Venice is situated at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea and officially comprises 120 islands and islets, as well as two towns on the mainland. The first settlers on these islands could never have imagined what Venice would become. These settlers were Italian refugees that at the end of the 5th century AD were fleeing the Lombards, a Germanic people who took over much of northern Italy at that time. However, by 697, there were enough settlers to form a loose union under a Doge (from the Latin dux, a military leader). By the 11th century, through trade and fishing, the Venetians had prospered enough to form an independent city-state, nominally a republic, but basically ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy families who chose one of their own as Doge. During the next two centuries, Venice became a major commercial power, practically controlling the Adriatic Sea and extending its privileges and monopolies to the coast of North Africa and the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. By this time, the Venetians had direct contact with the Byzantine Empire and its capital, Constantinople, the influence of which can be seen in Venice’s great Cathedral of St. Mark.
In 1204 AD, the Venetians joined the Franks in taking up the Pope’s call for a fourth great crusade to liberate the Holy Land. The Venetians supplied the ships that carried the crusaders eastward, but instead of going on to Palestine, they went up to Constantinople and led a brutal attack on the city. Following their victory, the crusaders took over the vast Byzantine Empire and divided it up among the various leaders. The Venetians, however, kept many of the most prized territories for themselves. For the next 300 years, and especially after defeating its main rival, Genoa, in 1380, Venice became the leading sea and commercial power of Europe.
Venice’s enterprising energy is epitomized by one of its native sons, Marco Polo, who, in the 13th century, opened up trade with China and the Far East. Carrying silk and spices and other luxury wares, as well as staple crops and products, Venice’s great fleet plowed the Mediterranean and the city became known as the “Queen of the Seas.” Its consuls and ambassadors were active throughout the civilized world and effectively developed what we think of today as the diplomatic service. At this point in time, Venice controlled a large stretch of land on the adjacent mainland known as Venetia, which included prosperous cities such as Padua and Verona.
After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, they gradually started taking over Venetian territories in the Mediterranean. By the end of the 1600s, Venice became a haven for many of the scholars and artisans who fled the Ottomans. One result of this is that Venice became a center for the new printing industry that specialized in the printing of the Greek and Latin classics which would contribute to the emergence of the Renaissance. During these centuries, the rich patricians, the governing institutions, and the Catholic Church sponsored some of the leading architects and artists of the Renaissance.
The decline of Venice as a major European commercial power can probably be attributed to the discovery of both the New World and the sea passage to Asia from around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Not only did Venice lose its monopoly on trade with Asians but other Europeans also discovered that fortunes were to be made across the Atlantic.
Although Venice maintained the trappings of a prosperous and aristocratic city-state, its wealth and power were in decline. Thus, the Venetians were unable to fight back when Napoleon, after occupying Venice in 1797, simply handed the city and its mainland territory over to Austria. It was not until 1866 that Venice rid itself of the Austrian rulers and joined the new Kingdom of Italy. Venice did well enough in the following decades, but increasingly became a city dependent on foreign visitors, especially those of the upper class. After World War I, middle class tourists began to visit the city until Mussolini took Italy into World War II on the side of Hitler. Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943 and the Germans immediately took over Venice; although the Allies bombed the shipyards and industries of the adjacent mainland territory, they spared Venice. In the years following World War II, Venice developed into a famous tourist destination and continues to awe its visitors with the wonders of its golden age.