Located at the northernmost end of the Adriatic Sea lies the city of Venice.
Venice is truly unlike any other city in the world. It is a collection of 118 small islands connected by bridges and ferries.
Its unique geography allowed Venice to become one of the most powerful cities in the world, both militarily and economically.
Today it remains one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations.
Learn more about Venice and its rise and fall on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Unlike many cities in Italy, which have their origins in ancient Rome, Venice does not.
The founding of Venice dates back to the year 421 when the western Roman empire was falling apart. Germanic tribes and Huns from the steppes began flowing into the Italian peninsula.
Roman citizens fleeing the invaders found shelter in a collection of 118 islands located in a protected lagoon. As the invaders weren’t really seafaring people, the islands turned out to provide great protection.
The original inhabitants of the islands primarily made their living from fishing and making salt.
As things kept falling apart, the people on the islands unified for mutual protection.
The fact that the islands were not connected to the mainland made the inhabitants isolated and gave them autonomy. They were not subject to any king, emperor, prince, or duke.
The first government of Venice was formed in 568, which was more of a standing committee with representatives of the islands.
Venice, while autonomous, was still nominally under the rule of the Byzantine Emperor out of Constantinople. This rule was via the city of Ravenna, which was one of the last Byzantine outposts in Italy.
The beginning of the Republic of Venice, which the world would know for the next thousand years, can be traced back to the year 697. That was when the very first Doge of Venice was elected.
The Doge was the name of the leader of Venice, and it was a unique form of leadership.
The Doge was an elected position, but the election was for life. The word “doge” comes from the Latin “dux,” which is also the origin of the word “duke”.
While the lifetime election of the doge sounds a bit like a monarchy, the position of the doge was neither hereditary nor absolute, although it was much more absolute in its early days.
The first doge who was elected was Orso Ipato.
In 751, Ravenna was captured by the Lombards from northern Italy, and the last formal link to the Byzantines was cut.
Over the next several centuries, Venice grew as a maritime naval and commercial power. The location and geography of Venice sort of dictated its future as it wasn’t a traditional land power that used agriculture as its source of wealth.
In addition to trading, they also focused on high-value manufactured goods such as glass and lace.
The Venetians were pretty agnostic as to who they would do business with. They traded with Italians, Byzantines, and with Muslims.
In 992, Venice received special trading rights with the Byzantine Empire by allowing them to have sovereignty over them again. Ninety years later, in 1082, they once again achieved independence, but this time they kept the special trading rights.
They achieved this from a position of power with the Byzantines now that they had such a powerful navy.
Venice wasn’t the only merchant city-state in Italy with a strong navy. Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi, and Ancona were all competitors of Venice. However, Venice’s natural defenses gave it a level of protection that its rivals couldn’t match.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Venice began controlling territory of its own, in particular along the Dalmatian coast along the Adriatic.
During this time, one of the most significant doges in history was elected to power, Enrico Dandolo.
Dandolo’s story is unique amongst almost all leaders in world history. He came to power in 1192 at the age of 85. An age at which more leaders in the world at that time were…..dead.
Dandolo is perhaps best known for his role in the Fourth Crusade, which he helped to organize and lead. In 1201, Dandolo negotiated an agreement with the Crusaders to transport them to the Holy Land with the Venetian navy.
The problem was the crusaders couldn’t pay.
Dandolo offered to defer the payment if the crusaders helped Venice to retake the city of Zara, which today is known as Zadar, Croatia.
The Crusaders were successful in taking Zara and then were called to Constantinople again for money. The emperor Isaac II Angelos had been deposed from power, and his son Alexios IV Angelos offered the crusaders and the Venetians a great deal.
He’d send troops to help fight in the crusade to pay off the crusader’s debt to Venice, and he agreed to convert to catholicism from orthodox Christianity. All the crusaders had to do in return was to put him in power.
In 1203, the Crusaders and Dandolo kept their end of the bargain, but Alexios didn’t honor his promises, so the crusaders sacked the city. Dandolo took four bronze horses from the city, and they are at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice today.
Enrico Dandolo died at the age of 98. He rebuilt St. Mark’s, reformed the Venetian Navy, and established Venice as a maritime power.
They continued to grow in power and in wealth. They also accumulated a rather small empire which was known as Stato da Màr.
The Stato da Màr didn’t compromise a lot of land, but it was strategically important land along the Adriatic Sea, Southern Greece, and certain Greek islands.
By the late 13th century, Venice was unquestionably the wealthiest city in Europe. They had 36,000 sailors and 3,300 ships. They were the dominant force in Mediterranean commerce. One of the other reasons why Venice was successful is because they hired a relatively large number of mercenaries, which they could afford to do.
The 13th century also saw a change in the government of the republic. It moved from widespread input by citizens to control by a small number of wealthy merchants.
