When the Lombards invade Italy, in 568, one of the first cities in their path is Aquileia – a Christian town of long-standing importance, traditionally held to have been founded by St Mark. Many of its inhabitants, alarmed at the prospects of life under the rule of Germanic tribesmen, opt for the uncertain status of refugees. Fleeing southwards, some seek safety on a low-lying offshore island – probably occupied at the time only by a fishing community.
Less than twenty years later, in about 584, those parts of the east Italian coast still in Byzantine hands are grouped together as the exarchate of Ravenna – a defensive arrangement against the Lombards. The islanders of Torcello, who have perhaps already spread to neighbouring islands in the Venetian lagoon, are included in the exarchate. But with the northern mainland in Lombard hands, and with a considerable distance separating them from the centre of Byzantine government at Ravenna, their survival is largely in their own hands. They become increasingly independent.
In 726 the Venetians for the first time elect their own doge (the equivalent of ‘duke’, from the Latin dux meaning ‘leader’).
Doges and diplomacy: AD 726-814
Orso, the first Venetian doge, comes to power specifically as an opponent of Byzantine rule over the islands of the lagoon. This first bid for independence fails. Byzantine officials continue to govern the islands until the fall of the exarchate of Ravenna in 751. The Venetians, now of necessity on their own though still legally subject to the Byzantine empire, develop skills as middlemen which eventually bring them great wealth and power.
When Pepin, the son of Charlemagne, campaigns in northeast Italy in 809, the Venetian doge makes an alliance with him – a move involving considerable risk, in that it is unlikely to please the Byzantine emperor.
Others might be crushed between the new Carolingian empire to the west and the ancient Byzantine empire in the east. But Venice successfully plays the giants off against each other and thrives. A treaty in 814 between the Franks and the Byzantines establishes that Venice is to remain independent of the Carolingian empire; but no special emphasis is laid on the existing obligation to Constantinople.
As part of both worlds, east and west, perfectly placed between the Mediterranean and the mountain passes up through the Alps into northern Europe, Venice is now poised to make her fortune from trade.
Rialto and St Mark’s: 9th – 11th century AD
Early in the 9th century the government of the lagoon is transferred to two adjacent islands where the land is a little higher above water level, though in Venice the distinction is a fine one. To either side of the intervening waterway is a rivo alto (‘high bank’), from the which the name Rialto derives. The Rialto bridge subsequently joins these two banks.
The growing town needs status. In the Christian Middle Ages status requires a distinguished patron saint and, if possible, the possession of his relics. St Mark, the patron saint of Aquileia (in effect the parent city), is the obvious candidate. In about 828 Venice comes of age. The city acquires, from Alexandria, some relics of St Mark.
Legend rapidly provides exciting details of how the bones were secured. It is said that two Venetian merchants stole them from the saint’s shrine in Alexandria and then smuggled them out of Egypt in a barrel of pork – an unclean meat to Muslims and therefore unlikely to be inspected.
Whatever the actual means (theft of relics is common in the Middle Ages, but purchase is equally possible), the arrival of the bones is the occasion for the building of the first St Mark’s in Venice. The church, rebuilt in the 11th century and subsequently enlarged and altered, has been ever since the proud centrepiece of the city.
Eastern trade: 11th – 14th century
Two developments in the 11th century prove of lasting benefit to Venice, which is by now the leading maritime power in the Adriatic. The first is the appearance of a rival in Italian waters. The Normans drive the Byzantines from their last seaport in southern Italy by 1071, and soon they begin raiding across the Adriatic; in 1082 they take the important harbour of Durrës (or Durazzo) in Albania.
In return for help against these marauders, the Byzantine emperor grants Venice an astonishing concession. Venetians may henceforth trade freely throughout the Byzantine empire, without being liable for any dues or customs.
The other new development of the late 11th century opens up extra routes for trade, along the coasts of the Byzantine empire and beyond. In 1096 the contingents of the First Crusade set off eastwards to recover the holy places of Christendom from the Muslims. They are in Syria by 1098. By the end of 1099 there is a Latin kingdom of Jerusalem.
A great increase in trade, travel and pilgrimage to the eastern Mediterranean is the inevitable result. Venice, which has the skills to provide the transport and an already established trade concession, is once again perfectly placed. But it soon meets strong rivalry from two other great maritime communes, Genoa and Pisa.
The Italian communes of the west coast demonstrate their strength in the 11th century when Genoan and Pisan fleets, often working in alliance, protect Corsica and Sardinia from the depredations of Muslims. Both cities subsequently develop extensive trade in the western Mediterranean. Genoa also plays a large part in the crusades, establishing strong trading links in the eastern Mediterranean and coming into direct competition with Venice.
Warfare between these two Italian city states is long and intermittent, with Venice by no means always the stronger – until the issue is finally resolved in 1380 at Chioggia.
Venetian mosaics: 12th – 13th century AD
Venice’s long link with Constantinople is evident in the mosaics, in the Byzantine style, for which the islands of the lagoon are famous. The earliest are on Torcello, the first centre of the Venetian state, where the cathedral apse contains a superb 13th-century image of the Virgin and Child.
The entire west wall of the cathedral is occupied by a vast mosaic of the same period depicting the Last Judgement. The subject is more characteristic of the western church than of Byzantium, as is the somewhat radical manner in which figures of authority are prominently displayed among the damned – including the Byzantine emperor, the Venetian doge and the German emperor.
When the Torcello mosaics are being installed, this cathedral is no longer the most important one in the Venetian lagoon. That honour has passed to St Mark’s, where craftsmen in mosaic are busy at the same period. Their labours produce probably the most sumptuous church interior in the world, with every corner a sombre glittering gold. It has been calculated that the mosaics of St Mark’s cover an area of about an acre.
Dating mainly from the 12th and 13th centuries, these Italian mosaics represent the culmination of a great Byzantine tradition. But at the end of the 13th century Italy also provides a new beginning in an equally great theme in the history of art – that of the European fresco.
The Pala d’Oro: 10th – 14th century AD
In addition to its Byzantine mosaics, St Mark’s contains in the Pala d’Oro the most spectacular surviving altarpiece of a kind familiar in imperial Byzantine churches. Small scenes in cloisonné enamel of Jesus, the Virgin and saints are set in a gold background encrusted with jewels. Commissioned from the workshops of Constantinople by a doge of the 10th century, the original Pala d’Oro is dismantled and extended several times to incorporate new panels. It acquires its present form in 1345.
Some of the added panels are brought here from Constantinople in 1204, among the loot which greatly enriches Venice as a result of the shameful episode of the fourth crusade.