Few cities can claim such a priceless art and history heritage as Venice. This unique city with its magical, spectacular scenery is not just beautiful; it is a real miracle of creative genius: a city built on mud, sand and the slime of a difficult, inhospitable landscape.
Venice is the symbol of wise government and freedom. The lagoon was its only defense, there were no palace guards except the Arsenal workers and no parade ground except the sea. During centuries of feudalism and barbarism, Venice symbolised democracy and civilization.
Venitian origins are on water. It was on the lagoon (this noble, landscape formed by tides and currents) that, as from the VI century A.D, inland populations threatened by barbarian invasions took refuge.
The fall of the Roman empire had opened the Italian gates to invading hordes so the inland people saw the lagoon as their last hope for survival; here where the sea bottom was continually evolving and an invisible canal network made navigation possible only for those who knew its intricate path.
For centuries the lagoon was Venice’s only real defense as it was difficult, in fact almost impossible to cross.
It was for this reason that Venice never felt the need to build walls.
The first settlements were built in the archipelago around the island of Rivoalto, which then became Rialto the center of the Venice we know today, that wonderful, capillary system of streams, canals and buildings.
The first Venetians were boatmen, watermen. They were the only ones who knew how to move around the lagoon and the only ones trading in fish and salt. Cassiodoro, a high Roman official wrote: “Though there be those who aren’t looking for gold, the person who doesn’t want salt has yet to be born”. Salt was an extremely precious commodity and, from the start, was an important source of riches for the Venetians.
But it wasn’t until after the year 1000 that Venice began to stand out as an economic and military power, dominating sea trade, its ships able to navigate from southern Russian rivers to the French coasts. It was never really subjected to any dominion, not even by the Eastern empire, though strongly tied to it for economic and cultural reasons.
The city always put trade and profit before anything else, even politics or religion. And it developed an extraordinarily modern type of government, close to the modern concept of democracy. In the 14th century its laws foresaw the protection of child labour, the separation of interest between doctors and pharmacists, even the creation of a kind of public health service and a number of advanced laws on justice and public administration.
Compared to other Italian town-states, Venice was a unique example of social unity and faith in government.
The Republic’s glory was reflected in the city’s architecture: the Doge’s Palace was more sumptuous than a royal dwelling, the Church of San Marco glowed with the gold of its mosaics, and wherever you looked, the winged lion, symbol of the patron saint San Marco the evangelist, expressed the strength and courage of the Republic.
But what surprises about Venice, now as in the past, is its impressive building structure - a city built entirely on water. For centuries the Venetians, slowly and stubbornly insisted on recovering even the smallest bit of land from the water. From the very start, building the city was a real engineering miracle due not only to the skill and intelligence of its builders but also to the nature of the place itself.
Venetian buildings were built on a system of wooden poles buried in mud. First, long wooden poles were driven into the mud until they reached hard, firm ground. On these palings wooden planks were laid, layered crosswise to obtain a more stable structure, distributing weight evenly on all the poles.
On this base a brick or marble structure was built. They were real pile dwellings. Some buildings had instability problems and are still visibly crooked today. But, on the whole, this building technique proved to be lasting and effective.
It is right here, as a floating city, that the myth of Venice’s exceptional nature has flourished over the centuries. What makes Venice really unique worldwide, even more so than its unequalled art, history and cultural heritage, is water: the element it was born on and which, paradoxically, now threatens to destroy it. But to what did Venice owe its greatness?
At a time when travelling was difficult and risky, the Venetians sailed just about all over the known world on powerful, safe ships. They soon became active middlemen between East and West. Venice itself, thanks to its strategic position and to good relations with the Byzantine Empire, became more than ever Europe’s gateway to the East. By ship, Venetians transported silk, spices, gold and silver, as well as high consumption goods like wood.
Venetian galleys were light and agile. They couldn’t carry large loads, but a full crew guaranteed the presence on board of about 200 men which made these ships pretty safe. In order to recruit crew members, ship captains put a table on the dock in front of the Doge’s Palace and offered advance pay, of generally three or four months. When the ship was about to sail, a town crier announced the fact for three to four days in a row around Rialto and the Church of San Marco.
Those who didn’t turn up, as quite a few deserted, were hunted down by the Lords of the Night, a sort of local police force, and were embarked by force or even arrested.
Besides the Captain and the more expert sailors, the crew included crossbowmen, some merchants, a map-maker, a scribe, a doctor and naturally, the rowers, the so-called galley slaves. The present meaning of the term came from here, from the fact that the ships were at times the place were a forced labor sentence was served, from here the meaning of galleys, like prison.
Merchant galleys were an expensive means of transport so the expense had to be compensated for by precious loads and by the prompt return of the ships. To reduce risks, the Republic put together an effective control system over trading companies, laying down very precise rules in order to avoid enterprises that were reckless or even fraudulent: in practice, it built the galleys, designed the trade routes and then organized a bid amongst those merchants interested in taking part in the enterprise. The interested parties met in a private room and under Senate supervision won the different participation shares.
Naturally, these were rich merchants, normally representing the family company. This economic agreement was then perfected by a Notary, on the eve of each trip, and the shares were set exactly, that is the participation share of each single, investing member.
This system split both risks and profits, forced merchants to collaborate so that the enterprise was a success and guaranteed the Republic economic returns that would cover the cost of the ships.
To guarantee itself supremacy of the sea, Venice had to be able to count on a third factor, just as important: the ability to build its own ships. At first, Venetian ships were built in small private workshops; then, around 1200, these businesses were grouped into one single public shipyard : the Arsenal.
This huge structure employed designers, shipwrights and other specialised workers. The Arsenal workers, the so-called arsenalotti, were a community apart in the city, the depository of a precious heritage, handed down from generation to generation and jealously protected. The drawing of the arch, that is the design of the ship’s hull profile, a very difficult operation, was done by the foreman, the arsenal’s true authority
The ship’s success at sea depended on this stage and it required great experience. The shipyard organisation was highly advanced with work shared out among different sectors, quality control of raw materials, standardisation of many manufacturing stages and even history’s first assembly line. This complete, self-sufficient manufacturing cycle allowed the building of up to three large ships a day and guaranteed real superiority for Venice.
It was in the Arsenal that the most loved and precious Venetian boat was built: the Bucintoro. This was a special parade galley, on two floors, covered in crimson satin and decorated with golden sculptures. On Ascension day, the Doge and the city’s most important members got on board and sailed out to the Adriatic, to the Lido port.
Here the Doge threw a ring, symbolizing union between Venice and water, into the sea and pronounced the solemn formula: “We wed you oh sea, in the sign of true, eternal dominion”.
Sadly, the last Bucintoro did not survive the French occupation. On the eve of their departure in 1798, Napoleon’s men tried to sink it in the Arsenal harbour and then hacked it to pieces. Only a few small pieces were salvaged and can be seen today in the Correr Museum.
Marine Venice’s golden period ended when trading routes and sailing techniques changed and Venice went from being a sea trading city to one of crafts and, above all, art. Its coat of arms, like those of the other sea republics Genova, Amalfi and Pisa, still appears on the Italian navy flag as a permanent reminder of its glorious, sea dominating past.