It’s impossible to avoid cliché when describing Venice. More accomplished writers than I have tried to do this magical place justice over the many centuries that it has been attracting foreign admirers. The Romantic poet,“Venice, its temples and palaces did seem like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven.”
Venice may inspire cliché, but I would defy anyone to walk at night through deserted streets, with only your own footsteps echoing along atmospheric canals and alleyways for company, and not feel like you were strolling through an Italian Shangri-La. Leaving a bar late at night, as we occasionally did, we found ourselves alone navigating Venice’s torturous cityscape. After dark, Venice takes on an entirely new character, mysterious and a just a little sinister.
Venice is such an improbable city. Floating in the calm waters of Venice Lagoon, it only makes sense when you remember the 16th century commercial giant that fought endless battles to control trade routes across the Mediterranean and Adriatic. Venice grew extremely wealthy on trade, wealth that can still be seen today as you walk along enchanting canals, narrow lanes and into plazas sheltering beautiful churches and magnificent palaces.
Venice has humble origins though. Its birth, the desperate act of people fleeing the invasion of Northern Italy by Germanic tribes in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse. These refugees fled to safety on the islands of the Venetian Lagoon at the start of the 5th century, settling what until then had been home to a few fishermen and their families. The success of Venice was built by people dispossessed by war, a lesson the Italian government might heed once they’ve finished battling coronavirus.
Despite this inauspicious start, for over a thousand years Venice would prosper while growing to be one of the most powerful city-states in Europe. For much of the period until the 15th century, Venice existed as a westerly offshoot of the Byzantine Empire. This gave it unique access to trade with the Middle and Far East, trade that went over the mountain passes of the Alps into Northern Europe and around the Mediterranean shore. Venice was officially the richest city in Europe.
The wealthy families of Venice competed with each other to build the grandest palaces and be benefactors to the most glorious churches. They commissioned the greatest artists to work for them and Venice acquired a great number of magnificent buildings decorated with the finest artworks. Although no one knew it at the time, this would be the high watermark of Venetian power. The Byzantine Empire’s collapse at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453 sparked a long decline.
Venice might have ridden this wave of adversity, but events in Western Europe were also conspiring to weaken it. Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World in 1492 opened up new trade routes to the West, and saw the rise of Portugal and Spain as colonial powers. While Vasco de Gama’s 1497–99 journey to the East opened new sea routes to India and beyond, ending Venice’s trading monopoly with the Far East.
Despite achieving new artistic and cultural heights during the 17th and 18th centuries, Venice was slowly becoming a backwater. Like its northern counterpart, Bruges, its original purpose was lost and it struggled to find its place in a changed world. Walk around today, and that long decline is clear in many dilapidated buildings and a general sense of long-term problems without solution. Whether rising seawaters or a tsunami of tourists, Venice’s storied history seems again at a crossroads.