THE very name of Venezia, or Venice, by which we now know the city of the lagoons, is in its origin the name, not of a town, but of a country. Upon the proper comprehension of this curious fact depends a proper comprehension of much that is essential in the early history of the city and of the Republic.
The rich and fertile valley of the Po had for its commercial centre from a very remote period the town of Mediolanum or Milan. But its port for the time being, though often altered, lay always on the Adriatic. That sea derives its name, indeed, from the town of Hatria (later corrupted into Adria), which was the earliest centre of the Po valley traffic. Hatria and its sister town of Spina, however, gave way in imperial Roman times to Padua, and again in the days of the lower empire to Aquileia, near Trieste, and to Altinum, on the mainland just opposite Torcello. Padua in particular was a very prosperous and populous town under the early emperors; it gathered into itself the surplus weath of the whole Po valley.
The district between Verona and the sea, known to the Romans as Venezia, seems in the most ancient times of which we have any record to have been inhabited by an Etruscan population. Later, however, it was occupied by the Veneti, an Illyrian tribe, whose name still survives in that of Venice and in the district known as I L Veneto. But much Etruscan blood must have remained in the land even after their conquest : and it is doubtless to this persistent Etruscan element that the Venetians owe their marked artistic faculty. The country of the Veneti was assimilated and Romanised (by nominal alliance with Rome), in the third century before Christ. Under the Romans, Venetia, and its capital Padua, grew extremely wealthy, and the trade of the Lombard plain (as we now call it), the ancient Gallia Cisalpina, was concentrated on this district.
The Po and the other rivers of the sub-Alpine region bring down to the Adriatic a mass of silt, which forms fan like deltas, and spreads on either side of the mouth in belts or bars (the Lido), which enclose vast lagoons of shallow water. These lagoons consist near the mainland of basking mudbanks, more or less reclaimed, and intersected by natural or artificial canals; further out towards the bars, or Lidi, they deepen somewhat, but contain in places numerous low islands. During the long troubles of the barbaric irruptions, in the Fourth, Fifth and subsequent centuries, the ports of the lagoons, better protected both by land and sea than those of the Po, began to rise into comparative importance; on the south Ravenna, on the north Altinum, acquired increased commercial value. The slow silting up of the older harbours, as well as the dangers of the political situation, brought about in part this alteration in mercantile conditions.
When Attila and his Huns invaded Italy in 453, they destroyed Padua, and also Altinum; and though we need not suppose that those cities thereupon ceased entirely to exist, yet it is at least certain that their commercial importance was ruined for the time being. The people of Altinum took refuge on one of the islands in the lagoon, and built Torcello, which may thus be regarded in a certain sense as the mother city of Venice. Subsequent waves of conquest had like results. Later on, in 568, the Lombards, a German tribe, invaded Italy, and completed the ruin of Padua, Altinum and Aquileia. The relics of the Romanised and Christian Veneti then fled to the islands, to which we may suppose a constant migration of fugitives had been taking place for more than a century. The Paduans, in particular, seem to have settled at Malamocco. The subjected mainland became known as Lombardy, from its Germanic conquerors, and the free remnant of the Veneti, still bearing their old name, built new homes on the flat islets of Rivo Alto, Malamocco and Torcello, which were the most secure from attack in their shallow waters. This last fringe of their territory they still knew as Venetia or Venezia; the particular island, or group of islands, on which modern Venice now stands, bore simply at that time its original name of Rivo Alto, or Rialto, that is to say, the Deep Channel.
