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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Short History of Venice (& 59 Top Venice Cultural Attractions)


Introduction to Venice

Venice, also known as the "Floating City," has a rich and fascinating history dating back to the 5th century AD. This Italian city is renowned for its picturesque canals, stunning architecture, and vibrant culture. In this blog post, we will explore the history of Venice and highlight its top cultural attractions that are must-visit destinations for any traveller.

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History of Venice

Enchanting Venice

For many people, Venice is the most enchanting city on Earth. Seeing it for the first time is a breath-taking experience. From a distance its palaces, houses and basilicas defy reality, appearing to float above the city’s natural lagoon. Like something from a fairy tale or fantasy, daily life is organised around the water: over 400 bridges span the canals, while many front doors open straight onto them. Stepping onto the city’s pavements reveals a bustling metropolis void of vehicles, with only a handful of fast-food outlets, and few obvious architectural signifiers of modernity. Almost all visitors find the City of Canals wholly intoxicating, but for some it holds powers of inspiration to creativity. Venice nurtured and stimulated the great Renaissance painters Giovanni Bellini and Titian; is the setting for countless works, from Shakespeare to Canaletto and Monet; and has inspired Romantic travellers to write of its profound effect on them, from Lord Byron to Charles Dickens and John Ruskin.

Tensions of a Marshland City

Trying to understand this improbable city, however, reveals its many tensions. Its beauty and opulence jar with its precarious location on a salt marsh. Its unlikely establishment, nestled between the coast of mainland Italy and the top of the Adriatic Sea, reflects the straitened and desperate circumstances of its founders. The lagoon’s first main inhabitants were refugees from the Roman Empire when Visigoths attacked in the early 5th century. New waves of people fleeing came 50 years later when Attila the Hun’s hordes arrived, and again when the Lombards invaded in the 6th century. The Latin name for the original lagoon-dwellers and their settlements was Veneti. Note the plural: there was no single Venice, but an assortment, a compilation of over 100 small islands; hard to live on but perfect as a hideaway. Yet life on the lagoon would endure and in time emerge triumphant, providing the foundations for a mercantile city state and naval power. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Venice was still linked to the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, part of the Exarchate of Ravenna with an appointed Duke, or dux. After the Lombards conquered Ravenna in 751, the dux became the city’s doge, elected by Venetians, and the Republic of Venice began its thousand-year life.

The Founding of Venice

However, according to local tradition, Venice was in fact founded earlier. Some liked to claim it was created by refugees from Troy, before even Rome. More commonly, noon on the 25th of March 421 is celebrated as its founding. This was by design, for the 25th of March is the Feast of the Annunciation in the Christian calendar. 421 was just eleven years after Alaric’s devastating sack of Rome and 55 years before the last Western Roman emperor. The city’s supposed founding date was thus a declaration that Venice was the new Rome, La Serenissima Repubblica (or The Most Serene Republic).

A Bridge Between East and West

Perhaps unlike any other city in the world, Venice poses challenges to the visitor. Our preconceived ideas of the city inherently link it to the city states of mainland Italy. In fact, it’s better to cast Venice as a bridge between East and West. It was the gathering point for setting out on the Crusades and all the while grew immensely rich, functioning as a kind of counting house for goods arriving from the ancient Silk Road. The Milanese priest Pietro Casola recorded his amazement of the Venetian marketplace in the late 15th century: ‘so many cloths of every make – tapestry, brocades, and hangings of every design, carpets of every sort, camlets of every colour and texture, silks of every kind; and so many warehouses full of spices, groceries, and drugs’. Trade drove a financial revolution and wealth energised music, art, and architecture, much of which was a stunning coalescence of Christian and Islamic traditions. At its height La Serenissima’s territories stretched to Crete and Cyprus and its wealth, power, and cultural efflorescence embodied the magnificence of the medieval and the flowering of the Renaissance.

Decline and Sinking

Its slow decline, conquest by Napoleon in 1797, rule by Austria in the early 19th century, and incorporation into the new state of Italy in the 1860s saw the forward-looking commercial republic banished to the past. In the 19th century, Romantic writers fell in love with the decaying Queen of the Adriatic and deplored any form of modernisation even at the expense of its inhabitants. Today, Venetians have modern amenities, but their numbers have dwindled to around 50,000. And all the while, Venice is sinking. As the ground below the city is lowering, sea levels are rising. Floods, known as the acqua alta (or high water), are occurring more frequently to destructive effect.

Imaginary Cities of Venice

In Italo Calvino’s 20th-century novel Invisible Cities, the narrator, Marco Polo, one of Venice’s most famous and cosmopolitan sons, describes a set of imaginary cities to Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan. At the end it emerges that each of these cities is actually Venice, in all its glorious multiplicity. Venice, to survive in the climate crisis, and to preserve its beauty, will have to change; we hope that were Calvino writing today, he’d have more pages for another manifestation of this great city.

Venice's Top 59 Cultural Attractions

Venice is home to a wealth of cultural attractions that offer a glimpse into the city's fascinating history and vibrant arts scene. From museums and galleries to churches and bridges, there is no shortage of things to see and do in this enchanting city. We have compiled a list of the top 59 cultural attractions in Venice. Whether you're a history buff, an art lover, or simply looking for a unique cultural experience, there's something for everyone.

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