Venice​—“City in the Sea”

By Awake! writer in Italy

“There is a glorious City in the Sea. The Sea is in the broad, the narrow streets, ebbing and flowing; and the salt sea-weed clings to the marble of her palaces.”​—Samuel Rogers, English poet, 1822.

THE “glorious City” is Venice. Onetime capital of a great republic, Venice could boast a centuries-long dominion over a great land and sea empire. How and why was this city built “in the sea”? Upon what was its glory based? How did its empire collapse, and what today remains of the magnificence of Venice?

An Inhospitable Site

Venice, situated in the midst of a lagoon at the northwest end of the Adriatic Sea, links together 118 islands. Rivers that flow into the sea nearby discharge large quantities of silt into shallow coastal waters. The play of tides and currents here has led to the formation of a chain of sandbars enclosing a placid lagoon that is some 32 miles [51 km] long and up to 9 miles [14 km] wide. Three narrow openings to the sea allow the passage of three-foot [1 m] tides and maritime traffic. “For centuries,” says one source, “the lagoon has been the terminus for intense commercial traffic that sailed up the Adriatic or descended from central  or northern Europe along rivers or caravan routes.”

Scholars trace the origin of the city proper to sometime between the fifth and the seventh centuries C.E., when successive waves of barbarians swept down from the north, burning and pillaging the communities on the mainland. The people fled before the pillagers, many taking refuge in the less-accessible but safer lagoon islands.

Ancient documents indicate that the first constructions here were built on a foundation of poles sunk into the mud and interwoven with slender branches or reeds. In later times the Venetians built in stone on a foundation of thousands of wooden piles. Meanwhile, the lagoon islands of Rialto, which were to become the city center, were often waterlogged and were neither firm enough nor big enough to accommodate a large influx of settlers. The islands had to be drained and enlarged by primitive systems of land reclamation. Thus, the inhabitants dug out channels for their boats and shored up the islands to prepare better building sites. Canals traversed by bridges that facilitated pedestrian movement from one island to another became their streets.

The Birth and Rise of a Republic

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the lagoon islands came under the influence of the Byzantine Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople, now Istanbul. The lagoon communities, however, rebelled and claimed their independence. As a result, Venice was left in what has been described as the unusual “position of [a] small independent . . . duchy, situated in territorial isolation between two great empires,” the Franks and the Byzantines. That unique situation enabled the city to develop and flourish as a great “trading intermediary.”

In the centuries that followed, Venice went on to measure itself militarily against a number of powers that contended with it in the Mediterranean, including the Saracens, Normans, and Byzantines. Venice finally emerged more powerful than any of these but not before diverting the fourth crusade, in 1204, to destroy the most formidable of her rivals, Constantinople. Venice had established many trading posts​—on the Black Sea and the Aegean as well as in Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, and Crete. Now it took advantage of the fall of the Byzantine Empire to transform a number of them into territorial colonies.

“Mistress of the Mediterranean”

As early as the 12th century, Venice’s vast shipyards were turning  out fully equipped galleys at the rate of one every few hours. Local industry produced glass and luxury fabrics​—lace, brocade, damask, and velvet. From the West, Venetian and foreign merchants brought arms, horses, amber, furs, timber, wool, honey, wax, and slaves. Imported from the Muslim Levant, on the other hand, were gold, silver, silk, spices, cotton, dyes, ivory, perfumes, and a host of other goods. The city officials ensured that duties were exacted on all the goods that entered and left its markets.

Beautified by famous architects and artists​—such as Palladio, Titian, and Tintoretto—​Venice was styled la serenissima, “the most serene” or “sublime.” The city could then rightly be called “mistress of the Mediterranean, . . . the richest and most prosperous commercial centre of the civilized world.” It remained such for centuries, and its power began to wane only during the 16th century, when the main trading axis shifted toward the Atlantic and the New World.

Venice’s colonies, scattered throughout the Mediterranean, never did enjoy geographic unity, unity of government, or effective cohesion. Loss of the colonies therefore was inevitable. Neighboring powers wrested possessions from Venice one by one until finally Napoléon I conquered the lagoon city in 1797 and ceded it to Austria. In 1866, Venice became part of Italy.

