Venice is one of the worlds densest urban places a compression of churches, great and small houses, and other buildings crowded around hundreds of piazzi and campi, little relieved with planting and having only two public gardens. Floating on a cluster of more than 100 low islands about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) off the Veneto region of the Italian mainland, the historical center of this remarkable city is surrounded by the shallow, crescent-shaped Laguna Veneta (Venetian Lagoon) and permeated by a network of over 150 canals, 400 bridges, and countless narrow streets known as calli. It is protected from the Adriatic Sea by the Pallestrina, Lido, and Cavallino littorals, a total of 30 miles (48 kilometers) of narrow strips of sand with seaward entrances to the lagoon. In fact, Venice is built in the sea, hardly a suitable place for a city, and it therefore provides a remarkable example of how humanity rises to meet a challenge.
Why did the citys founders choose such a location? When he became sole ruler of the Huns in a.d. 446, Attila set out to extend his domain from the River Rhine across the north of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. With the Franks and Vandals, five years later he attacked western Europe, only to be driven back by Roman and Visigoth armies. In 452 he invaded Italy, displacing entire communities, many of which fled to islands along the Adriatic coast, then inhabited only by hunters and fishermen. When Attila withdrew a year later the refugees returned to the mainland but not all. Some historians identify this relocation as the key to the eventual foundation of Venice. After Attilas death in 453, the Lombards rose to dominate what is now Hungary. Around 568 their king Alboin led an army of Lombards, Gepids, Sarmatians, and others into Italy, overrunning much of the Veneto. He would soon conquer Milan and the Po Valley; Tuscany would follow and, by 575, Rome. The people of the Veneto had again retreated to the lagoons. Because the Lombards remained in Italy, the refugees no longer had homes to which they could return and they remained on the islands. Late in the seventh century their numbers were augmented by more exiles from the harsh Lombard rule.
In the lagoon, a loose confederation of communities emerged, owing allegiance to Byzantium. Each had its economic, religious, and organizational distinctives because it governed islands whose population originated in a specific part of the Veneto. By 726 the Iconoclastic movement a religious phenomenon demanding the destruction of holy images reached the Byzantine outposts in Italy. Although the rest of the Eastern Empire was loyal to the Orthodox Church, these Italian communities were bound to Rome. Prompted by the pope, they briefly asserted independence from Byzantium, only to think better of it later except Venice. The Venetians elected Orso Ipato as doge (leader) in 727, the first head of a polity that would last almost 1,100 years, the most enduring republic in history. When Orsos son Teodato succeeded him in 742, the seat of government was moved to Malamocco on the Lido, and Venice was recognized as an independent city within the Byzantine Empire.
In 755 the pope urged the Frankish king Pepin the Short to invade Italy, ending Lombard rule; they were finally defeated in 773 by his successor Charlemagne. Charlemagnes son Pepin II sent a force against the islands of the lagoon in 810. It overran Chioggia and Pallestrina, the southernmost littoral island, before turning on Malamocco. Although the Franks were repelled with heavy losses, the confederation moved its capital to islands near the center of the lagoon that were protected from naval attack by sandbars. Formed by sediment from the Brenta River (the Grand Canal marks its former course), those islands were known as Rivo Alto or RiAlto (high bank). After the Franks withdrew, the capital remained there, and 828 saw the establishment of the city that has been known for eight centuries as Venice, with its famous Rialto bridge.
Venice was built on its unlikely clutch of islands by gradually reclaiming land from the lagoon or by forming new land behind seawalls and dikes, backfilled with soil brought by boat from the mainland. Timber oak and pine for piles and larch for the boards was cut in the northern Veneto forests and floated across the lagoon. Multiple rows of piles were driven into the hard clay substrata under the muddy islands. In this way the natural waterways between them were turned into defined canals, and new ones were formed by blocking the ends, excavating the waterway, forming a bed of sand-clay mixture and then flooding it. Typically, since space has always been at a premium, the buildings of Venice stand literally on the edge of the canals, creating the citys unique appearance.
Platforms of larch boards were laid on the tops of piles, supporting foundation courses of water-resistant Istrian stone. The superstructure of the buildings was usually brick, sometimes stuccoed or (for greater prestige) faced with decorative marbles and architectural moldings. Each island had its campo (field), an open space too small to be dignified with piazza. The campo had a communal reservoir, fed with rainwater from the surrounding buildings, and (usually) a church, sometimes with a freestanding bell tower called a campanile. These open spaces were the center of community life, the location for markets, shops, and warehouses in the ground floors of the surrounding larger houses. The parts of the island remote from the campo were reached through unpaved streets and alleys. From the beginning of the twelfth century, narrow thoroughfares and the corners of canals and bridges were provided with street lighting the first in any European city.
Venice was divided into siestieri, or sixths, one of which the labyrinthine Santa Croce was eventually merged with two others, Dorsoduro and San Polo, the citys commercial core since the eleventh century. The others were Cannaregio, Castello, and San Marco, which has been the seat of political power since the age of La Serrenissima the Serene Republic of Venice.
The glorious and sometimes bloody history of that republic is beyond our present scope. Suffice it to say that mostly through canny business skills and judicious conflicts, by the end of the first millennium a.d., Venice had secured the northern end of the Adriatic and soon after that established herself as a key maritime trade center, not only in the Mediterranean but also across the world to distant China. During the Crusades and after 1204, her territories were extended to the Aegean islands, Crete, southern Greece, and even part of Constantinople. Competition with other Italian seafaring states, especially Genoa, simply served to increase her commercial dominance, and in the fifteenth century she expanded on the Italian Peninsula, claiming (among other cities) Treviso, Padua, Vicenza, and Verona. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the discovery of the New World in 1492, heralded her commercial and political demise. At Sapienza in 1499 the Venetian navy was defeated by the Turks, who took control of the Adriatic. At that moment, Vasco da Gama returned to Lisbon with news of a faster route to the Orient. Venice was forced to relinquish her long-held trade supremacy to the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. In 1797 the Treaty of Campoformio gave Venice to Austria; she next came under Napoleonic rule (1805 1814), and after several revolutions and wars of independence, in 1866 she was absorbed into the kingdom of Italy.
Venice is again in danger. The enemies are both natural and man-induced: eustacy (variation in sea levels due to global climate changes); seasonal high tides and water surges as well as subsidence, caused largely by mismanagement of subterranean water sources; and pollution. The combined result of the three means that, in effect, the city in the sea is drowning. In the twentieth century it sank about 10 inches (25 centimeters), about twice the average rate of the previous fourteen centuries. Only half of that was due to uncontrollable changes in sea level. Pollution is of several kinds: Venice has no drains; vast quantities of human and industrial waste of all sorts flow into the lagoon, and its self-cleansing capacity has long been overtaxed. Although authorities recognize the need to address these problems, there is a paradox: the resident population has been displaced by millions of tourists, changing the citys economic profile. Although a series of defensive measures has been planned since 1994, the municipality of Venice finds it increasingly difficult to meet the cost of maintaining its precious monuments. That is despite an April 1973 resolution of the Italian central government, which declared