Have you heard of a city that floats on water? Maybe you’ve seen pictures of this famous city, with its rows of old buildings and waterways that weave in and out of the places where people eat, sleep, and live.
To learn more about this unique city called Venice, let’s journey to the top of a country known today as Italy. To really understand the history of this city, we have to travel back in time about 500 years to a period known as the Renaissance.
The word “renaissance” comes from a French word that means rebirth. So, what exactly was being born again, and what did it have to do with a floating town?
Before the Renaissance, most people who lived in Europe had difficult lives. There were many attacks by Vikings and other invaders, and it was hard for rulers to keep power and maintain order. People were also battling a horrible disease called the Black Death that spread throughout Europe making a lot of people sick. Tragically, about one-third of the population of Europe actually died. Today, we call this period in history before the Renaissance the Middle Ages or Medieval Times. It lasted for about one thousand years.
Eventually, the rulers of Spain, England, and France had enough power to bring back some good old-fashioned order and control. At about the same time, an important new invention came along: the printing press. The printing press meant that books could be printed more easily, allowing more people to read and share them. And guess what? As more people learned to read, they discovered that learning new stuff was actually quite fun. And then, voila! A “rebirth” of learning took place, which we now call the Renaissance.
When the Renaissance first started, people in Europe were happy that their lives were better than they had been during the Middle Ages. They no longer had to fight against the Black Death plague or even each other! They had extra time to read books and think. Pretty soon, people were inspired to come up with new ideas. They began to paint and draw, write music, invent new technology, and discover new ways of doing things.
Many of the most famous thinkers and creators of the Renaissance–like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo–were from Italy. Italian cities were filled with people just like these two guys, people creating art, writing poetry, and thinking up new stories. More importantly, they were filled with wealthy people who were paying for these pieces.
Venice Gets Its Start
One of these bustling Italian cities was Venice. Venice had already been around for more than one thousand years. There is evidence that people had been living on the islands that make up Venice since ancient times. However, it was not until nearly the end of the Roman Empire that Venice started really earning a name for itself, thanks to some unwelcome invaders.
In about 500 A.D., a bunch of power-hungry invaders swarmed into southern Italy causing chaos and terror. Many people escaped by fleeing to the north. Some of them discovered a shallow lagoon and a bunch of islands – 118 of them to be exact – in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea. It seemed like a pretty good place to wait out the chaos happening down south.
There was one big problem. It was basically a big old swampy marsh. How were they supposed to build anything in all that mud and muck?
These ambitious settlers came up with a plan. They would build the city on top of thick wooden pole sunk deep into the mud and sand of the lagoon. It seemed like a great idea–they would be protected and isolated by the surrounding water. However, as it turns out, mud was not a very stable foundation to build on. And the city flooded. A lot. And it still does today!
Despite the soggy living conditions, people quickly figured out how to make Venice a flourishing city anyway. Not only was it a great place to hide from nasty invaders, but it was also an ideal location to set up a center of trade.
The Perfect Location
Why was Venice a great place to trade goods? Well, first, ships sailing in from the Mediterranean Sea could easily reach the ports of Venice. Second, all of Europe was just a quick boat ride to the north. And third, traders from Asia were regularly stopping by having just made a long trek across the desert on a well-known route called the Silk Road. They brought with them unusual spices and beautiful silks carried on the lumpy backs of camels. Cool, right?
Venetians had a brilliant idea. If they could control the trade of things like spices, silk, silver, copper, and cloth, they could make a lot of money. They were right. By the 15th century, Venice was both very rich and very powerful. I guess it was worth all of that building on top of the water!
And the people who lived there wanted it to stay that way. So, they declared themselves their own city-state and set up a government ruled by a series of leadersdukes called doges. Doges were supposed to be elected officials who could rule until they died. In reality, like most things related to government, it was a little more complicated. When the people in Venice–mostly the rich and powerful ones–decided that they weren’t happy with the job a doge was doing, they forced him to resign or quit. Then, they made him go live all by himself in a church to think about how badly he had failed. Not the best way to build a political career.
Despite the ups and downs of the doge system, Venice had some really cool stuff going on within its constantly-flooded buildings. The city became home to some of the world’s best, most skilled glassmakers. But what Venice really became known for were its gondolas.
