Notes on cities and places. Venezia


“Thou who own a large number of ships on the edge of your territory, provide with the same graceful devotion to make sure that you are carrying the cargo that the province is ready to deliver to you.  (…)

So be cautious about this transport nearby, thou who often cross infinite space of sea. In a sense, you go to visit your acquaintances as you navigate on the homeland. There is still in your favour, that you have opened another road always quiet and safe. As a matter of fact, when the sea is closed down when the water is rough and wind is strong, the route unfold in front of you through enchanting channels. Your ships are not afraid of the harsh winds: they touch the ground with total joy and don’t know what shipwreck is, since they often dock on the ground. From afar they seem to walk on the meadows, when they not see the course of the canal, they advance by ropes, which usually serve to hold them and, overturning the conditions, the crew assists their ships with their feet: effortlessly dragging their carriers and, instead of the steady sails, they take the step of the sailors, which is safer.

We like to talk about how we have seen the site of your homes. Venice, full of noble people, reach Ravenna and Po to the south, and to the east they delight in the beauty of the Ionian coast: Here the alternation of the tides now covers, now let the surface of the fields flooded or drought.

Here, like aquatic birds, you have your home. In fact, a person is now seen standing on the mainland, now on an island, so that you more reasonably believe that the Cyclades are there, where you see that the appearance of places changes suddenly. In resemblance to those islands the houses appear scattered in the midst of wide stretches of sea: and it has not produced nature but has created human labor. Indeed, the wisdom of the wicker adds to the solidity of the earth, and there is no fear of opposing the fragile defence of the waves. This is so because the low seashore can not fling large waves on the ground as the there is no help from the depth.

A single resource has the inhabitants, eating fish until they are full. The poor and the rich here live the same way. Only one food that sustain all, one type of dwelling houses everything, they do not know the envy of houses and, living with this well-being, are out of the habit, to which, as we all know, the whole world is subject.”

Cassiodorus, Senator and Prefect of King Vitige, 537 d.C.


The story of Venice born by free peoples who fled from barbarian invaders and who settled and built on solitary and wild islands is an invention invention, fuelled through centuries by the Venetians to support an ideological and political program based on freedom. However, it is true that Maritime Venice was formed through a multi-century process of migration of peoples from the landfill to the lagoon, taking with themselves rights, functions, social roles and even treasures of the society.


In 568 the Longobards led by Alboino went through the Isonzo and began to conquer cities under Byzantine dominion: Cividale del Friuli the first, then Aquileia, Concordia, but more to the west Milan, and to the south Lucca, Spoleto, Benevento. In this scenario of separation of the territories between Byzantium and the new Kingdom of Longobards, Venice continued to belong to the Byzantine Empire as a province of Ravenna's Escarcate, which headed directly to Constantinople. The magister militum collected civil and military functions and in fact constituted the guide of the local civitas, which needed autonomous operation to cope with the Longobards military incursions. The figure of the magister militum was then replaced by that of the doge, always charged by the sovereign of Constantinople, but actually elected locally and endowed with its own political power. When the Byzantine emperor Leo III banned the sacred images of worship, they were the self-elected Doges of Venice, the Pentapolis and the Ravaged Ravens that would lead a rebellion against the Empire.

Between the 8th and 9th century, in the years when the Holy Roman Empire was born in Central-Western Europe and Northern Italy, the result of the political agreement between King Charlemagne and Pope Leo III, Venice represented the hinge between two worlds: the Western European on one side, the Islamic and Byzantine on the other.

Here arrived the Tyrian purple, the fine fabrics and the raw skins from the East; here they sold timber for construction sites in Islamic lands and traded slaves; moreover Venice had an organised postal services or transport of persons for third parties. Venice was already proposing herself as a land of merchants and entrepreneurs who wisely administered the role of bridge between East and West: a Byzantine island in the feudal Middle Age of the West.

In 742 the Byzantine capital of the Ducat of Venice was transferred to Malamocco, in lagoon territory, and just over forty years after the construction site of the Basilica of St. Mark, where the relics of Saint Mark stolen by two Venetian merchants in Alexandria Of Egypt would have been warded, began and soon after followed the construction of the Palazzo Ducale. Historical chronicles speak of civitas Rivoalti: the city of Rialto.


At the threshold of the year 1000, the Venetian society is surprisingly modern: after the conquest of the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts, Doge Pietro II Orseolo was named Dux Venetiae et Dalmatiae, sanctioning in some way the baptism of the Republic; the Collegium of Savi was set up, which was to reduce the doge's regal power; a solid administrative-bureaucratic apparatus was established to regulate roles and powers; the "city", first organised on a parish basis, was now structured in six districts, each of which constituted since then the territorial-electoral referent for the political-administrative organisation.

Defiled over the past crusades, due to the excellent trade that had signed the relations of Venice with the East, Venice joined the Fourth Crusade, driven by growing rivalry with Genoa, and as a winner gained many territories in the Aegean Sea, including the islands Of Candia (Crete) and Euboea, numerous ports in the Peloponnese and bare treasures from the sack of Constantinople and Zara. In 1297 a law was passed that restricted access to the Greater Council, the First Council of the Savi.

This political operation dictated the hereditary of power: only a few families of the Venetian nobility, an abnormal nobility as mostly formed by merchants and shipowners who had invested themselves in public-administrative posts, could then be part of the Greater Council.

