Venice - Alethea Wiel

Introduction — The Rise of Venice
(A.D. 421-697)

The early story of Venice is lost in mystery; and legends and myths take the place of facts and assertions in the pages of her first existence. One cannot but feel however that such mystery is not out of place, and that it suits well with the romance which her later story does but emphasize; while one is almost glad that too strong a light cannot be thrown upon the origin and rise of a city, whose charm only gathers force from the glamour cast over her by an unknown and undefined past. Her inhabitants too claim an antiquity so remote as to equal, or rather excel, not only the rest of Italy, but that of Europe itself, since they trace their ancestry back to the heroes of Troy, and to the descendants of the Gods.

The most popular tradition is that the Eneti or Heneti, one of the tribes in Paphlagorya who joined the Trojan cause after the fall of Troy, came to Italy under the leadership of Antenor, a kinsman of King Priam, and first peopled the country known to us as Venetia. Another account connects them with the Veneti, a race on the western coast of Gaul. Previous to the actual foundation and settlement of the town and state of Venice, the islands of the lagunes had served more than once as a haven of refuge to the inhabitants of the mainland from the incursions successively of Alaric, Radagaisus, and other northern invaders. Again and again did these early Venetians seek temporary shelter in a spot which offered no temptation to the cupidity of their plunder-seeking foes, and return when all danger was over to their desolated homes on the mainland.

When however in 452 the invasion of Attila, "the Scourge of God," and his Huns again drove the people to flight, they determined to fix an abiding and permanent dwelling-place among the isles and estuaries of the sea; and that moment may be looked upon as the date of the foundation of Venice. The fury of Attila had been directed chiefly against the Roman province of Venetia, where he closely besieged Aquileja, the capital of the province. After a long resistance the city was taken and given over to the mercy of the barbarians. No safety was to be found but in flight, and the inhabitants of Aquileja fled to Grado, those of Concordia to Caprularia (now Caorle); while more still came from Padua, Asolo and Ceneda, and settled for the most part on the islands of Rivus Altus and Methamaucus, or, as they are better known to us, Rialto and Malamocco. Nothing was to be seen on all sides but flight, consternation and distress, the one ruling idea being to fly from the foe and find peace and security in a region remote from the haunts of men.

The islands lying out to sea suggested a haven where nothing existed to excite the greed of the conquerors, and where a refuge at once distant and extraordinary gave promise of a protection and shelter denied them elsewhere. The strange nature of such a territory is well described by Romanin, who says: "The lagunes are those waters of the Adriatic which, penetrating towards the plains of the mainland, form a basin of shallow waters, interspersed here and there with canals, and dotted with islands. A long, narrow tongue of land called littorali, or lidi (shores or banks), constitutes, so to speak, the confine which separates the lagune from the sea. This curved tongue, or line, whose convex part is toward the present city of Venice, while its concave side faces the sea, is split up by divers openings. These again form so many ports, and through them the tides act upon the waters, preserving the purity of the air, and facilitating the entrance and exit of large ships into the bay or basin where they can anchor in safety. The shores, or lidi, surrounding Venice are so many ramparts created by nature for the protection of the town; and upon these she sits enthroned like a queen."

[Illustration] from Venice by Alethea Wiel


That this was the aspect presented by the islands and lagunes more than three centuries before the Christian era is proved by the records of Livy and other writers. As time went on and the number of inhabitants increased it became necessary for human aid to assist the work of nature against the encroachments of the sea. This work cannot be said to have reached its consummation until shortly before the extinction of the Venetian Republic, when from 1744-1782 the Murazzi, or walls, were built, forming ramparts in front of Chioggia and Malamocco (two of the southernmost ports of the Lido), and serving to break the force of the waves and weaken their flow towards Venice. Thus bit by bit measures were taken to secure the haven planted in the salt waves and waters, on a spot which seemed destined for any purpose sooner than for that of the building of a city, whose houses and palaces were to be renowned for the beauty and solidity of their construction, and whose glory and magnificence were to rank among the wonders of the world

A date often given and accepted for the foundation of Venice is that of March 25, 421, when the first church, that of S. Giacomo, was built at Rialto. This date however has little beyond a legendary tradition to render it authentic; and the date of Attila's invasion, 452, is more generally recognised as that of the first existence of Venice, when the refugees from the mainland grasped with greater accuracy the need of abandoning forever their country homes and establishing themselves fixedly in the water-city. It must be borne in mind that for some centuries in Venetian history the year dated from the 1st of March, the months of January and February reckoning as the eleventh and twelfth months in the preceding year.