Not surprisingly, Venice didn’t have roads like we know them today. It would have been pretty hard to build roads in a floating city, right? The buildings of Venice were close together, separated by weaving, narrow alleys, broken up only by the occasional courtyard called a piazza. Instead of roads, Venice had a maze of shallow waterways called canals.
Today, Venice has more than 150 canals with over 400 bridges crossing them. Can you believe that!? When the city was first built, the canals were just sort of there: natural waterways between all of those squishy, marshy islands in the lagoon. Over time, more canals have been dug out and added to the city’s maps of water and land. And the canals have been strengthened through the addition of bricks and stone.
With all this water weaving in and out of buildings, it’s not surprising that flooding is common. But the Venetians figured they might as well make use of all the water. Who needed roads when you could sail everywhere instead? What they needed was a shallow, narrow boat that could easily maneuver through the canals. So, according to most historical evidence, they invented the gondola.
A gondola is a boat with a flat bottom that is shaped sort of like a banana. During the Renaissance, thousands of gondolas could be seen sailing along the canals of Venice. The early gondolas had a small cabin called a felze (fel-zey) where people could ride and be protected from wind, rain, and sun. Each gondola had a person, known as a gondolier, who stood up to row it using a single oar.
For a while, gondolas came in all sorts of colors. In fact, rich Venetians competed with each other by making gondolas in bold colors and adding expensive gold-plated siding and decorations to “show off” their wealth. Then, the doge passed a law that required all gondolas – except for his own massive golden one – to be painted black. Not a bad plan to make sure he stood out in the crowded canals!
Each gondola took about 500 hours to build. That’s almost 21 straight days of work! Master boat builders would build and repair these wooden boats in a boatyard called a squero. There were strict rules to follow regarding the boat’s design and size. In fact, there were rules governing everything about gondolas and gondoliers, such as how much money a gondolier could charge a passenger and how gondolas had to be passed down from father to son. Venetians back then–much like Venetians today–took their gondolas very seriously.
When in Venice
Gondola-making wasn’t the only thing that the people of Venice took seriously. By the 1200s, the city’s top industry was glassmaking. And much like gondola-building, Venetians had strict rules about this art form, too. First, the glassmakers in Venice had to keep their processes of making glass a secret. Another important rule required that the extremely hot furnaces that glassmakers used be moved out of Venice to the nearby island called Murano. This was probably a smart idea since nearly all of the buildings in Venice were made of wood. And as you probably already know, wood burns pretty quickly! If you’re going to have fires, better keep them separate, on an island, from the rest of the city!
Besides gondolas and glass, there was one final thing that made Venice a good place to visit, even 500 years ago: the food.
Since they are surrounded by water, you might think that Venetians would make use of the sea’s large selection of tasty fish. And you’d be right. In fact, a modern-day Italian writer even noted that, when seen from above, Venice is shaped sort of like a fish!
But what could possibly be so great about eating fish all the time? Actually, it wasn’t the fish that made Venetian food so tasty. It was the spices used to cook the fish. Remember that whole thing about Venice being a center of trade? This meant that new and delicious spices were always passing through the city. Cinnamon from Ceylon, cumin from North Africa, and pepper from India were all benefits of being a port city. Plus, there were raisins, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and dates from Asia. That may not sound super exciting today when you can pop on over to a grocery store or order takeout anytime you want to. But in the 1500s? These foods were luxuries!
Because of the appreciation for art and literature during the Renaissance, Venice today is a popular place for tourists who want to view beautiful artifacts of the past. Much like 500 years ago, you can still take a ride through the canals on one of the roughly 400 gondolas in operation. A few years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Venice. We rode on a gondola, visited the beautiful cathedral, and tasted its delicious food. And yes, by midday they had to lay boards out because the piazza was starting to take on water! If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend the visit to one of the most fascinating cities in the world.You can still buy some of the most beautiful glass in the world in Venice. And if you get hungry, you only need to pop into a bacaro, or small tavern, and order ciccetti, a bite-sized piece of bread, often served with a bit of salted cod fish on top.
But if you are planning a trip to this amazing city, you may want to bring some waterproof shoes. Just in case.