To really understand Venice, the city on water, and to better appreciate your stay there, you have to know something about its history. How did the Republic of Venice gradually become indepedent, how did it establish institutions that remained stable for a millennium, and how did the city embrace its commercial and maritime power? Here you will find a short summary of the history of the Venetian “Serenissima”.
The creation of the Venetian Republic
The history of Venice begins in the 6th century when fishermen and merchants gathered on marshy islands to protect themselves from barbarian invasions. Venice gradually detached itself from the Byzantine Empire to which it belonged thanks to the emergence of a local authority which quickly became structured. At its head, there was a doge who embodied political and military power. The first doge was Paolo Lucio Anafesto whose governance lasted twenty years, from 697 to 717.
Venice started developing after the annexation of various territories and trading branches along the coast of the Adriatic Sea and then gradually around the circumference of the Mediterranean Sea.
The maritime and commercial domination of Venice
The city was becoming an essential part of the trade between Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Byzantine and Muslim empires. We can find these influences in a good number of monuments, especially in Saint Mark's Basilica, a harmonious combination of oriental and western style.
The Venetian maritime fleet militarily assisted the Byzantine Empire, which in return granted it commercial privileges. In the same manner as Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi, the other major Italian ports, Venice became a city-state which based its power on maritime wealth: this is why it became a “Repubblica Marinara” (maritime Republic).
In the 13th century, Venice became a stopover for crusaders, and even participated in the fourth crusade. In return, it received territories from the former Byzantine Empire, including the Greek Islands and part of the city of Constantinople, now Istanbul. It thus took pride of place in exchanges between the West and the East. The dominance of Venice was reflected in the essential position that the Rialto stock exchange took in trade, and the size of the Arsenal, which became four times bigger over two centuries.
The decline of the Republic of Venice
From the 14th to the 16th century many Italian wars took place, during which the big cities fought fiercely to dominate the country. Venice faced Genoa but also Rome, Naples, Milan and Florence.
The Republic of Venice went into decline in the 16th century. Maritime commerce moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and English and Dutch merchants competed with Venice in the Mediterranean. In addition, the Ottoman Empire took over all the trading points set up by the Venetians on the Eastern route.
Despite this commercial decline, Venice experienced an artistic peak in all areas: architecture, painting, sculpture, music, etc. The numerous buildings that adorn the Grand Canal or the Fenice Theater are fine examples.
At the end of the 18th century, Venice was no longer able to stand alone against the great powers, so it had to ally with the Austrian Empire. In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte's troops ended almost a millennium of independence when they occupied the Republic of Venice which, as a result of the Campo-Formio treaty, was ceded to the Austrian Empire.
The institutions of the Venetian Republic
The political stability that lasted a millennium was the result of institutions that were established perfectly around an oligarchic republic.
This original and complex organization gave all the power to 42 noble families; the families then elected a representative, the Doge, who remained in the position for life. Unlike monarchies, the title was not hereditary.
The Grand Council of the Venetian Republic, formerly known as Concio, was the legislative assembly that met every Sunday to make political decisions and enact laws.
The Senate of the Republic of Venice, with around 200 senators, was responsible for foreign policy and the appointment of ambassadors who acted as spies for the Venetian government.
In addition to these institutions there was also the Venetian College, the Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of Ten) and the Supremo Collegio (Court of Cassation). The purpose of these institutions was to consolidate the Republic. They brought together the main figures of the Republic so their powers were extensive, so much so that they could remove the Doge himself.
This perfect organization allowed Venice to prosper for a millennium, and today offers us so many places to discover: places of power, such as the Doge's Palace or the homes of large families.
We advise you to visit the San Marco district, the historic and political center of the Venetian “Serenissima”, and immerse yourself in its rich history!
Plan your visit in the Lands of Venice! Discover our Palladian Routes in inland Venice!