An old picture of the Grand Canal
According to a local legend, Venice was founded on the 25th of March 421. The legend seems to be confirmed by official history: indeed, remains of Venice's origins date back to the 5th century, when people ran away from the Barbarian invasions striking the North of Italy and sought refuge in Rialto (a little island of the lagoon).
The lagoon's population was mainly living on fishing and salt trading.
At this time, the lagoon was under Ravenna's sphere of influence, which was part of the Eastern Empire. It's only at the end of the 7th century that a power independent from Byzantium was established, even if Venice remained bound to the Empire's capital. The first Doge was elected afterwards and the “Dogado” (Duchy of Venice) arised as the first form of Venetian State.
In 810, the Doge Agnello Particiaco moved from Malamocco to the lagoon's centre, Rialto (meaning the “high bank”). It's traditionally agreed that the Venetian city's history begins here.
Venice was one of the four “Repubbliche Marinare” (Maritime Republics) alongside Amalfi, Genoa and Pisa. Thanks to their location, these cities managed to obtain greater autonomy and became independent states with a trading-based economy.
To diffend its commercial interests, Venice began to carry out an expansionist policy on the Adriatic Sea, made of military campaigns (conquest of strategic cities), commercial agreements and strategic moves like its participation to the Crusades demanded by the Pope.
After the fourth Crusade, which ended with the Sack of Constantinople, Venice became the strongest republic of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and succeeded in employing its domination on the entire maritime traffic. During this period, Venice conquered some islands on the Ionian Sea, trading posts in southern Greece and Italy, and most of the Peloponnese and Creta territories.
The trading state had a strong rivalry with another of the Maritime Republics: Genoa. They fought during four violent wars which exhausted them and put both cities through the mill.
Consecutively, the Venetian State tried to expand within the hinterland in order to ensure itself a mainland territories and conquered Padua, Vincenza, Verona, Bergamo and Brescia in a row.
From this moment, Venise was called “La Serenissima” (the very serene) and became famous worldwide under this name; it was the beginning of its most thriving period.
During the Renaissance, the Republic of Venice reached its peak of glory despite face-offs with Turkey. The city overcomed the situation in 1571 with the great naval victory of Lepanto. This historical moment is considered the beginning of the Republic's decline as a world power. The discovery of new trade routes across the Atlantic Ocean (after America was discovered) and the Spanish and Turkish naval fleets' strengthening gradually made the Venetian Republic's dominant position on oceans a minor one.
At the same time, Venice saw an incredibile artistic period developed. It became a importante cultural centre during the Renaissance, rivaling Florence and Rome. The city drew a lot of the artists, mostly in the 16th century. They contributed making it famous all around the world with their masterpieces: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Jacopo and Giovanni Bellini, Jacopo Bassano are the main masters of the Venetian Mannerism.
In the 17th century, this great artistic tradition continued with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Pietro Longhi's artworks, with the theatrical innovation of Goldoni who invented the Italian comedy, with Antonio Canova's sculptures and Palladio's architecture which got inspired of and inspired the Neoclassicism style.
For more information, see the Art history in Venice page
From a political point of view, the French domination under Napoleon brought the Serenissima to an end and led to the plundering of numerous works of art. A gigantic new urban plan was carried out at this time. Some monasteries were to be destroyed as it happened in France with the secularisation process (the State subjugated the Christian Church to its authority). This period gave Venice a lot of its current urban configuration.
Venice was ceded to Austria together with Friuli, Istria and Dalmatia in 1797 after the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed by France and Austria. Following the Vienna Congress and the Restoration, Venice was passed on to the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which was also under the Habsburg-Lorraine's control. It actively participated to the Risorgimento conflict and to the 1848 uprisings. Seventeen years later, in 1866, the city was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy with a plebiscite.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Venice initiated an industrial policy with the annexion of the Marghera borough and the launch of an industrial zone. The city also connected with the neighbouring areas through bridges and roads construction.
During the second World War, Venice was spared from bombings which mostly reached Marghera's industrial zone. The Venetian people actively participated to the struggle for freedom against Nazism and Fascism and, between the 28th and the 29th of April 1948, Venice was freed from the occupying forces.
In November 1966, Venice was struck by serious floods (which also occured in other cities, including the famous Arno flood in Florence). The city completely recovered from this tragic event and returned to be as magnificient as we can admire it today.
Nowadays, Venice is struggling with the rising level of oceans which could cause its complete collapse under water. Scientist are searching for a solution to this arduous problem: one example is the construction of a barrier (known as the MOSE project) to prevent the flooding and sinking of this unique little architectural and urban jewel, the city of Venice.