The Romanised semi-Etruscan Christian Republic of Venezia seems from the very first to have been governed by a Dux or Doge (that is to say, Duke), in nominal subjection to the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople. The Goth and the Lombard, the Frank and the Hun, never ruled this last corner of the Roman world. The earliest of the Doges whose name has come down to us was Paulucius Anafestus, who is said to have died in 716, and whose seat of government seems to have been at Torcello. Later, the Doge of the Venetians apparently resided at Malamocco, a town which no longer exists, having been destroyed by submergence, though part of the bank of the Lido opposite still retains its name. Isolated in their island fastnesses, the Venetians, as we may now begin to call them, grew rich and powerful at a time when the rest of Western Europe was sinking lower and lower in barbarism; they kept up their intercourse with the civilised Roman east in Constantinople, and also with Alexandria (the last then Mohammedanised), and they acted as intermediaries between the Lombard Kingdom and the still Christian Levant. When Charlemagne in the Eighth Century conquered the Lombards and founded the renewed (Teutonic) Roman Empire of the West, the Venetians, not yet established in modern Venice, fled from Malamocco to Rivo Alto to escape his son, King Pepin, whom they soon repelled from the lagoons. About the same time they seem to have made themselves practically independent of the eastern empire, without be-coming a part of the western and essentially German one of the Carlovingians. Not long after, Malamocco was deserted, partly no doubt owing to the destruction by Pepin, but partly also perhaps because it began to be threatened with submergence : and the Venetians then determined to fix their seat of government on Rivo Alto, or Rialto, the existing Venice. For a long time the new town was still spoken of as Rialto, as indeed a part of it is by its own inhabitants to the present day; but gradually the general name of Venezia, which belonged properly to the entire Republic, grew to be confined in usage to its capital, and most of us now know the city only as Venice.
Pepin was driven off in 809. The Doge’s Palace was transferred to Rialto, and raised on the site of the existing building (according to tradition) in 819. Angelus Participotius was the first Doge to occupy it. From that period forward to the French Revolution, one palace after another housed the Duke of the Venetians on the same site. This was the real nucleus of the town of Venice, though the oldest part lay near the Rialto bridge. Malamocco did not entirely disappear, however, till 1107. The silting up of the harbour of Ravenna, the chief port of the Adriatic in late Roman times, and long an outlier of the Byzantine empire, contributed greatly, no doubt, to the rise of Venice: while the adoption of Rivo Alto with its deep navigable channel as the capital marks the gradual growth of an external commerce.
The Republic which thus sprang up among the islands of the lagoons was at first confined to the little archipelago itself, though it still looked upon Aquileia and Altinum as its mother cities, and still acknowledged in ecclesiastical matters the supremacy of the Patriarch of Grado. After the repulse of King Pepin, however, the Republic began to recognise its own strength and the importance of its position, and embarked slowly at first, on a career of commerce and then of conquest. Its earliest acquisitions of territory were on the opposite Slavonic coast of Istria and Dalmatia; gradually its trade with the east led it, at the beginning of the Crusades, to acquire territory in the Levant and the Greek Archipelago. This eastern extension was mainly due to the conquest of Constantinople by Doge Enrico Dandolo during the Fourth Crusade (1204), an epoch making event in the history of Venice which must constantly be borne in mind in examining her art treasures. The little outlying western dependency had vanquished the capital of the Christian Eastern Empire to which it once belonged. The greatness of Venice dates from this period; it became the chief carrier between the east and the west; its vessels exported the surplus wealth of the Lombard plain, and brought in return, not only the timber and stone of Istria and Dalmatia, but the manufactured wares of Christian Constantinople, the wines of the Greek isles, and the oriental silks, carpets and spices of Mohammedan Egypt, Arabia and Bagdad. The Crusades, which impoverished the rest of Europe, doubly enriched Venice: she had the carrying and transport traffic in her own hands; and her conquests gave her the spoil of many eastern cities.
