With the dedication of the San Giacomo Church on the islet of Rialto at precisely the stroke of noon, the great imperial city of Venice was founded in the malarial swamps off the coast of Italy on this day in 421.
There is a creation myth that Venice was founded far earlier, by ancients fleeing Troy. But most accounts trace its founding to the fifth century, when refugees from nearby Roman cities like Padua, Aquileia, Treviso, Altino, and Concordia fled their undefended walls for the relative safety of Venice during successive waves of Germanic and Hun invasions. Along with these “Roman refugees,” Venice was populated with incolae lacunae, or “lagoon dwellers,” fishermen making their livings off the islands’ marshy lagoons. The final wave of immigration came from the Lombards, originally a Germanic people, leaving the Eastern Roman Empire for the Italian peninsula. Venice’s official founding was marked on 25 March 421, with the dedication of its first church, San Giacomo, on the island of Rialto.
Over the centuries, Venice was a refuge of sorts, offering asylum to pursued peoples and leaders like Exarch Paul and the Lombards. From the ninth century on, Venice developed into a city-state and a flourishing center of trade between Western Europe and the rest of the world—particularly the Byzantine and Muslim world—due to its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic that made its canals and waterways almost immune from attack. By funding the Fourth Crusades—which saw Constantinople sacked in 1204—Venice rose to imperial status in the 13th century, and became more decorated with Byzantine plunder from the wars. Because of this victory and its extensive trading networks, Venice had become the most prosperous city in all of Europe by the 13th century. At its peak, some 36,000 sailors operating over 3,000 ships dominated Mediterranean commerce, and Venice’s wealthiest families competed with each other to build the grandest palaces and sponsor the greatest artists. It was not to last.
In the 15th century, Venice entered into a period of long decline, initiated by its defeat at the hands of besieging Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II. During the race for the colonies, Portugal, France, England, and Holland traversed the great oceans while Venice was left behind in its oared canals. The Black Death dealt a lethal blow to Venice in 1348 and again in 1575 and 1630, killing hundreds of thousands of Venetians and erasing its dominance as a central player in international trade.
Today, the city is known primarily as one of the most popular tourism destinations in the world with some 3 million international arrivals annually. Unfortunately, its popularity is slowly eroding the city’s great treasures. Venice’s charming canals are often overcrowded with tourists and large cruise ships plying its narrow waters sometimes get stuck and send large wakes toward the city. Furthermore, the city, built on a swamp, is slowly sinking, with the lower floors of many older homes perpetually flooded. For its rich history, incredible treasures, and fragile condition, Venice was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Credit: © Images Etc Ltd / Alamy
Caption: The Grand Canal in Venice, Italy.