Venice History Packed with Exciting Stories

Venice History- Grand Canal
Venice Grand Canal

Destination: Venice, Italy

 Book: Venice: A New History by Thomas F. Madden (October 29, 2012)

While there is no question that Venice has a mystique about it, I have made no secret of the fact that I did not  love Venice. Parts of it yes. Some fantastic art, yes.The Venice history, yes. And happily for all lovers of Venice and particularly of Venice’s history, there is a new and entertaining book–Venice: A New History, that fills us in on La Serenissima from how Attila the Hun was a founding father (in a way) to today’s struggles with tourism and acqua alta.

In 452, Attilla the Hun was ravaging the mainland, and some people in the northern area of Italy fled to the marshy islands in the Venetian lagoon. As time went by and more uproar took place on the mainland, the inhabitants of the islands discovered they had a pretty safe haven, and set about draining marshes, building houses and bridges and building the world’s first Republic.

St. Mark

San Marcos Cathedral, Venice History
San Marcos Cathedral, Venice

Madden tells fascinating stories–and there are many great stories that accompany such an old place. For instance, the way that Venice became inextricably linked to St. Mark when a couple of traders conned Greek caretakers in Alexandria into taking the saint’s bones to Venice. This was in the late 9th century, when the possession of saint’s remains was a very big deal, so it was quite a coup. As you proceed through the book, though, you’ll get two more stories about Venice’s patron saint, St. Mark’s bones–how they were burned in a revolution in 976 along with the chapel they rested in and how they miraculously reappeared in a column in St. Mark’s church, San Marcos.

Venice History includes San Marcos Cathedral
Venice, San Marcos Cathedral, tourists on top.

St. Mark’s symbol–the winged lion–is very important to Venice’s history as well, as we learn about statues stolen by Venice and then re-stolen by the French when Napoleon defeated Venice. By the late eleventh century, 50,000 people lived in Venice, making it the second-largest city in western Europe. With churches in every neighborhood, and various patron saints, they united around St. Mark and built San Marco, the premier tourist attraction at St. Mark’s square still today. The present St. Mark’s is nearly one thousand years old, being dedicated about 1094. (Fortunately, St. Mark’s remains decided to show up just in time.)


Venice History includes the Fish Market
Venice Fish Market

After that revolution in 976, the Venice’s history reflects and amazing but understandable calm. Venice was always about commerce. Businessmen want a stable, dependable government, so the citizens of Venice throughout its history, were willing to let the wise men of their councils make the decisions so that they, the people, could get on with business.


Carnivale is part of Venice history.
Carnivale Shop in Venice

Once their ties to the east, and their maritime power faded in the 16th and 17th centuries, Venice began to resemble more what we think of today with tourism rampant , festivals and fiestas becoming ever more elaborate, and, according to Madden, the sex trade trumping culture as a reason for wealthy visitors to make the trip.

 Frivolity and debauchery had become major industries in Venice. They were, therefore, an important source of revenue–particularly in an age in which shipping revenues continued to decline…By the eighteenth century the vices that were readily available in Venice were so well known that to have outlawed them would have stricken Venice from the Grand Tour.

The Ghetto

Jewish Ghetto, Venice history 16th century
Jewish Ghetto, active from 1516 to 1797

At the same time, the Jewish ghetto was established (1516). Originally, although Jews had to live in this one small area, it was an improvement over previous times when they could only enter the city for limited times to do business. I reviewed a book last year that showed life in the Ghetto.

The Baroque

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice history
Santa Maria della Salute, baroque church built in to give thanks for deliverance form a plague. (1687)

When I think of Venice history, I have tended to focus on the medieval and Renaissance period when the Republic was at its height of power, and the baroque architecture of the 17th century. Thanks to Venice: A New History, I now have a better grasp of “the rest of the story.” Perhaps the most eye-opening part of this Venice history for me, was in the chapter detailing Napoleon’s rampage through the country in the late 18th century. Although Venice was the oldest Republic, Napoleon stubbornly insisted they adopt the French version of government and abandon their thousand-year-old traditions. He then systematically robbed many of the precious and ancient art works of Venice, most of which still reside in Paris.


Venice History door
Venetian door

Venice had fallen on hard times. For the first time in the history of Venice, they were not an independent state. First the French, then the Austrians, then the French and then the Austrians again dominated. When the Austrians brought the railroad, amidst much controversy, in 1840, it opened Venice to the everyday visitor. You will likely arrive that way when you visit Venice today. Finally in the 1870’s Venice became part of the new united Italy.


Venice Railroad Station, part of Venice history under Austria
Venice Railroad Station, first brought to the city by the Austrian government

When you visit Venice, you are following in the footsteps of people whose stories we read in the book– like Lord Byron, John Ruskin, Mark Twain and Katherine Hepburn (we reviewed her Venice film,  Summertime ). Venice: A New History makes a good preparation for your grand tour and is as complex and entertaining as Venice history itself.

This has been a combination book review and contribution to Travel Photo Thursday. To see more photos from travelers around the world, be sure to visit Budget Traveler’s Sandbox. And here at A Traveler’s Library, you can find several other articles and more photos of Venice by typing the name in the search box at the top of the right hand column.

Note: All photos are my property, so please respect my copyright.  The book, Venice: A New History was provided for the publisher for review, but my opinions, as usual, are my own. I included a link to Amazon, in case you can’t find the book at your local independent book store or you prefer to shop on line, please use my links because it helps pay the rent for A Traveler’s Library (and does not cost you any more.)
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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Venice History Packed with Exciting Stories

  1. I love the first photo of Venice. The day was so beautiful and clear. We have only been to Venice once as young 20 year olds and we loved it. I always feel sad when people say they do not like Venice. I can understand that it is very crowded in season, but I have heard people who do not like it out of season either.
    I am glad we have happy memories of what to us was a beautiful place.
    I liked the glimpses into the history of Venice, St. Mark’s bones and it’s own bone structure of commerce.

  2. I didn’t know about some of this history – sounds like an interesting read.
    I’ve not been to Venice but it’s on my list. Sorry you didn’t love it.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting book! I’ve not made it to Venice yet but I can see it would be a great read prior to my visit. No matter what people think of Venice, it is a beautiful city!

    1. Debbie: It is beautiful–if you don’t look to closely at the decay. I guess I’m not of the Romantic era mold that thought decay was–well–romantic.

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