It is important to bear in mind, also, that the Venetian Republic (down to the French Revolution), was the one part of western Europe which never at any time formed a portion of any Teutonic Empire, Gothic, Lombard, Frank, or Saxon. Alone in the west, it carried on unbroken the traditions of the Roman empire, and continued its corporate life without Teutonic adulteration. Its peculiar position as the gate between the east and west made a deep impress upon its arts and its architecture. The city remained long in friendly intercourse with the Byzantine realm; and an oriental tinge is thus to be found in all its early buildings and mosaics. St. Mark’s in particular is based on St. Sophia at Constantinople ; the capitals of its columns in both are strikingly similar; even Arab influence and the example of Cairo (or rather of early Alexandria), are visible in many parts of the building. Another element which imparts oriental tone to Venice is the number of imported works of art from Greek churches. Some of these the Republic frankly stole; others it carried away in good faith during times of stress to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Mohammedan conquerors. The older part of Venice is thus to some extent a museum of applied antiquities; the bronze horses from Constantinople over the portal of St. Mark’s, the pillars of St. John of Acre on the south facade; the Greek lions of the Arsenal, the four porphyry emperors near the Doge’s palace are cases in point; and similar instances will meet the visitor everywhere. Many bodies of Greek or eastern saints were also carried off from Syria or Asia Minor to preserve them from desecration at the hands of the infidel; and with these saints came their legends, unknown elsewhere in the west; so that the mosaics and sculptures based on them give a further note of orientalism to much of Venice. It may also be noted that the intense Venetian love of colour, and the eye for colour which accompanies it, are rather eastern than western qualities. This peculiarity of a pure colour sense is extremely noticeable both in Venetian architecture and Venetian painting.
The first Venice with which the traveller will have to deal is thus essentially a Romanesque-Byzantine city. It rose during the decay of the Roman empire, far from barbaric influences. Its buildings are Byzantine in type; its mosaics are mostly the work of Greek or half Greek artists; its Madonnas and saints are Greek in aspect; and even the very lettering of the inscriptions is in Greek, not in Latin. And though ecclesiastically Venice belonged to the western or Roman church, the general assemblage of her early saints (best seen in the Atrium and Baptistery of St. Mark’s), is thoroughly oriental. We must remember that during all her first great period she was connected by the sea with Constantinople and the east, but cut off by the lagoons and the impenetrable marshes from all intercourse with Teutonised Lombardy and the rest of Italy. In front lay her highway; behind lay her moat. At this period, indeed, it is hardly too much to say that (save for the accident of language), Venice was rather a Greek than an Italian city.
I strongly advise the tourist, therefore, to begin by forming a clear conception of this early Greekish Venice of the Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, and then go on to observe how the later Italianate Venice grew slowly out of it. Medieval Italy was not Roman but Teutonised: influences from the Teutonic Italy were late in affecting the outlying lagoon land.
The beginnings of the change came with the conquests of Venice on the Italian mainland. Already Gothic art from the west had feebly invaded the Republic with the rise of the great Dominican and Franciscan churches (San Giovanni e Paolo and the Frari) : the extension of Venice to the west, by the conquest of Padua and Verona (1405) completed the assimilation. Thenceforward the Renaissance began to make its mark on the city of the lagoons, though at a much later date than elsewhere in Italy. I recommended the visitor accordingly, after he has familiarised himself with Byzantine Venice, to trace the gradual encroachment of Gothic art, and then the Renaissance movement.
It is best, then to begin with the architecture, sculpture, and mosaics of St. Mark’s; in connection with which the few remaining Byzantine palaces ought to be examined. The Byzantine period is marked by the habit of sawing up precious marbles and other coloured stones (imported for the most part from earlier eastern buildings), and using them as a thin veneer for the incrustation of brick buildings; also, by the frequent employment of decorations made by inserting ancient reliefs in the blank walls of churches or houses. The eastern conquests of Venice made oriental buildings a quarry for her architects. The Gothic period is marked by a peculiar local style, showing traces of Byzantine and Arab influence. The early Renaissance work at Venice is nobler and more dignified than elsewhere in Italy. The baroque school of the Seventeenth Century, on the other hand is nowhere so appalling.