The "Serrata" encountered resistance that resulted in conspiracies. Established with the task of monitoring compliance with the laws of all citizens of the Republic, including the Doge, the Council of Ten became one of the highest governing bodies of the Republic for over four centuries.

During the wars with his rival Genova, Venice began to forge gold coins, jewellery, to form business companies, fraternities, where the members participated with capital and activities, promoted the checking account and the double batch facilitating transactions between merchants through simple writing, hosted in the middle of the 15th century a semi-public bank, Rialto Square Bank, and one completely public in 1619, named Banco del Giro.

From the beginning of the 14th century, the Council of Ten promoted legislative measures to impose Venice as a privileged port: for example, it was an obligation for Venetian merchants to use only Venetian ships or, if they were carrying non-Venetian goods, to make a mandatory stop in Venice; at the same time foreign warehouses, accommodation and services were built, as the Fondaco in Rialto was offered to German merchants as place of resting and gathering.

Thanks to the firm support of the state, the shipyard industry, the Arsenal, and the organisation of trade in the Mediterranean flourished, proving a surprising initiative: the ships were public property and were rented through an auction; The organisation of trips of recurring journeys, contributed to a safer navigation (so as to prevent shipwrecks, pirate attacks, ...); merchant ships could quickly be converted into warships.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, fearing the formation of regional states competing with the political merchant activities of the republic, Venice began expanding on mainland, forming the " stato da terra " initially circumscribed in Treviso, Feltre, Belluno, Bassano, Vicenza, Verona, Padua, then extended to Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona. In Venetian states, Venice recognised the autonomy of statute and local administration. Many Venetian patriots settled in new territories as real colonists, building country houses linked to agrarian activities.

Here we count at the beginning of the 15th century 100.000 inhabitants, in Paris 150.000.


Venice in the first half of the 16th century is a large metropolis: city of stone, characterized by a strong multi-ethnicity, it reaches its maximum expansion through the construction of new channels, new civilian factories, artisan workshops and manufactures (counting more than a hundred corporations) as portrayed in the detailed engraving by Jacopo de 'Barbari. The years of Sansovino, Palladio, Sanmicheli, Mantegna, Bellini, Giorgione are the same years when Venice discovers that France and Spain have switched to "modernity", looking to Italy as a territory where to show their power; the Serenissima opted for a recruitment and detachment policy, choosing a neutral position in the face of European conflicts in view of preserving one's own structure.

In the course of the Counter-Reformation, Venice showed hostile resistance to the monitors of the Curia of Rome, which forcibly converted to Catholicism Spanish and Portuguese Jews living in the Serenissima, to the Inquisition controls, to the Forbidden Books Index, which was harmful to the refined Venetian editorial industry, to the intrusion of pontifical fleets in the Adriatic using Ancona harbour. The political deployment of the two fronts, on one side Spain and Austria's Hapsburg, on the other France, England and the Netherlands Provinces, found its own declination on the lagoon, otherwise said an “interdict” of Rome and a “protest” of Venice. Again, the political position of the Serenissima was to defend its own political-administrative autonomy by modulating alliances useful to achieving the result according to an illuminated merchant tradition.


Having been weakened by the opening of new commercial routes and having lost control of Candia in an extravagant war against the Turks, Venice in the 17th century was limited to a regional role where the port was mainly working to supply the city. Decimated by the violent plague epidemics, the city preferred to maintain a neutral position in international politics and initiated a series of administrative reforms, from the expropriation of ecclesiastical goods to the establishment of the first state budgets, from the constitution of state statutes to the promulgation of a Code Of the Venetian merchant marina. However, 16th-18th-century Venice was in fact the capital of a state with the same social and institutional identity of the Middle Ages.

The independence of Venice and the Venetian state ended on 17 October 1797 in Campoformio, where Napoleon signed the peace treaty with Austria. In the following decades the Venetian territories were ruled by Wien government then Napoleon and then again by the Province of Austria.

The modernisation of the city consisted of educational campaigns, of administrative reorganizations and of promotion of public works such as the translagoon railway bridge, inaugurated in 1846. Twenty years later Venice will join the Kingdom of Italy.


In the years of Crispi a cleric-moderate junta started industrial expansion projects in Marghera's area, tourism’s exploitation in Lido, doubled the transversal bridge, structured the municipalization of some public services (service of waterworks and aqueduct) and baptized the first Edition of the International Art Exhibition, later known as the Biennale. After the two wars that marked the Veneto and Venice strongly, reconstruction began; Then there were about 178,000 inhabitants.

Today Venice is a small city of just 60.000 inhabitants.

Venice is unique.


"I repeat: water is the same as time, and water offers to beauty its double. We, partially made of water, serve beauty in the same way. Touching water, this city improves the appearance of time, embellishing the future. Here is the function of this city in the universe. Because the city is static while we are on the move. The tear is the demonstration. Because we go and the beauty remains. Because we are directed towards the future while beauty is the eternal present. Tears are a regression, a tribute to the future, to the past. That is, what is left behind is something superior to something inferior: beauty to man. The same goes for love, because even love is superior, is also greater than the one who loves.”

Iosif Brodskij, Watercolours, 1979


Genova, 2016