They fought several skirmishes with their arch-rival Genoa, which allowed them to retain their dominant position in the Mediterranean.
Venice started to decline with the fall of Constantinapole to the Ottomans in 1453.
By the time Constantinople fell, it wasn’t very powerful, but now they had to deal with the Ottomans. Venice’s relationship with the Ottomans was extremely complex.
They fought with the Ottomans and lost territory to them, but at the same time, they traded with them and often worked with them when their interests were aligned.
Things came to a head in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto. Lepanto was a naval battle between a host of Christian states using mostly Venetian ships and the Ottomans off the coast of Greece.
The Ottomans lost, which gave Venice a reprieve and a return to dominance in the Mediterranean.
In the 17th century, they clashed with the Republic of Ragusa, which was centered in the city of Dubrovnik. Ragusa reached a level of power on a par with Venice during this period.
One of the artifacts from the era which still exists is the Neum corridor. If you look at a map, really close, you can see a very small strip of land in Bosnia and Herzegovina which reaches the sea. The strip of coastline is about 20 kilometers or 12.4 miles in length and separates Dubrovnik from the rest of Croatia.
The only reason it exists is that in 1699 Dubrovnik asked the Ottomans to occupy the corridor to put a buffer between themselves and Venice so Venice couldn’t attack them by land.
One of the things which Venice suffered several times over the centuries was epidemics. Because they were a merchant republic, they constantly had ships coming and going from all over the Mediterranean.
The Black Death devastated Venice in 1348. They had another bout of plague in 1575 and 1577. In 1630, the Italian plague killed a full third of the population of Venice.
Venice was so sensitive to disease that they created a policy where people had to spend 40 days at a hospital on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. This 40-day period, known in Italian as quaranta giorni, is the origin of the word quarantine.
One of the factors which began the decline of Venice was the development of direct trade routes to Asia for spices. Venice had worked with the Ottomans to monopolize the spice trade in Europe. Once countries like Portugal could cut out Venice, they lost a huge amount of money.
The discovery of the Americas brought new products to European markets that Venice had no part in.
In the 18th century, Venice went into its final decline. Competition reduced their commercial power. As a military power, they had dwindled down to almost nothing. At the end of the 18th century, they only had a few ships left and barely enough men to man them.
In 1797, the Republic of Venice came to an end when it was invaded by the French under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte.
While Venice as an independent city-state might have been over, the city of Venice was not.
It bounced between the French Kingdom of Italy, the Austrian empire, and there was even an attempt to revive the republic. In the end, it was merged into the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
By this time, Venice had lost all its strategic importance. There were many other ports that had become more important because of their proximity to industrial centers. The Suez Canal lessened the importance of trade within the Mediterranean.
While Venice lost its strategic and economic importance, it was still a historic and beautiful city. Unlike many cities in Europe, it managed to escape the second world war without any damage.
After the war, the city grew. New industries flowed into Venice, and eventually, one industry dominated all others: tourism.
Venice had always been a fashionable place to visit. However, mass tourism changed everything in the city. The annual number of tourists to Venice approached 30 million before the pandemic. Cheap flights and cruise ships made Venice into a historical amusement park.
Despite a post-war increase in population to almost a quarter million people, the number of Venetians today is estimated to only be about 50,000 people. Most people have left due to the high cost of living and the fact that they can make more money by renting out their homes on sites like AirBnB.
Venice has become the poster child for overtourism. People are literally loving it to death. This has led to calls for restrictions on the number of visitors and cruise ships.
The other problem facing Venice is flooding. Flooding has become a common occurrence at high tides in places like Saint Mark’s Square. The entire city is situated at sea level, and by that, I mean literally at sea level. Most of the buildings are situated on wooden stilts that sit in the water.
Storm surges and extreme tides can cause water to flood the city, putting some parts as much as six feet below water.
To protect the city, a system of 78 floodgates was installed, which can be raised to protect the city and lagoon from rising seawater. It was used for the first time in 2020 to prevent flooding, and the entire system is expected to be completed in 2025.
The future of Venice is being hotly debated by the people there. How much tourism should be regulated, limited, or controlled?
The city got a glimpse of what it could be like during the pandemic. When tourism ground to a halt, the water in the canals actually cleared up for the first time in centuries because there were no boats stirring up sediment.
Even dolphins were seen swimming in the grand canal for the first time in memory.
Venice is an incredible city. I’ve been all over the world, and there is nothing like Venice. The shock I had when I walked out the doors of the train station my first time there is one that many people have experienced.
Every time I’ve been there, I’ve wanted to stay for several months…and maybe that is part of the problem.
If you ever get the chance to visit Venice, I can’t say you shouldn’t go. You will not find another city like it. It has a deep deep history, incredible architecture, and it is just plain beautiful.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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