Most historians agree that the original population of Venice consisted of refugees from the mainland, fleeing Germanic and Hun invasions, as well as fishermen. The traditional founding of the city is identified with the dedication of its first church, San Giacomo, on the islet of Rialto. This is said to have occurred at noon on 25th March 421.
While still officially a part of the Eastern Roman Empire in the late sixth century, Venice’s isolated position meant that the Roman/Byzantine territory enjoyed increasing autonomy. In 726, the soldiers and citizens of Venice elected their own leader for the first time after an uprising, and Ursus became the first of 117 Doges. Doge is the Venetian form of the Latin dux (leader). In a savvy political move, Ursus supported the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in a military expedition to recover the area, and as a result Venice was granted numerous privileges and concessions.
Venice was granted trading rights along the Adriatic coast in 814, and in 828 the city’s prestige was raised by the acquisition of the claimed relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. These were placed in the new basilica. As Byzantine power waned, Venice grew increasingly autonomous, leading eventually to the territory’s independence.
Between the 9th and the 12th centuries Venice developed into a city state with impressive naval and commercial powers. Its strategic location made it almost invulnerable to attack, and with the elimination of pirates along the Dalmatian coast, the city became a flourishing trade centre. In building its maritime commercial empire, the Republic of Venice dominated the salt trade and came to control much of the eastern shores of the Adriatic, the ‘Terraferma’ (from Lake Garda on the mainland west to the Adda River), and most of the islands in the Aegean including Cyprus and Crete.
Venice became an imperial power after the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, when much of the plunder was brought to its shores. By the late 13th century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe, dominating Mediterranean commerce. During this time, the city’s most powerful families tried to outdo each other by building the grandest palaces possible, and supporting the work of the most talented artists. Governed by the Great Council (whose members came from the city’s nobility) which elected a Senate of 200 to 300 men, it was really the Council of Ten (voted for by the Senate and headed by the Doge) who controlled much of the administration of the city.
Venice’s long decline began in the 15th century, with unsuccessful military campaigns against the Ottomans, the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, and Portugal’s new sea route to India which destroyed Venice’s land route monopoly. Another factor was the devastation of the Republic’s population wrought by the Black Plague: Between 1575 and 1577, 50,000 people died, and in 1630, the plague again killed a third of the city’s citizens. Left behind in the race for colonies due to galleys unsuited to sailing across oceans, Venice slowly lost its position as a centre of international trade.
Today the city is a major tourist attraction and a centre of the art world, hosting the Venetian Biennale which includes the famous Venetian Film Festival, every two years.