We’ve broken down how some of the most historically-important things to see in Venice have come to be.
It may seem a miracle that the waterborne city of Venice, the “City of Canals,” even exists. It’s best known for its beautiful bridges, gondola rides through winding canals, gorgeous architecture, and iconic St. Mark’s Square.
And yet, the rich history of Venice, including rule by the doges, crusades in Constantinople, and fabulous palazzi built between the 13th and 18th centuries, has resulted in an intoxicating mix of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles that’s unsurpassed just about anywhere. We’ve broken down some of the most important parts of Venice’s history, from how it was built to the history of the canals to the oldest building in Venice—as well as the overall history of the one-of-a-kind, unmissable wonder that is Venice itself.
When Was Venice Originally Built?
The myth of when Venice was originally built is not quite the reality. For many years, historians thought the construction of Venice started in the 5th century AD after the fall of the Roman Empire. Refugees from the mainland, who were fleeing Germanic and Hun invaders and looking for a safer place to live, settled on some of the 124 islands in the marshy Venetian lagoon. They mainly landed on the island of Torcello, at the lagoon’s northern end. But starting around the 9th century AD, when Torcello’s harbor began blocking up with silt, trade moved from Torcello to central Venice. The people followed, leaving Torcello as the quiet lagoon island you can still visit today.
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The trouble is that, in the last 20 years, historians have discovered that this story of Venice’s origins is just a myth. It turns out that Venice already existed in Ancient Roman times. Workers involved in the production of salt and fishing needed a place to live, and expanding Venice out into the water gave them the added space they needed to thrive. Many workers did, in fact, relocate to Torcello in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, when silt started filling the harbor of the main island. But in the early 9th century AD, duke (doge) Giustiniano Participazio moved the ducal palace from the island of Lido to the island of Rivo Alto–known today as Rialto. After that, Venice continued to expand until it became the magical city set on water that we love today.
What’s the History of Venice?
Incredibly, the Venice history timeline spans more than 2,000 years. Venice was controlled by the Byzantine Empire until 727 AD, when the Venetians elected their first doge, Orso Ipato. Venice continued to flourish as a trading center through the Middle Ages. In 1204, the Venetians captured Constantinople along with the Crusaders and brought many treasures back to Venice, including the gilt bronze horses now inside Basilica di San Marco. In the 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in Europe and dominated shipping in the Mediterranean. But starting in the 15th century, Venice’s fortunes began to turn, and it started on a long period of decline, eventually losing its position as the center of international trade. Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797, and Venice became part of Austria. It finally became part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy in 1866 after the Third Italian War of Independence. Venice remained relatively intact during the Second World War, preserving the fascinating historical buildings that give it much of its charm.
How Was Venice Built?
Venice was built on water by driving wooden poles deep into the clay beneath the marshy lagoons. Because there were no local trees, builders needed to bring alder wood over from the neighboring countries of Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. On top of the wooden poles, workers built Venice using wooden platforms, and then on top of that, they constructed their buildings—all of which means that Venice is basically built on wood and water. The wood has miraculously avoided decay over the centuries since it’s underwater and not exposed to oxygen, and also because the saltwater has hardened the wood into a more durable stone-like consistency. Still, today Venice is sadly sinking every year, mainly due to the steadily increasing sea levels.
What’s the History of Venice’s Canals?
Venice’s canals were created when settlers wanted to enlarge and strengthen the islands. So they drained parts of the lagoon, dug canals, and created banks with wooden stakes. Venice’s canals have long been used for transportation, protection, and, of course, for crossing under romantic bridges on a gondola with the ones you love.
How Deep Is the Water in Venice?
The depth of the water in Venice’s canals varies by canal, whether dredging has been done to remove silt and sand in that particular canal, and the tide levels. Most canals are 5 to 6.5 feet deep, while the Grand Canal is deeper, at about 16.4 feet. Even if they do seem deep enough, don’t be tempted to jump in for a dip: It’s against the law and you’ll be fined.
What’s the Oldest Building in Venice?
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, otherwise known as Torcello Cathedral on the quiet island of Torcello, is thought to be the oldest building in Venice, originally dating to the 600s AD. Though the original building is no longer, you can still marvel at the wondrous 11th-century gold mosaics on display inside the church.
