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Venice Travel Guide


The history of Venice

Venice is connected to the mainland by a railway and highway bridge named Ponte della Liberta’ (Freedom Bridge), and is built on more than a 100 islands sitting in the middle of the lagoon, a reflecting pool offering breathtaking views at sunsets but also a maze of shoals and channels that over the years acted as a natural barrier against foreign invasions, allowing the city to become a chest of invaluable artistic treasures.

The city in divided into two parts by the Grand Canal, lined by magnificent palazzi reflecting on its legendary waters, and by a multitude of narrow channels crossed by over 400 bridges. A maze of narrow alleyways named “calli” covers the whole island, often leading to secretive and charming “campi”, or squares, of Venice.

Every part of the island is further divided into three districts or sestrieri, for a total of six , each with its own characteristics and features: Cannaregio on the north side, Castello on the East side (this also includes Sant’Elena), St. Mark’s on the South side, Dorsoduro on the West side, Santa Croce and San Polo in the middle.

Brief History

According to tradition, Venice was founded on March 25th, 425 AC, when the wave of refugees threatened by the growing spread of barbarian invasion first settled in the uninhabited islands of the lagoon. Contrary to common belief, the first settlements were actually on the island of Torcello, where the magnificent Cathedral built in 639 AC stands as a testimony. The city began to grow slowly with the increasing arrival on the islands of small colonies.

A century later, in 726, Venetians elected their first “Doge of the Serene Republic” Orso Ipato, whose government marks the beginning of an era of fame and opulence for the city. These prosperous times saw the construction of the gorgeous Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s palace) and the amazing Basilica, built to house the relics of St. Mark, Patron of the city, that were stolen from Alexandrian in Egypt.

With the fourth Crusade (1202-1204) the Serene Republic eventually established its supremacy over the Balkan Peninsula, which provided the marbles for the sumptuous palazzi, and the Aegean Sea, hence becoming the strongest naval power in the Mediterranean.

This newly acquired status put Venice in increasing competition with the other maritime communes, particularly with Genoa with whom over the years it engaged in a series of trade wars. According to tradition, during a vicious battle in Syria against the Genoese republic the Venetian army substituted the cross on the flag with the winged lion of St. Mark, which remains to this date the symbol of the city of Venice.

Between the XIV and XV centuries, Venice started expanding and gaining control of the mainland, thanks to the aid of mercenary troops led by notable captains like Gattamelata.

The beginning of 1500 sees Venice at the height of its power and wealth, with an extended territory encompassing most of the Veneto region, Friuli, Brescia and Bergamo. The Pope and the Austrian emperor, worried by the growing power of the Republic, joined forces and invaded Cadore, the northernmost part of the region of Veneto. Meanwhile, the Turks launched an attack to the eastern empires, and with the discovery of America the center of trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, which in turn led to the slow decline of the Republic’s economic supremacy.

In 1575 Venice experienced a devastating outbreak of plague that raged for 2 years and ravaged the whole of Europe. When the city was eventually delivered from the plague, Palladio was commissioned to design a votive church dedicated to the savior or “Redentore”, where the event is still celebrated every year. The XVII century brought more battles against the Ottomans and another, more violent outbreak of plague in 1630: every year on November 21st a votive pontoon bridge is constructed across the Grand Canal, connecting the district of St. Mark to the church of Madonna della Salute, where traditionally Venetians light a candle to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for delivering the city from the epidemic.

The 1700 was a century of intellectual turmoil for Venice, when arts flourished thanks to the works of great masters like Vivaldi (music), Carlo Goldoni (literature), Tiepolo and Canaletto (painting). During these prosperous times the Venetian Carnival got into full swing, a celebration of transgression and freedom that could last up to a few months at a time.

Things started to deteriorate with the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte and in 1797 the Republic came to an end when the Major Council of Venice (Maggior Consiglio) dissolved itself and transferred all powers to an indefinite provisional government. If this intervention spared the city from destruction by the French Army, it did not prevent the looting of masterpieces that were taken to France or lost or destroyed.

Throughout the 1800s the city fell under foreign domination, initially under the French and then under the Austrian, except for a brief moment in 1848 when a civil uprising drove the Austrians out of the city and was followed by the proclamation of a revived Republic led by Daniele Manin. The following year Venice was forced to capitulate after a lengthy siege. Only in 1866, with the third Italian war of Independence, Venice became part of the emerging Kingdom of Italy.

Hundreds of years of alternating darkness and splendor bestowed on Venice the title of most fascinating and unique city in the world.