In any season the luminosity of Venice is unique, and the famous city awakens long before most of its tourists.
After all, Venice was once an Empire, the independent ruler of Mediterranean maritime trade, and the supreme point of commence between the Occident and the Orient.
In the 9th century, when Venice was still subject to Byzantine dominance, the first basilica was built, also as a sanctuary for the relics of St. Mark brought back from Alexandra by two Venetian sailors. To avoid them from being discovered by Muslims, they were hidden in the carcass of a salted pig.
Venice was too far away from Constantinople to remain permanently under Byzantine rule. It gained its independence in the 10th century. The winged Lion of St. Mark became its symbol, depicted on the red and gold flags proudly flying from Venetian ships, all over and even beyond the Mediterranean sea.
Venice was perfectly able to defend its interests against its enemies which at times included the Pontifical forces. Perhaps Venice was then considered a direct rival to the Papal institution.
The famous debt towards the Doge Enrico Dandolo (1110-1205) which had such drastic and shameful consequences, was already referred to in 'The Venetian lesson'.
At a time when in Europe, hereditary, monarchial absolutism reigned- with Papal benediction, the Venetian political system, first established as early as the 7th century (697) was surprisingly advanced, and to a considerable extent democratic. The proof of its stability is the fact that its lasted ten centuries, without problems or revolutions.
The Doge (derived from Dux, military leader, Duke) of whom there reigned a successive total of 120, represented the figure head of the highest Venetian authority. Originally each Doge was elected for life by an assembly of powerful Venetian families, but later the responsibility was assumed by a committee of forty people chosen by four members of the Great council. The power of the Doge however, was limited and closely controlled by the Venetian institutions. The most powerful of these was 'the Council of ten' established in 1310.
Thus advantaged by a stable system, rich from ever increasing trade revenues, and militarily powerful, Venice became one of the most famous, opulent and beautiful cities in the world, certainly of the Middle Ages.
The splendid palaces of eminent families still grace the Grande Canale, and each architectural marvel of Venice such as the gothic magnificence of the C'a d'Oro has its own bitter sweet history.
The splendour reflected in the art and architecture, the latter of which not only the walls were built on massive, wooden piles, but the entire surfaces of such edifices are supported by them. Naturally this enormous accomplishment necessitated importing huge amounts of wood, from even as far as the Alpine forests. Dikes were also needed to control the water level. They were constructed with wood and reinforced with stone.
The city even established its own system of social welfare. 'Le Scuole Veneziane' which organised the admittance of immigrant workers, offered medical assistance to the poor, took care of orphans and illegitimate children, and helped the young who merited such aid.
Apart from bull bating and 'friendly fist fighting' (on the Ponte dei Pugni), Venice was then also renowned for its culture. With the Byzantine heritage it had become a prestigious, intellectual centre. One would go to Venice to study Greek, philosophy, law, medicine, chemistry, astrology and cartography.
The 'New World' discoveries, including those of Marco Polo, were to change the tide of events. Venice was also to fall victim to the progress of other European nations. Portugal (1498), followed by other countries, no longer needed to rely on Venice. Their ships were by then able to brave the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Orient for their silks and spices.
But the final 'coup de grace' was not only caused by the continual expansion of the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople had been taken over by the Ottomans in 1453). It was due to the conquests of Napoléon Bonaparte who gave Venice to Austria in 1797 before annexing it to the Empire in 1805. (Napoléon also confiscated the 'Quadriga Trionfale' -the four Greco-Roman horses from Constantiople on the facade of St Mark's Basilica- to embellish the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but they were returned to Venice in 1815).
Yet if it were inevitable that 'la Repubblica Serenissimo' would lose its impressive power, monopoly and independence, its art and architecture continue to enchant us, as if in superb defiance.
This seems part of the essential nature of the Venetians, who never cease to celebrate their identity, their culture, their legendary liberty, their art and their glorious past.
This is evident in the Carnival of Venice itself. A romantic can easily imagine some of the sublimely, costumed participants as beautiful fantoms of Venetian history. Apart from justifiable pride and nostalgia, they seem to mask any other sentiment, as they present themselves majestically in la Piazza San Marco.
It's interesting and amusing to note that when asked whether they consider themselves first Italian or Venetian, many Venetians will reply without any hesitation: 'Venetian'.
This, in a way, would seem to sum it all up.
The remaining part of a 9th century mosaic from la Chiesa di San Zaccaria.
Text and images © Mirino (PW). Sources Hachette and Wikipedia, with grateful thanks. August 2010
See also Venezia
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