Venice Travel Guide

We Answer the 7 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Venice’s History

PHOTO: marako85/iStock

One of the main delights of a visit to Venice is stumbling upon historically-significant sights at every turn.

It may seem a miracle that the waterborne city of Venice even exists. And yet, its rich history, 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 how some of the most historically-important things to see in Venice, from the Basilica di San Marco to the Rialto Bridge to Venice itself, have come to be.

How Was Venice Built?

The construction of Venice started in the 5th century AD after the fall of the Roman Empire when refugees from the mainland fled to the islands in the lagoon. Soon, there were so many of them that they needed more space, so they drove wooden poles deep into the clay beneath the ground. On top of the wooden poles, they built 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 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 (Venetian ruler) 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, the Jews 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, visit the Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico) and sign up for a tour, held every hour on the half-hour starting at 10:30 am, 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 given permission 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.