Why Was Venice so Wealthy?
Venice became wealthy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance due to its prime position at the head of the Adriatic Sea, allowing it to control trade between Europe and the Middle East and Asia. Venice started producing and trading its own salt, and later acquired salt from many other countries. Traders also brought back goods highly priced by Europeans, such as silks and spices. Shipbuilding also became a major part of the Venetian economy, with Europe’s largest industrial complex until the 18th century located at the Arsenale–today best known as the home of the Venice Biennale.
What’s the History of Basilica di San Marco?
St. Mark’s Cathedral, or Basilica di San Marco, was originally built in 828 to house the bones of St. Mark the Evangelist, which had been stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants. The story goes that the bones were smuggled out of Egypt by being hidden in layers of pork fat. Though the original church was destroyed by a fire in 976, the current Basilica was built in the 11th century. Not long after its completion, the doge at the time recovered what was believed to be St. Mark’s body from a pillar, miraculously unharmed in the fire. Today, the Basilica is one of the most visited sights in Venice, primarily to see the amazing gold mosaics, which cover 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) of the church’s interior.
How Was the Rialto Bridge Built?
The oldest bridge in Venice that crosses the Grand Canal, the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge), was originally conceived as a temporary pontoon, or floating bridge, built in 1181. As traffic over the bridge increased, it was replaced by a wooden bridge in 1255. But after collapsing twice, it was decided to rebuild the bridge out of more stable stone. Though design proposals were submitted by many famous architects of the time, including Michelangelo, the winning design was by Antonio da Ponte, and the new bridge was completed in 1591. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Venice.
What Are Those Winged Lions All Over Venice?
The symbol of Venice is the winged lion, representing the Lion of St. Mark the Evangelist, which you’ll see not only sold in shops around town in the form of stuffed animals, fridge magnets, and the like, but as the prizes given at the Venice International Film Festival (the “Golden Lion”). It’s also the sculpture atop one of the granite columns in the Piazza San Marco and was pieced together from bronze fragments dating from different times, with the oldest likely originating from the early 3rd century BC. After Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic in the late 18th century, he had the sculpture moved to Paris; though it was returned to Venice in 1815, it was badly damaged and needed a complete restoration.
What’s the Story Behind Venetian Masks?
You’ll see exquisitely-made masks for sale inside Venice’s artisan shops, and cheapie knock-offs at souvenir stands. But how did Venice become a center of mask-making? It’s all thought to have begun around the 12th century when Venetians began wearing masks in their daily lives so that upper and lower classes could mingle—and often engage in illicit activities—without anyone knowing who was who. When things started getting out of hand, masks were restricted to use during parties held from after Christmas to the beginning of Lent, which evolved into the Venice Carnevale. However, after the Venetian Republic fell in the late 18th century, the King of Austria banned Carnevale and the wearing of masks, and both were not fully revived until 1979. Today a variety of masks are worn during the Venice Carnevale, many elaborately decorated with crystals, feathers, and fabric.
Why Is It Called the Jewish Ghetto?
Venetian Jews were separated into their own quarter called the Jewish Ghetto—the first time the word ghetto was used in history—by the Venice Senate in 1516. The name came from the copper foundry, or geto, that had previously existed on the site, and the gates to the ghetto were locked at night. Inside, Jewish people established synagogues, and today the area has the highest density of Renaissance-era synagogues in Europe (though fewer than 500 Jews still live in the area today). Though the gates were unlocked when Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797, they were then reinstated under Austrian rule until 1866. To learn more about the ghetto’s history, sign up for a tour through the Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico), held every hour starting at 10 a.m., except on Saturdays.
How Did the Doge’s Palace Come to Be?
Though various palaces existed before then, construction on the current Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) started around 1340, and it was renovated extensively in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was used both as the doge’s residence and as the administrative center of the Venetian Republic. The doge was once the leader of the Republic, and this elected position held much power until the 11th century. After that time, though the doge was able to hold the position for life, his duties became more symbolic and he had no decision-making powers on his own. In fact, the doge was required to stay inside his palace at all times, except when permitted to leave. The last doge abdicated in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic, and the palace continued to house administrative offices until it became a museum in 1923. Today, the Doge’s Palace is an essential stop when in Venice not only to see the building itself, but also the many pieces of important art within.