8. La Serenissima

When Venice Ruled the Seas

From its beginnings, Venice, “la Serenissima” was different from any other place in Italy.

Carpacciomark1Vittore Carpaccio The Lion of St. Mark



It was a new city, founded in the watery marshes of the northern Adriatic by people fleeing from invaders in the fifth century CE.


seagull venice



By 639 the church on the island of Torcello was dedicated, marking the presence of a permanent community in the area now known as Venice.

The Island of Torcello at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon


In this painting Carpaccio evokes the days of the earliest settlers on the Venetian Lagoon:


Vittore Carpaccio Hunting in the Lagoon

Here Carpaccio gives a vivid picture of what Venice looked like in his day:


Vittore Carpaccio Miracle at the Rialto


During the ninth century Venice came be centered in the area of the Riva Alto or Rialto , where the Rialto Bridge is located. The wooden bridge was replaced by a stone bridge built in 1591 by Antonio da Ponte, that stands there today.




View of the Rialto Bridge from the Grand Canal


Here is a virtual tour of Venice from Google Maps, with videos of the city today as well as maps that show how it has changed over time.


The Byzantine Emperor Justinian made his base in Italy in the nearby city of Ravenna in 540 CE and over the following centuries, Venice benefited from its close relationship with the Byzantine Empire.

The Emperor Justinian and his attendants, Basilica of San Vitale,  Ravenna



Venice’s Basilica of San Marco, built in the 9th century, shows eastern influence in its domes…


… and in its exquisite golden mosaics inside:

The basilica is dedicated to Saint Mark the Evangelist whose relics were stolen from Alexandria and brought to the city by some Venetian merchants in 828.

Those relics were placed in a tomb in the high altar.

Profiting from trade privileges granted by the Byzantine emperor, Venetian merchants ranged across the Mediterranean and beyond…

An illustration from Marco Polo’s Il Milione



The Crusades created economic opportunities for Italy’s maritime republics.



The First Crusade (1096-1099) was especially profitable to the Republic of Pisa.

Pisa, Piazza del Duomo 11th-12th centuries



The Fourth Crusade, in which Venice took the lead,  ended in the 1204 siege and sack of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.



The triumphant Venetians returned with precious treasures looted from the Byzantine capital.

The Quadriga, ancient bronzes brought back from Constantinople after the 1204 Sack


Venice emerged from the Middles Ages as Italy’s most powerful maritime republic, dominating trade throughout the Mediterranean.


Venice’s successes abroad were due not only to the extraordinary drive and energy of its merchants and sailors, but to the political structure of the Venetian Republic, which was run by a closed oligarchy of high-ranking citizens, led by the doge.



Bellini doge loredanportr

Giovanni Bellini Portrait of Doge Loredan

The Venetian Republic had a complex system of checks and balances to reduce corruption, and a harsh, inflexible system of justice overseen by its secret service agency, the Council of Ten.

Council of Ten chamber in Doge's Palace in Venice

Doge’s Palace in Venice, Hall of the Council of Ten

Citizens could place anonymous denunciations into slots in stone structures known as bocche di leone (mouths of the lion):


The doge was elected for life, usually when he was quite elderly. He presided over civic and religious ceremonies, such as the Sensa, the Feast of the Ascension.  The doge would sail out on his ceremonial barge, the Bucintoro, surrounded by all the aristocracy and toss a golden ring in the water, ritually wedding the sea.



Canaletto The Bucintoro on Ascension Day, c.1730

Venice’s ships were built in the state-owned Arsenal:

Canaletto, View of entry of Venice’s Arsenal


Venetian merchant galleys could be swiftly converted into fighting ships:

venetian merchant galley

Venetian merchant galley


venetian fighting gallley

Venetian fighting galley

Here are some views of Venice from the Grand Canal:

venezia grand canal

venezia grand canal 6

Just as Venice’s landscape, history, and political structure were different from the rest of Renaissance Italy, so too was its art.

Some painters specialized in documenting life in Venice, in the “Eyewitness style” of painting.



Vittore Carpaccio Two Venetian Ladies

Gentile Bellini, Miracle of the True Cross


While Giovanni Bellini introduced a style of painting referred to as poesia or “visual poetry”

Giovanni Bellini, Woman looking into a mirror

Perhaps the most famous example of “visual poetry” in Venetian art:

Giorgione, The Tempest

Venetian artists appreciated the richly saturated color effects they could achieve through use of oil paints

Giovanni Bellini, Frari Triptych


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