Tag Archives: veneto-byzantine

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.)


Everywhere I go on research trips in Europe, there is some art or architecture that grabs me. In Milan, the Gothic Duomo and Romanesque Sant’Ambrogio; in Paris, the Gothic Everything-Omygosh; in Florence, early Renaissance painting (esp. Fra Angelico); in much of Germany, the mediaeval houses and Baroque churches and palaces (both exemplified in Wolfenbüttel, as I’ve noted).

In Venice, it’s Veneto-Byzantine.

And I don’t mean ‘Byzantine stuff looted in 1204 and after.’

That’s here, too. It’s worth looking at.

Veneto-Byzantine is Venice’s answer to the rest of western Europe’s Romanesque. It was popular in Venice throughout the Middle Ages, right up into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although you’ll find a few Gothic things in Venice, they’re usually isolated architectural elements — even in the altarpieces. Mostly, things move into Early Renaissance, even the altarpieces (okay, maybe some of that qualifies as Late Gothic).

What makes it Byzantine? Well, just take a look at it:

The image pictured above, one of the mosaics in San Marco basilica, is not a western Romanesque motif. My guidebook to San Marco says it is of Christ in Limbo, but the title gives it away, ‘? ???? ???C??C?C’ — The Holy Resurrection.

What we westerners call ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ is the Byzantine representation of the Resurrection, and this mosaicist knows it.

And you can’t go telling me this is a typical western Blessed Virgin Mary:

This mosaic, from the apsidal dome of the cathedral on the island of Torcello is of Maria Theotokos — the inscriptions on either side of her head say so.

Of course, beneath Theotokos you see some bits of Latin. But the artistic style is decidedly Byzantine.

Both times I’ve gone into San Marco, I’ve been stunned almost to stumbling by the Veneto-Byzantine mosaics therein. They are stunning. They are more powerful than any of the beautiful frescoes I saw in the painted churches of Cyprus. They are worth a visit.

Little bits of Byzantine and Veneto-Byzantine religious artwork and devotion are scattered about Venice if you know what you’re looking for. And even if you don’t, this icon of Cypriot bishop St Spyridon, in Museo Correr, requires no training to identify.

Of course, some Byzantine nods are harder to spot. For example, if you visit the church of Vivaldi’s baptism, San Giovanni Battista in Bragora, you are unlikely to realise that the little side chapel dedicated to San Giovanni Elemosinario is not only adorned by modern Byzantine-style icons and what looks to be an altar-cloth embroidered with Armenian is, in fact, dedicated to a seventh-century Byzantine saint, St John the Almsgiver, Chalcedonian Patriarch of Alexandria. That same church also has a Veneto-Cretan icon in it — the result of Crete remaining a Venetian possession after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453.

In the Galerie dell’Accademia — which I recommend — you will find some very lovely examples of Veneto-Byzantine icons, including the Madonna and Child to the left, by Veneziano (c. 1325). This piece is strikingly Byzantine — however, some aspects feel distinctly western. The Theotokos is not gesturing at the Christ Child, and he is leaning out quite dramatically to bless the viewer. Yet the flatness, if you will, and the perspective, and the colouring, and the inclusion of the rosettes on the Theotokos’ garment, all resonated more with the Byzantine than the Gothic.

And even when Veneziano painted Gothic, there were traces of Byzantine in him. In the Accademia, further along, there is a polittico or polyptych (in this case, looks to be a Gothic altarpiece) by him — the ‘Lion Polyptych’. The figures all have that airy quality associated with the Gothic, and Sts Dominic and Francis are there to greet you. But then you are struck by the miniatures along the bottom — Sts Savvas, Macarius, Paul of Thebes, Ilarius (Hilarion?), Teodorus. And St Antony in the large figures. Not as western as first glance would have you believe …

Why does Venice have such strong eastern ties? Much of the Veneto-Byzantine art, indeed the greatest of it (San Marco’s mosaics, the Last Judgement in the cathedral on Torcello) pre-dates the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, after all.

Well, by 1204 Venice was already thoroughly ensconced in a literal and mercantile empire that was primarily focussed on the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, easterners and their goods were constantly coming through Venice. There was bound to be some impact on the place as a result.

But that clearly isn’t a good enough explanation, given that other cities and countries did similar things without developing their own version of Byzantine art. Venice, you see, has been a fiercely independent city for her whole history. She resisted the onset of Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Franks who came through northern Italy. And part of this was done by allying herself with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, who viewed herself as the rightful ruler of Italy.

This alliance meant that from the outset, Venice’s vision turned East to the Adriatic coast and beyond for trading opportunities — to the Byzantine Empire and those within her sphere of influence.

As a result of this two-pronged political and mercantile focus on the Byzantine East, Venice’s art was drawn East as well — or rather, stayed that way. Given what we see much earlier in Ravenna, it is safe to say that Byzantine was the style for northeastern Italian cities at the time. And given what we see around the same time in Milan, Byzantine and Romanesque are not so far off.



It is glorious and beautiful. You can’t miss it if you go to Venice, unless you neglect to visit the Basilica, in which case you are a fool.