The poet Joseph Brodsky describes Venice as “eternity itself.” Similarly, the Tuscan poet Petrarch, in the 14th century, described Venice as “mundus alter” – “another world.” They are not alone in their praise. Authors, filmmakers and poets such as Lord Byron, Thomas Mann, William Shakespeare, Daphne du Maurier, and many, many others have found inspiration in the old city clinging to the side of the sea. The city’s heart is built on an island in the middle of a lagoon, and as such Venice is a city that lives intimately with water. Given its mercantile history, it is a city that has always done this. In fact, the Doge (a term derived from the Latin word for “duke,” not “doge” as in the Internet meme) of Venice would symbolically “marry” the sea on special occasions. The correct term for a state such as Venice is a thalassocracy – a maritime republic. A sea country.
Venice’s origins stem from the Germanic and Hun invasions at the end of the Roman Empire. As Roman rule in Italy fell apart, wealthy Roman families, seeking to keep hold of their wealth and not involuntarily transfer it to soon-to-be wealthy Hun families, relocated to the island. With Italy in shambles, Venice allied with the remnants of Rome – the Byzantines – but eventually broke away and became an independent city-state. As Byzantium waned in power, and especially after Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders in 1204, Venice was able to corner the market on trade with the newly-arrived Arabic powers of the Mediterranean.
During this period, Venice was at its height of power. Venetian art was extremely influential. Venetian artists included the Bellini family, who emphasized a focus on the interplay between painting and available light. Other artists included Titian, Giorgione, and Veronese, all artists that experimented with texture and sensuality, light and landscape. The Venetian carnival, with its elaborate masks and costumes, remains a popular image of excess and sensuality, and Venetian glassblowing remains a highly skilled art.
Venice’s empire was one of trade. But trade comes with vulnerabilities. The Black Death and subsequent plagues, carried as they were on the hides of rats which in turn hid in ships’ holds, devastated the city again and again. Further, in the 15th century, Venice received two major blows – one from the east, and one from the west. In the east, Venice supported its old ally Byzantium as it held out against the Ottoman Turks, a thing that the Ottoman Sultan did not forgive or forget, and Venice saw its ships plundered and ports cut off as the Ottomans gained power across the eastern Mediterranean. Further, to the west, Portuguese sailors perfected long-distance seaborne trade to East Asia, thereby cutting off the need to deal with the Mediterranean (and Venetian ships) at all.
Venice lost its independence when Napoleon conquered it during the wars in the early 19th century that bear the diminutive French dictator’s name. In Venice, Napoleon’s conquest, while it ended the city’s independence, was not all bad. Napoleon removed the gates of the Ghetto – the area of the city in which Venice’s Jewish population was required to live – and permitted the city’s Jews to settle where they pleased, making him a hero of sorts to some Venetians. Upon Napoleon’s defeat, Venice did not return to its independence, but was handed to Austria and, later, to the nascent Kingdom of Italy. It remains, today, Italian.
The city is now one of the most famous tourist sites in the world. It is also sinking into the Adriatic Sea. Climate change and sea level rise pose a serious threat to the city, as its formerly advantageous position on a marshy island in a salt-water lagoon has turned into its most dangerous feature: for instance, in 2019, a full 80 percent of the city flooded. The marriage to the sea, it seems, has become more intimate than the Doge would have desired. Wow. Much water.
- Venice's city-state symbol is based on the Lion of Saint Mark, which appears on the Venetian flag.
- The final sentences of Venice's Civilopedia entry reference the Doge meme, a double entendre based on the traditional title of the rulers of Venice, which also uses broken English for comedic effect.
|Civilization VI City-states |
|1 Requires DLC|