The province of Venetia was rich in rivers, there being no less than seven in number, consisting of the Brenta, the Isonzo, the Tagliamento, the Livenza, the Piave, the Adige and the Po. These rivers all flow into the Adriatic and form the lagunes and lidi, which encompass Venice and compose too the labyrinth of canals and streams from whence the "Ocean's Queen" rises in strength and beauty. One of these streams, known as the Rialto or Rivo Alto, flowed past the island on which the seat of government was fixed, and from this the settlement derived its earliest name.

The island of Rialto, which in early times ranked as of slight importance, had been peopled from Padua, and for some time the Paduans continued to make use of it as a handy spot whereon to store their goods and all possessions necessary for the furtherance of their traffic and commerce. There can be no doubt that Rialto and its neighbouring islands were at first under the rule of the Roman cities of the mainland—Aquileja, Oderzo (Opitergium), and Padua—and probably took from them their earliest notions of government. But in 466 they shook off the yoke of these towns and began an independent course of jurisdiction by appointing Maritime Tribunes [Tribuni Marittimi] to govern in each island. A kind of federation then existed throughout the isles, which, while leaving each tribune to rule over his own magistracy, afforded protection and union to the whole group of islands.

A glance at the affairs of Italy and the invasions, which successively desolated the land, will help to point out the effect that these doings on the mainland had on the rising Republic. From 493 to 526 Theodoric, King of the Goths, ruled and governed in Italy. His chancellor, the great Roman Cassiodorus, has left a series of letters describing the habits and customs of the people among whom he travelled, one of which speaks of the Venetians. He alludes to the way they undertook journeys of small or great distances by sea; of the tranquillity and safety of their mode of living, and of the simplicity of their habits since rich and poor alike have but one kind of food, namely, fish; he describes how they all live in the same sort of houses, and are above the jealousies and envies that assail the rest of humanity. He enlarges upon the wealth they derive from their trade in salt, a possession, he adds, superior to gold, since salt being a necessity required by every one is a source of never failing income and above all other riches.

This record of the sixth century, and about a hundred years after Attila's invasion, is of special interest as proving how, even in those early times, the Venetians had made a name for themselves as a seafaring people, how flourishing was their trade, especially in salt; how widespread the industry and prosperity of their state; while the writer goes on to speak also of the art and dexterity employed by the Venetians in establishing and building their town.

In 539 the Gothic power came for a while to an end in Italy, when Belisarius, the greatest of the Emperor Justinian's generals, overcame Vitalius, King of the Goths, and established the Greek authority in the peninsula. When from motives of jealousy Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople, and the Greek conquerors made their rule too unbearable, the Goths determined to expel them, and, choosing Totila for their leader, again invaded the country. These wars were occasionally carried into the heart of Venetia, and now and again the Venetians themselves took part in the war operations. This was the case when Narses the Eunuch, general of Justinian's forces after the recall of Belisarius, applied to them for boats wherein to convey his troops to besiege Ravenna, and the Venetians proved equal to the task. Another sign of their increasing power is also shown in the appeal made by the Paduans to Narses to stop the Venetians from trading on the Brenta and the Bacchiglione. The Venetians had established themselves on these rivers and entirely monopolised the commerce. But so completely had they asserted their sway, that Narses merely bade the Paduans be reconciled to their rivals, a clear proof that Venice had now gained supremacy and ascendency over the older town from whence so much of her population had sprung.