A Surreal City

For many, a visit to Venice is like stepping back in time two or three hundred years. The city has an atmosphere all its own.

One feature is the quiet. For the most part, pedestrian traffic in narrow alleyways is separated from waterborne traffic, except where paths flank canals or cross them on characteristic arched stone bridges. The only motor vehicles are boats, as streets are “paved” with water. The city is extraordinarily rich in picturesque views. St. Mark’s Square with its basilica, bell tower, and magnificent waterfront, where the sun sparkles on the green lagoon, is inspiring to artists.

Busy open-air cafés in the main square attract tourists and residents alike. Here you can enjoy a drink or a gelato while listening to the music of small classical orchestras. As you sit watching the passersby and admiring the superb architecture that surrounds you, without a car in sight, it truly can seem as though you have traveled back in time.

For those in search of art treasures, the city exerts a special attraction. Its numerous palaces, museums, and churches house the paintings of many famous artists. But some visitors are just content to wander through narrow alleys and gaze at the unfamiliar sights around them. An abundance of stores offer tourists goods for which the city is famed​—lace and embroidered work from the lagoon island of Burano and  splendid crystal and glassware from Murano. A short ride on a vaporetto, or motorboat, which is an experience in itself, will take you to either of these islands, where you may see how their products are made.

Monumental palaces with pointed narrow arches testify to Oriental influences of bygone days. The famous Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal​—the city’s main thoroughfare—​and the sleek black gondolas that glide silently beneath it vie for visitors’ attention.

Still Fighting for Survival

Two centuries after the fall of the “sublime Republic,” Venice is still fighting to survive but in battles of a different sort. The number of residents in the historic center fell from 175,000 in 1951 to a mere 64,000 in 2003 because of inflated property prices, lack of work, and few modern facilities. Complex social and economic problems need to be solved, such as how​—and if—​the decaying city ought to be renewed.

In the 1920’s, a new industrial area was developed on the mainland in the hope that it would boost the local economy, and a deep channel was dredged across the lagoon to enable oil tankers to reach the refineries. Industry offered work opportunities, but it has also been blamed for pollution and the destructive high tides called acqua alta (high water), which submerge much of the historic center more and more frequently.

That the lagoon environment and its hydraulics form a delicate natural mechanism crucial to the city’s survival is nothing new. As early as 1324, the Venetians undertook colossal engineering works to divert rivers that threatened to choke the lagoon with silt. In the 18th century, they built seawalls to prevent the Adriatic from bursting destructively into the lagoon.

Now the situation appears more critical than ever. It is hoped that the problem of subsidence resulting from the depletion of underground aquifers for industrial uses has been definitively halted, but sea levels worldwide continue to rise. The lagoon area, moreover, has been reduced by land reclamation, and its equilibrium has been tampered with. High water has long posed a threat but never like it does now. At the start of the 20th century, St. Mark’s Square was flooded some five to seven times a year. A century later, it was flooded 80 times in one year alone.

Venice’s exceptional historic and artistic heritage along with the problems it faces have aroused international concern. Special legislation has been passed with the aim of defending the city from high water and respecting the environment, without damaging the function of its port or the everyday life of its population. How best to do that is still an unresolved question.

Work is being done to raise canal banks, render paved areas impermeable to upward filtration of water from the subsoil, and prevent sewer regurgitation in conditions of acqua alta. The most controversial measure is the planned construction of a system of mobile barriers across the entrances to the lagoon, which would be raised when high water threatens.

The objective is demanding. The “glorious City in the Sea” bears witness to a fascinating past, but as different writers have observed, it risks being reduced to “a museum by outsiders at the expense or expulsion of the local population.” Venice has long had to contend with a difficult natural environment, but now “physical defense alone would be futile unless it were provided for a city reinvigorated socially and economically, inhabited, alive, and vital.”

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Venice

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The Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal

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San Giorgio Maggiore

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Santa Maria della Salute

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Restaurants on the Grand Canal

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Flood in St. Mark’s Square

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Lepetit Christophe/GAMMA

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Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.; background photo: © Medioimages