This is the question that keeps passing through my mind during this visit to La Serenissima. How does Venice exist? Why does Venice exist? Who on earth thought this was a good idea?
The traditional tale of how Venice was founded runs like this: in 408, Alaric sacked Aquileia, so a bunch of people moved to the islands in the lagoon. In 452, Attila sacked the city so thoroughly that everybody decided the lagoon was a great place to live, so off they went, laying the foundations for Venice on islands such as Torcello.
But why on earth did they stay?
This is the part of Venetian history that baffles me.
You may note that Aquileia is still there. They didn’t simply all move and not come back, as the residents of Salamis in Cyprus did when they founded Famagusta. And we still had enough Aquileia in 458 for Pope Leo the Great to send Nicetas, the bishop, a letter. And in this letter, Leo discusses people who are making their way back to Aquileia after having lived in exile with gentiles — whether Huns or Goths is unknown; some must be from the 408 attack, since one of the questions is what to do about people who don’t remember whether they were baptised as children.
Clearly some of the refugees returned to Aquileia. But it does seem that other people from the area stayed on the islands in the lagoon.
Why? I mean, how does this work? Living on these islands would not be easy in the early Middle Ages. You need a boat. It wouldn’t have been easy to get around without one. How do so many people move to the islands for this to become the sort of place you want to live — rather than the sort of place you live to escape invading armies?
Because it’s not as though everything along the Adriatic coast suddenly descended into chaos. We picture the fifth and sixth centuries as populated by ‘marauding bands’ of warriors, but these were actually armies, many of the Roman-trained and skilled, disciplined forces. Sure, they might eat all your food and sack your city if it suits their political purposes, but it’s not like life on the mainland was so unliveable that the lagoon, of all places, was preferable.
I mean, getting around Venice is hard enough as it is today, with bridges and the main islands all attached together so you almost forget that this a fabrication. You can walk almost everywhere. But you still sometimes find yourself hitting a dead-end street with nothing but a canal in front of you — well, and the building across the water. Or you walk along the southern shore of Dorsoduro and see that there is no way across without a boat. Or you go to the earliest settlements in Torcello and see that, although the island was more densely populated in the Middle Ages (I mean, after people moved to it), there is no way you could get around between it and the others without a boat.
Maybe I’m too much of a landlubber from Alberta for all this.
I like Venice.
It just makes no sense.