[Illustration] from Venice by Alethea Wiel


In the year 568 Italy was again overrun: this time by the wildest horde that Germany had yet sent forth, in the shape of the Longobardi or Lombards under their king, Alboin. These barbarians first took possession of the province of Friuli; from there they spread over Venetia. Again were those dwellers on the mainland, who had dreamed of safety in their inland homes, forced to seek the shelter patronised of old by their neighbours, and repair to the lagunes. It was chiefly from the town of Altinum (Altino) that the refugees now poured forth, and from this exodus arose the legend of the peopling of Torcello and its more immediate isles. Tradition says the exiles named the isles from the gates of their old town, and that they took in turn the names of Torcellus (Torcello), Maiurbus (Mazzorbo), Boreana (Burano), Ammiana, Constantiacum, and Anianum. The story runs that:

"When Alboin was bearing down upon the land and terror was in every heart the inhabitants determined to seek Divine assistance, and with tears implored for guidance from above. A sign was granted to them in that they saw the birds and pigeons suddenly flying from the wells, and leave their nests, carrying in their beaks their young. This was accepted by them as an indication that they too should seek safety in flight. They decided to do so, and divided into three compagnies, one going towards Istria, another to Ravenna, while the third remained in perplexity as to their destination. For three days they fasted, and on the third day they heard a voice saying: 'Ascend the towers and look to the stars.' They obeyed, and saw before them in the distance objects resembling boats and islands. In obedience to the heavenly vision they embarked, taking with them their wives and children, and all they could likewise convey of their household goods and possessions, and preceded by the bishop and clergy bearing the sacred vessels and relics they sailed off to the lagunes, and there fixed their habitations."

There is much to prove that these early settlers in the islands were a people of a refined and cultured nature; a people too whose religion was of a noble and elevating kind, and who clung to that religion with a love and veneration that took palpable and abiding form in the churches now arising on all sides, adorned with the marble pillars, carvings, and decorations which the refugees were able to carry away from their forsaken homes. They were at the same time given to art and literature, and the esteem they had for letters is shown in the writings of Virgil, Livy, Cornelius Gallus, Cornelius Nepos, Catullus, Pliny, and others; while as builders and architects they were soon to take rank in a manner that has rarely been equalled and perhaps never excelled.

[Illustration] from Venice by Alethea Wiel


But their chief characteristic shone out pre-eminently in their love of freedom. The homes they had secured to themselves with such labour and difficulty they were determined to maintain free and intact. For several centuries the lesson of discipline acquired by hardship, toil, and strife was to bear fruit in a struggle for freedom and independence that, once gained, placed Venice on a height of splendid altitude, and raised her to a lofty pinnacle among the nations, where she maintained herself for nearly a thousand years, and from whence she descended only when her great mission was accomplished and Europe needed her no more.

A few years after the invasion of the Lombards the first political transaction in which Venice was engaged took place. This was in 584, when Longinus, Exarch of Ravenna, on his way back to Constantinople, visited the islands of the lagunes and, struck with the prosperity, the administration and the industry of the rising state, suggested to the inhabitants the advisability of entering into negotiations with his sovereign, the Eastern Emperor. The Venetians, fully alive to the advantages of such an offer, and aware too, that such an alliance, far from hinting at subjection or dependence would but raise their position and importance, consented to send envoys to Constantinople. These were received by the Emperor with all honour; and among other favours a diploma was granted them, assuring them of the protection of the Imperial forces, together with full liberty and safety to their trade.

This is the first link in that great chain which was to bind Venice to the Levant, and was the beginning of a long series of events destined afterwards to prove of such force and interest in her story, and to colour with lines of such vivid and dazzling tints so much of her art, her history and her career. It must, however, be borne in mind that this league contained no hint of thralldom, submission, or homage on the part of Venice; on the contrary, her independence and freedom were but more fully asserted and maintained by such an act, while her position was raised still higher among other nations and states.

The question as to the dependence or the freedom of Venice in her early state is one hardly necessary to impose upon the reader. The controversy is a long and complicated one; and whereas the enemies of Venice have proved her subjection to the Emperors of the East, to the dominions of Rome, of Greece and of other states, her partisans have equally proved the absolute freedom in which she existed from the very earliest times. As in all such arguments there is probably a certain amount to be said on both sides; and perhaps the truth can only be arrived at by holding a middle course between the two opinions. It is enough to know that Venice shook off a yoke that once bid fair to oppress her, and rose with lightened strength and activity to heights of liberty and glory gained for her by her own will and power.

[Illustration] from Venice by Alethea Wiel