March 25, 421: Venice is founded. According to tradition, the area was populated by refugees from nearby Roman cities – Padua, Aquileia, Treviso, Altino, and Concordia as well as from the undefended countryside. The area had seen successive waves of Germanic and Hun invasion forces and the survivors headed to the marshy lagoons and set up homes on the many islands. These people were called the incolae lacunae or lagoon dwellers. The founding of Venice is given as noon on this day when the first church, San Giacomo, was dedicated on the islet of Rialto. As successive invasions took place, the rule of Venice often changed hands.
Between the 9th and 12th centuries, Venice developed into a city state. The other three city states were Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi. Venice had a strategic advantage at the head of the Adriatic Sea and it made the city powerful in naval and commercial endeavors. The elimination of coastal pirates helped secure their position and the region became a flourishing trade center between Western Europe and the rest of the known world, especially the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic controlled area. Because of their interaction with the eastern world, they maintained close ties to Constantinople. Their rule of their colonies was fairly benign and rather enlightened for the era, which helped them maintain control.
Their power began to decline in the 15th century and as a port city, they were bombarded with waves of Black Death. The plague killed 50,000 people in just three years and sixty years later, in 1630, another third of Venice’s 150,000 population was killed. Portugal took over as the leader in ports for international trade and Venice’s economy was as decimated as her population. May 12, 1797 was the end of Venice’s Republic status when she fell to Napoleon Bonaparte. With the European continent in flux, rule of Venice changed hands several times. During World War II, the city remained fairly intact and precise strikes by the Royal Air Force on the German naval operations did virtually no structural damage to the city itself.
Today, the 160 square mile city is home to about 271,000 people with about 60,000 living in historic Venice. The historic city is divided into six areas or sestiere while the whole municipality is divided into six boroughs. Buildings are constructed on closely spaced alder wood piles which are still intact after centuries of submersion. The foundations of buildings rest on plates of limestone which rest on the piles. The water is oxygen-poor and the wood does not decay rapidly. The climate is humid subtropical and there is always danger of flooding since the elevation of the city is barely above sea level. Although once a bastion of trade, today, tourism leads many people to visit. Art and architecture combine to make it the 28th most visited city in the world with nearly 3 million visitors coming each year.
Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors. – Henry James
If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is. Venice is better. – Fran Lebowitz
Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go. – Truman Capote
Is it worth while to observe that there are no Venetian blinds in Venice? – William Dean Howells
Also on this day: On Your Marks – In 1668, the first horse race was run in the American colonies.
Titan Discovered – In 1655, Christiaan Huygens discovered one of Saturn’s moons.
First Passenger Train – In 1908, the Oystermouth Railway began service.
Jobs – In 1894, Coxey’s Army began their march on Washington, D.C.
Richard the Lionheart – In 1199, Richard I of England was shot.
* Picture by Didier Descouens