The History of Venice: Rise of the Republic


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this video. This is the extraordinary city of Venice – today
one of the world’s top tourist destinations, but once capital of a maritime republic, that
ruled the most powerful empire in the Mediterranean. Venice’s history was shaped by its unique
location. At the height of the Roman Empire, these coastal
lagoons were home only to small fishing communities. But then, in the 5th century AD, the Western
Roman Empire was overrun by barbarian tribes. As Italy became a battleground for Huns, Goths,
Eastern Romans and Lombards, many sought refuge among the lagoons. In 726, these refugees elected Orso to be
their duke, or doge – the first in an unbroken line of 117 Doges who’d rule Venice for
a thousand years. For nearly 200 years, much of Italy was ruled
by a resurgent Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire. Its Italian province, known as ‘the Exarchate
of Ravenna’, fell to the Lombards in 751. Only Venice held out, protected by its lagoons. Answering the pope’s call for aid, Charlemagne
and the Franks came to Italy and crushed the Lombards – but they also failed to take
Venice. Charlemagne’s son Pepin, King of Italy,
was said to have died from a fever caught in the marshes that surrounded Venice, as
he tried to attack the city. In the following decades, Venice asserted
its independence from the Byzantine empire… And thanks to its location, flourished as
a trading hub between Europe and the East. Venetian merchants sold Italian grain and
wine to the great city of Constantinople, where they bought spices and silk to sell
to Western Europe. Above all, Venice’s early success came from
the trade of salt – the vital food preservative of the medieval world, harvested from salt
pans and lagoons. The Venetians went so far as to describe salt
as ‘il vero fondamento del nostro stato’ – the true foundation of our state. In 828, two Venetian merchants visiting Alexandria
smuggled the supposed body of St.Mark back to Venice, to boost the standing of their
home city. The saint’s relics were interred in the city’s great new church – the Basilica
di San Marco. The first basilica was destroyed by fire in 976. Today’s cathedral, consecrated
in 1094, stands on the same site. St.Mark became the city’s patron saint;
his emblem, the winged lion, became the symbol of the Republic – and decorated its standard. Venetian trade routes to the east were plagued
by pirates from the Balkan and North African coasts. So Venice built a navy to drive them from
the seas, and garrisoned strategic harbours and islands along the Adriatic shore. By the year 1000, Doges of Venice were also
styling themselves ‘Dukes of Dalmatia’. The distinctive Venetian warship was the galley,
powered by up to 150 oars, and triangular ‘lateen’ sails, rigged fore-and-aft. Weapons
included a battering ram, and around 30 crossbowmen. Galleys were also used to transport high-value
cargo, such as spices, silks or precious stones. In 1103, construction began of Venice’s
famous Arsenale – a giant state-owned shipyard that would become one of Europe’s largest
industrial centres, employing around 2,000 workmen, and turning out hundreds of ships
a year. The Arsenale pioneered many modern industrial
techniques, and underpinned Venetian naval power for centuries. Armed with a powerful navy, and lucrative
trading concessions from the Byzantine Emperor, Venice rose to become the greatest commercial
and naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean. But Venetian power also came through shrewd
negotiation and self-interest. This was the age of the Crusades, and Venice
was closely-involved with Crusader states as allies and trading partners. In 1202, the Fourth Crusade arrived in Venice
seeking ships to take them to Egypt, but with no money to pay for them. Doge Enrico Dandolo sensed an opportunity. In exchange for loans, he first persuaded
the crusaders to capture Zadar for Venice… then, relations having soured between Venice
and the Byzantines, to attack Constantinople itself. In 1204 the world’s greatest Christian city
was sacked and plundered by self-proclaimed warriors of Christ. Venice took its share of the loot, including,
most famously, four bronze horses from the Hippodrome of Constantine… which found a
new home on the façade of St.Mark’s Basilica in the centre of Venice. Doge Enrico and the Crusaders carved up the
Byzantine Empire between them: Venice got the islands of the Aegean… Crete… and
the strategically-placed ports of Modone and Corone, known henceforth as ‘the eyes of
the Republic’. Empire brought Venice unprecedented wealth
and power – but fuelled a bitter rivalry with another Italian maritime republic: Genoa. For more than a century, these two Italian
city-states vied for supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean, their wars ranging from the
Levant, to Sicily, the Aegean, Black Sea and Adriatic. During these wars a Venetian captain named
Marco Polo was taken prisoner… and used his time in a Genoese jail to dictate an account
of his travels in China. The rivalry became a regional conflict: Genoa
making alliances with the Hapsburg Duke of Austria, the King of Hungary, and Padua; Venice
with a revived Byzantine Empire, Cyprus and Milan. The fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, until
in 1379 Venice came under attack from land and sea, with a Genoese force occupying Chioggia,
just 15 miles south of the city. But Venice miraculously turned the tables,
using galleys, armed with gunpowder artillery for the first time, to trap and capture the
Genoese fleet. The wars finally ended in 1381 with the Peace
of Turin. Venice had to make significant concessions,
and like Genoa, had been exhausted by war. But while Genoa soon fell victim to internal
feuding, Venice would stage an astonishing recovery – thanks, in large part, to the
unique system of government by which the Republic was now ruled. The most miraculous city of Venice, rich in
gold but richer in fame, strong in power but stronger in virtue, built on both solid marble
and the harmony of its citizens. Petrarch While Western Europe was dominated by kings
who claimed to rule by divine right, several Italian city-states harked back to classical
forms of government – chiefly, the idea of the republic. Res-publica, the thing of the people. However at the height of its power, Venice’s
republic, La Serenissima, as it was known, was firmly in the hands of its nobility. Only those whose names were listed in the
Golden Book – the city’s registry of nobility – could join the Great Council, which appointed
all senior officials through a complex system of voting and drawing lots. They chose 40 of their members to form the
Quarantia, who supervised economic affairs, and two to three hundred to form the Senate,
the main legislative body, attended in addition by the Republic’s admirals, generals and
diplomats. The elected head of government remained the
Doge. His powers had been steadily diminished until by the 1400s, he was no more, Venetians
joked, than ‘a tavern sign’ – a decorative symbol of power – though he continued to
wield huge influence. The Republic’s day-to-day government was
the Signoria, made up of the Doge, the six members of his Minor Council, and three representatives
of the Quarantia. They could be joined by three boards of special advisors known as
the Savi, or ‘wise men’… to form the Full College. The Council of Ten, meanwhile, had a special
remit to sniff out subversion. It was a system that eventually acquired so
many checks and balances that change – for good or ill – seemed both unimaginable,
and undesirable. “The constitution of Venice… an insuperable
monument of wisdom and efficiency.” Gasparo Contarini. Over time, an idea developed across Europe
that Venice’s constitution contained the three classical forms of government – democracy,
oligarchy, and monarchy – in perfect balance, and so ensured social harmony and stability. ‘The myth of Venice’, as this became known,
overlooked the Republic’s healthy tradition of attempted coups, rampant corruption and
social tension. But the Venetians did achieve something rare
in the medieval and Renaissance world: a durable, stable and effective government. The Serene Republic had one further, strikingly
modern feature: the best diplomats in Europe: skilled ambassadors in every capital and court,
sending information back to Venice in secret code from across the continent. Venice would need every advantage, for the
years ahead would be dominated by bitter wars with her Italian neighbours, and new challenges
to her empire… We’ve designed an exclusive range of Alexander
the Great t-shirts and hoodies inspired by our ‘Mutiny at Opis’ video – quote Arrian,
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