Venezia: A unique history

IMG_6004My wife and I just spent a lovely weekend in Venice. Venice is a place unlike any other — a carless city full of narrow streets, narrow canals, wide canals, and piazzas. The early medieval history of Venice as (faultily) portrayed by the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus ( sole emperor 913–920 [under regency] and 945–959) demonstrates its uniqueness.

Attila’s destruction of Aquileia is part of the foundation legends of Venice, as we see in this emperor’s De Administrando Imperio 28:

Of old, Venice was a desert place, uninhabited and swampy. Those who are now called Venetians were Franks from Aquileia and from the other places in Francia, and they used to dwell on the mainland opposite Venice. But when Attila, the king of the Avars, came and utterly devastated and depopulated all the parts of Francia, all the Franks from Aquileia and from the other cities of Francia began to take flight, and to go to the uninhabited islands of Venice and to build huts there, out of their dread of king Attila. Now when this king Attila had devastated all the country of the mainland and had advanced as far as Rome and Calabria and had left Venice far behind, those who had fled for refuge to the islands of Venice, having obtained a breathing-space, and, as it were, shaken off their faintness of heart, took counsel jointly to settle there, which they did, and have been settled there till this day. (Trans. R. J. H. Jenkins)

To this day, one can see a large stone chair in front of the cathedral on Torcello that is called the throne of Attila. That a nomadic warlord would have carried with him such an item is unlikely in the extreme.

"Throne of Attila" (seen by me in Venice 2 years ago)

“Throne of Attila” (seen by me 2 years ago)

It is incumbent upon me as a historian of Late Antiquity to tell you that Attila did not get as far south as Rome, let alone Calabria. He was still in northern Italy at the River Mincius when he was met by a delegation from the emperor, the senate, and the people of Rome, consisting of Avienus, who was of consular rank, a former prefect Trygetius, and ‘the most blessed Pope Leo.’ (See Prosper, Chron. 1367)

Anyway, I must say that I am not convinced by the Attila story for the foundation of Venice. For one thing, it does not come up in Paul the Deacon (d. 799), who lived in the region, let alone our much earlier sources such as Prosper and Hydatius (Attila’s contemporaries) or Jordanes’ Getica (c. 551) — and wouldn’t we have expected some mention of this depopulation of Aquileia into the lagoon in Leo’s letter to Nicetas, Bishop of Aquileia, from March of 458, some seven years after the alleged flight to the lagoon?

However it happened, and whenever it happened, people moved from the Italian mainland to the islands in the Venetian lagoon in the Early Middle Ages. By the 900s, the story had spread abroad that they moved there during the invasion of Attila. Whenever it happened, we cannot rule out the desire to escape war and terror as a motive for moving to the islands.

Back to Constantine VII.

He goes on to tell us that King Pippin of the Franks tried to subdue the Venetians, but was unable to defeat them, although in the end they agreed to pay him a tribute which, says Porphyrogenitus, was steadily decreasing over time. When Pippin claimed dominion over them, the Venetians said that they wished to be servants of the emperor of the Romans, not of Pippin. In modern terms, this is the Byzantine Emperor, who was constitutionally a successor of Augustus.

This story about Pippin and the Venetians shows us the state of the Venetians in history, poised between East and West, situated in the Adriatic — speaking a Romance language but having many economic and political ties with the Eastern Roman Empire. This is exemplified in their style of art, called ‘Veneto-Byzantine, on which I blogged after my first trip to Venice. As well, in the 1400s and1500s, Greek and Slavic refugees from the Balkans came to Venice and settled there.

Mosaics from Santa Maria Assunta, island of Torcello, Venice

Mosaics from Santa Maria Assunta, island of Torcello, Venice

IMG_6026The Serenissima Republica had many, many mercantile contacts in the East. This was why they sacked Constantinople in 1204, bringing back the porphyry tetrarchs and bronze horses and a variety of other things — to settle their bill. Medieval Venetians also absconded with the body of St Mark from Alexandria. You will also find relics of St Anthony the Great in Venice (I forget where) — as well as the bodies of St Athanasius and St Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, (in the church of San Zaccaria). The first resident Jews in Venice — home to the original Ghetto — were Levantine merchants. Venice — the West looking East.

Indeed, their eastern empire once included Crete and Cyprus, giving rise to a Byzantine-style icon of the pieta (a Western visual motif) by Theophan the Cretan that I saw in the Benaki Museum in Athens. Their glass production was based on sources materials from their mainland conquests in Italy and their Eastern Mediterranean conquests and contacts — with the best materials, they made the clearest glass throughout the Renaissance and Baroque, producing many exquisite items.

The story of Pippin exemplifies this attitude — for much of the ascendancy of Venice, they were detached from wider western politics but embroiled in those of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus goes on to tell us that the Venetians selected their first doge from the most noble man among them. At first, his residence was at a place called ‘Civitanova’, but

because this island aforesaid is close to the mainland, by common consent they moved the doge’s residence to another island, where it now is at this present, because it is at a distance from the mainland, as far off as one may see a man on horseback. (Trans. R.J.H. Jenkins)

Again, we see tenth-century stories reflecting the future history of Venice as a maritime power, whose Arsenale would produce one sailing ship per day in the 1600s. Furthermore, we see the doge, who was the head of state in Venice, elected for life. Venice was a Republic; towards the end of her independence, the doge would yield little to no power, but he was still the doge, and his palace next to the Basilica San Marco was the centre of secular power (ecclesiastical power was pushed away to San Pietro di Castello, which was the cathedral until 1807).

I am not sure where ‘Civitanova’ was, nor where the doge’s residence was in the 900s. It must have been somewhere further in than it is now. For one thing, there is no way you can see San Marco from the mainland, even without all the buildings in the way. For another, early Venice was further in for the most part. That is why the most spectacular mediaeval mosaics are on Torcello, because Santa Maria Assunta was the original cathedral; that’s also why Attila’s throne is there, no doubt. However, there are apparently ninth-century floors at San Zaccaria, which is not far from San Marco, and a church has stood on the site of San Pietro di Castello since the 600s, apparently. Nonetheless, something tells me that in Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ day the doge’s residence was closer to the mainland.

Venice is a fascinating city with a rich history of mercantile trade, shipbuilding, the arts, culture, religion, theft, war, murder, and more. And so much of it feels like it rings out to us from Constantine Porphyrogenitus, showing us that Venice was already on her trajectory in the 900s.

And even if you didn’t know this stuff, I’d recommend a visit. We had a blast, let me tell you!

(Here’s another post I once wrote about Venice.)

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