In the summer months, VENICE can be gruling. Hot, steamy, crowded with tourists, and very little air conditioning often makes me want to get through the tourist sights and then seek refuge. Located on the Adriatic Sea, in a lagoon loaded with marshy islands, it is no wonder Venice is either hot, humid, or wet and soggy. However, even with all that, I love the place. Belgium has its “Venice of the North” and France has its “little Venices” in Colmar and Strasbourg, yet nothing can compare the the real deal. Napolean once call the Piazza San Marco the “drawing room of Europe,” and it is no wonder thousands flock to it each day to see (and maybe experience) it’s charm.
In the next few weeks, I’d like to introduce you to “my” Venice. I’ll include all the “biggies” such as the Basicila San Marco, the Doges Palace, the Rialto Bridge, Accademia, and others. But, what I really want to do is show you Venice, not as a tourist sight, but as a destination to be savored and experienced.
A Little History…
Venice is a tourist attraction in itself. Even if there were no museums, no churches, and no entertainment the lagoon-locked city would attract tourists just for its character. Founded more than thirteen hundred years ago, the collection of boggy islands became a refuge for local tribes fleeing the invading Franks. Protected by marshlands and several kilometers of water, it provided safety and peace of mind to those who inhabited the area.
Settlers eventually began driving piling into the bog to provide support for buildings. The marshland was transformed from a swamp to an island built of pilings and wood, canals served as the streets, and boats served as carriages. In A.D. 811 a Doge (from the Latin dux meaning leader) was elected and Venice was on its way to becoming a world power. In 828 the relics of Saint Mark were brought from Alexandria and he became the town’s patron saint.
Several councils designed to limit the Doges’ power supervised the role of the Doge. The Grand Council developed the laws; the Senate was responsible for foreign affairs, the economy, and the military; and the Council of Ten was responsible for security. The Council of Ten maintained a network of secret police and informants, which, created an air of mistrust but ensured control of the city.
The Middle Ages saw Venice rise to become a world power. Being strategically located on an important trade route between the Middle East and Europe, Venice seized the opportunity to regulate trade and shipping routes. In effect, the Venetians became the “middlemen” between the economies of the East and West. Cargo of precious spices, silk, and jewels all passed through Venice and merchants became very rich.
By 1450 Venice was at its zenith, being both a political and religious power in Italy. Venice maintained its independence from the Pope, the Holy Roman Empire, and kingdoms to the north by maintaining a powerful army and navy, as well as forming alliances with neighboring kingdoms. The late 15th century saw the discovery of the Americas and new trade routes. Consequentially, a decrease in trade through Venice led to a slow decline of the Republic. Finally, in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte entered and abolished Venice’s constitution and dissolved the Republic. Later Napoleon ceded the city to Austria. It was not until 1866 that Venice and the Venato were united with Italy.
Since the early 1800’s Venice’s population has dwindled. Once commanding the attention of worldwide trade, now Venice delights in being an enchanting destination and on the must-see list of tourists worldwide. Today it’s the home to about 65,000 people living in the old city center. Recent decades have seen the young people leave for a bigger and more active life in the cities of Italy. Many have forsaken their traditional family ties, leaving an older generation to live out their lives in Venice. Just a few blocks off the San Marco and Rialto tourist route, visitors can find local neighborhoods filled with laundry flapping in the breeze, women chatting from their windows high above the alleys, and gentlemen visiting at the local square. Most visitors to Venice miss this intimate look into the city’s culture. Don’t let it pass you by, get out and explore!
(A couple of my favorite dining spots are coming up in the next post).