against the Tatars of the Crimea and the Don. 

An estimated 500-600 people died every day in Venice in the summer of 1348 and the city saw it's population fall by around 50%.  Fifty-five of Venice's patrician families were wiped out by the Black Death.

The third major disaster was the War of Choggia (1378-1381), which saw Genoese fleets occupy the Adriatic and was the closest Venice had ever come to being captured by an invading army. 

The Advent of a New World order

In the 15th and 16th centuries three further factors contributed to the decline of Venice, namely:

- the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) and the subsequent loss of Venetian territories in the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus in 1570 and their beloved Crete (although not until 1669 and after a 22-year siege, possibly the longest siege in history!)
- The growing influence of the Portuguese and the fact that they had found an alternative sea route to India. At first the Venetians weren't concerned about Portugal's growing influence on trade and they failed to recognise the significance of the 'New World' and the shift in global power to the West and North of Europe.
- the battle of Agnadello curtailed Venice's growing territorial ambitions in northern Italy.  It was a decisive defeat of Venetian troops by the combined armies of the League of Cambrai, an alliance of European countries that wished to break the power of the Venetian Republic, for once and for all.  In his book, The Prince, Machiavelli famously stated that in one day, the Venetians had "lost what it had taken them eight hundred years' exertion to conquer". 

Decadence and decay

By the early 17th century, Venice had been well and truly surpassed by the emerging powers of France, Britain and the Netherlands.  The independent nature of Venetian society and the great wealth that remained with the many palazzi and noble families, gave Venice a reputation as a place for freedom of expression, decadence and debauchery.  The entire republic was ex-communicated in 1606 and the Jesuits left the city, in a dramatic procession, refusing to live in a city which had fallen foul of Rome.  Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries was a city known for its wildly pagan Carnivale, for its courtesans and Casanova, for its prostitutes who exposed their breasts on the Ponte delle Tette in a effort to discourage Venetian men from engaging in sodomy which was, unsurprisingly, all the rage! 

At a time when the world around them was changing, the Venetians failed to adapt and modernise.  They refused to let English and Dutch ships use the city as a trading port, thereby losing out to Trieste and Ancona.  The Venetian nobility, accustomed to extravagance, continued to spend excessively, despite the decline in trade.  By the end of the 17th century, the city was full of barnabotti, impoverished nobles who'd gambled away vast fortunes and were living on state pensions.  The heavily burdened state began to sell noble titles to wealthy Germans and Spaniards, so that the list of 'official' noble families in the Libro d'Oro became debased by the presence of non-Venetians and the nouveau-riche

Napoleon and the destruction of Venice

By the time Napoleon arrived on the scene, Venice was an incredibly weak state teetering on economic collapse.  Before I read Horodowich's book, I had no idea just how much damage Napoleon's army did to Venice.  Just as the Venetians and Crusaders had ransacked Constantinople, the French troops stole, smashed and defiled everything in sight!  Apparently Napoleon hated the decadence of Venice and ordered the destruction of anything containing the Venetian symbol of the winged lion.  By the time Venice was handed over to the Austrians, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the French had destroyed approximately 80-90 churches and razed 100 palaces to the ground. 

Venice under Austrian rule was a mere shadow of its former self.  Venetians were living in extreme poverty and, although the Austrians didn't disrespect the city, in the way the French had, neither did they value it, seeing Venice as an unimportant backwater, in their expansive empire.  One thing the Austrians did do was to build a railway from the mainland to Venice, symbolically 'anchoring' the city in a way that confirmed its dependence on the rest of Europe.

Venice in modern times

It's no wonder then that the Venetians welcomed the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.  When I started researching for this blog, the Irishman in me had decided that Venice was somehow forced into a union with the rest of Italy and that it should somehow still be a free nation.  Whilst I do think it's a real shame that Venice lost its independence after more than 1,000 years, I also now realise that the unification of Italy was a good thing for Venice and helped the city recover some of its former glory.

Of course, the Venice that we know today is one of the Biennale, gondolas, uncontrollable tourism and incredibly expensive real estate.  It's sad that many Venetians can no longer live in their city, which seems to have been transformed into some kind of living museum.  Then there is the concern about rising water levels.  The flood of 1966 devastated the city, contributed to the recognition of Venice as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and highlighted the fragility of this truly historical place, which really isn't like anywhere else on earth. 

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

All the images of Venice are from the photostream of flickuser kari_1981 - Kari is a research economist, originally from Bangalore, but now living in Berlin.  You can see his entire series of Venetian photos at

Thanks kari_1981 for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons License. 
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