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Venice Through the Ages
Venice was founded in the 5th century when the Veneti, inhabitants of the mainland region roughly corresponding to today's lower Veneto, fled their homes to escape invading Germanic tribes. The unlikely city, built on islands in the lagoon and later atop wooden posts driven into the marshes, would evolve into a maritime republic lasting over a thousand years.
After liberating the Adriatic from marauding pirates, its early fortunes grew as a result of its active role in the Crusades, beginning in 1095 and culminating in the Venetian-led sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The defeat of rival Genoa in the Battle of Chioggia (1380) established Venice as the dominant sea power in Europe.
As early as the 7th century, Venice was governed by a ruler, the doge, elected by the nobility to a lifetime term; however, since the common people had little political input or power, the city wasn't a democracy by modern definition. Beginning in the 12th century, the doge's power was increasingly subsumed by a growing number of councils, commissions, and magistrates. In 1268 a complicated procedure for the doge's election was established to prevent nepotism, but by that point power rested foremost with the Great Council, which at times numbered as many as 2,000 members.
A Long Decline
Venice reached the height of its wealth and territorial expansion in the early 15th century, during which time its domain included all of the Veneto region and part of Lombardy, but the seeds of its decline were soon to be sown, with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the pope, threatened by Venice's mainland expansion, organized the League of Cambrai, defeated Venice in 1505, and effectively put a stop to the Republic's mainland territorial designs. The Ottoman Empire blocked Venice's Mediterranean trade routes, and newly emerging sea powers such as Britain, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands ended Venice's monopoly by opening oceanic trading routes.
When Napoleon arrived in 1797, after having offered Venice first an alliance and then, having been betrayed by the Venetians' violation of a pledge of neutrality, he took the city without a fight. He gave it briefly to the Austrians, and then got it back in 1805. With his defeat Venice was ceded again to the Austrians at the Council of Vienna in 1815, and they ruled (save for a brief Venetian revolt in 1848) until the formation of the Italian Republic in 1866. During their occupation, the Austrians, as the French had before them, helped themselves to many of the city's artistic treasures. Very few of them have been returned.
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