Venice was essentially a commercial Republic. Her greatness lay in her wealth. She flourished as long as she was the sole carrier between east and west; she declined rapidly after the discovery of America, and of the route to India round the Cape of Good Hope, which made the Atlantic supersede the Mediterranean as the highway of the nations. As Antwerp, Amsterdam and London rose, Venice fell. The reopening of the Mediterranean route by the construction of the Suez Canal has galvanised her port into a slightly increased vitality of recent years; but she is still in the main a beautiful fossil bed of various strata, extending from the Tenth to the Seventeenth Centuries.
Whoever enters Venice by rail at the present day ought to bear in mind that he arrives (across the lagoon), by the back door. The front door was designed for those who came by sea; there, Venice laid herself out to receive them with fitting splendour. The ambassadors or merchants who sailed up the navigable channel from the mouth of the Lido, saw first the Piazza, the Piazzetta, the two great granite columns, the campanile, St. Mark’s, and the imposing facade of the Doge’s Palace, reinforced at a later date by the white front of San Giorgio Maggiore and the cupolas of the Salute. This, though not perhaps the oldest part of the town, is the nucleus of historical Venice; and to it the traveller should devote the greater part of his attention. I strongly advise those whose stay is limited not to try to see all the churches and collections of the city, but to confine themselves strictly to St. Mark’s, the Doge’s Palace, the Academy, the Four Great Plague Churches, and the tour of the Grand Canal, made slowly in a gondola.
Those who have three or four weeks at their disposal, however, ought early in their visit to see Torcello and Murano Torcello, as perhaps the most ancient city of the lagoons, still preserved for us in something like its antique simplicity, amid picturesque desolation ; Murano, as helping us to reconstruct the idea of Byzantine Venice. It is above all things important not to mix up in one whirling picture late additions like the Salute and the Ponte di Rialto with early Byzantine buildings like St. Mark’s or the Palazzo Loredan, with Gothic architecture like the Doge’s Palace, or the Ca’ d’ Oro, and with Renaissance masterpieces, like the Libreria Vecchia, or the ceilings of Paolo Veronese. Here more than anywhere else in Europe, save at Rome alone, though chronological treatment is difficult, a strictly chronological comprehension of the various stages of growth is essential to a right judgment.
Walk by land as much as possible. See what you see in a very leisurely fashion. Venice is all detail; unless you read the meaning of the detail, it will be of little use to you. Of course the mere colour and strangeness and picturesqueness of the water city are a joy in themselves; but if you desire to learn, you must be prepared to give many days to St. Mark’s alone, and to examine it slowly.
The patron saints of Venice are too numerous to catalogue. A few need only be borne in mind by those who pay but a short visit of a month or so. The Venetian fleets in the early ages brought home so many bodies of saints that the city became a veritable repository of holy corpses. First and foremost, of course, comes St. Mark, whose name, whose effigy, and whose winged lion occur everywhere in the city; to the Venetian of the Middle Ages, he was almost, indeed, the embodiment of Venice. He sleeps at St. Mark’s. The body of St. Theodore, the earlier patron, never entirely dispossessed, lay in the Scuola (or Guild), of St. Theodore, near the church of San Salvatore (now a furniture shop). But the chief subsidiary saints of later Venice were St. George and St. Catharine, patrons of the territories of the Republic to the first of whom many churches are dedicated, while the second appears everywhere on numerous pictures and reliefs. The great plague saints are Sebastian, Roch and Job. These seven the tourist must remember and expect to recognise at every turn in his wanderings. The body of St. Nicholas, the sailor’s saint, lay at San Niccolo di Lido, though a rival body, better authenticated or more believed in, was kept at Bari.
The costume of the Doges, and the Doge’s cap; the Venetian type of Justice, with sword and scales; the almost indistinguishable figure of Venezia, also with sword and scales, enthroned between lions ; and many like local allegories or symbols, the visitor should note and try to understand from the moment of his arrival.