As barbarian hordes washed back and forth across the Alps during the decline of the Roman Empire (starting in the 4th c.), inhabitants of the Veneto flatlands grew tired of being routinely sacked and pillaged along the way. By the 6th century, many had begun moving out onto the mud-flat islands of the marshy lagoon, created by what was in ancient times the Po River delta, to take up fishermen's lines or trading ships. When they saw that one barbarian horde, the Lombards, had stayed to settle the upper Po valley (still called Lombardy), these Veneti decided to remain on their new island homes and ally themselves instead with the eastern remnant of the old Roman Empire, Byzantium.
Oddly, what we now consider central Venice was the last area settled. After Attila the Hun rampaged through, citizens of the Roman town of Altino moved out onto Torcello and founded a tidy commercial empire under the control of the Byzantine emperor -- ironic, since Torcello's star has long since fallen and it is now the least built-up of all of greater Venice's major inhabited islands. Townsfolk from Oderzo moved to Malamocco and made it the lagoon's political capital (the original site is now underwater, and the Malamocco that survives nearby is a fishing village on the southern stretch of the Lido, near the golf course). After barely defeating Charlemagne's son Pepin there in 810, the capital was moved to the more protected Rialto islands -- now central Venice.
Greater Venice's oldest surviving structure is the cathedral on Torcello, founded in 639, but today's site is largely from the 9th and 10th centuries. In fact, sparsely populated Torcello is one of the best glimpses into what early Venice must have looked like -- scattered buildings and canals banked by waving rushes and reeds, everything outlined by the dotted lines of wooden piles hammered down into the mud. This construction is what underlies all those stone palazzi of central Venice: a framework foundation of sunken tree trunks, hammered down into the caranto (a solid clay layer under the surface of mud and sand) and preserved in the anaerobic atmosphere of their muddy tomb, overlain with Istrian stone.
As its power began to peak in the early 13th century, Venice led the fourth and most successful Crusade, capturing Constantinople itself. It went on to conquer territories across what are today Turkey, the Greek Isles, and Crete -- and eventually became the capital of Italy's inland provinces, now the Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli. By 1300, it was one of the largest cities and the leading maritime republic of Europe and the Mediterranean. Although the Black Death carried off over half the population from 1347 to 1350, Venice bounced back and remained a maritime power until the 18th century, when trade through the new American colonies would increasingly steal much of the city's thunder.
By the end of the 18th century, Venice had run out of steam commercially, not to mention militarily, after centuries spent fighting the Turks (who slowly regained most of Venice's Aegean and Greek territories). By the time Napoleon came along in 1797, the Venetian Republic offered little resistance. Napoleon gave control of Venice to Austria, under whose rule it remained for almost 70 years. Daniele Manin did stage an unsuccessful minirevolution in 1848 and 1849, during which Venice was privileged to become the first city attacked from the air -- by a fleet of hot-air balloons armed with long-fused time bombs. The Risorgimento (unification) movement and its king, Vittorio Emanuele II, defeated the Austrians, gained control of the Veneto, and made it a part of the newly minted state of Italy in 1866.
The Art of the Gondola
Putting together one of the sleek black boats is a fascinatingly exact science that is still done in the revered traditional manner at boatyards such as the Squero di San Trovaso . The boats have been painted black since a 16th-century sumptuary law -- one of many passed by the local legislators as excess and extravagance spiraled out of control. Whether regarding boats or baubles, laws were passed to restrict the gaudy outlandishness that, at the time, was commonly used to "outdo the Joneses."
Propelled by the strength of a single gondoliere, these boats, unique to Venice, have no modern equipment. They move with no great speed but with unrivaled grace. The right side of the gondola is lower because the gondoliere always stands in the back of the boat on the left. Although the San Trovaso squero, or boatyard, is the city's oldest and one of only three remaining (the other two are immeasurably more difficult to find), its predominant focus is on maintenance and repair. They will occasionally build a new gondola (which takes some 40-45 working days), carefully crafting it from the seven types of wood -- mahogany, cherry, fir, walnut, oak, elm, and lime -- necessary to give the shallow and asymmetrical boat its various characteristics. After all the pieces are put together, the painting, the ferro (the iron symbol of the city affixed to the bow), and the wood-carving that secures the oar are commissioned out to various local artisans.
Although some 10,000 of these elegant boats floated on the canals of Venice in the 16th century, today there are only around 425, .almost all catering to the tourist trade. Tthe job of gondoliere remains a coveted profession, passed down from father to son over the centuries, but nowadays it’s open to anyone who can pass 400 hours of rigorous training—Giorgia Boscolo passed the exam in 2010, becoming the first ever gondoliera; her father was also in the profession.
If, after a few days in Rome and Florence, you were just getting the hang of correlating your map to the reality of your new surroundings, you can put aside any short-term success upon your arrival in Venezia. Even the Italians (non-Venetian ones) look befuddled when trying to decipher street names and signs (given that you can ever find any).
Venice's colorful thousand-year history as a once-powerful maritime republic has everything to do with its local dialect, which absorbed nuances and vocabulary from far-flung outposts in the East and from the flourishing communities of foreign merchants who, for centuries, lived and traded in Venice. A linguist could gleefully spend a lifetime trying to make some sense of it all. From Venetian dialect we've inherited such words as gondola (naturally), ciao, ghetto, lido, and arsenal.
But for the Venice-bound traveler just trying to make sense of Venetian addresses, the following should give you the basics. (And don't even try to follow a conversation between two gondolieri!)
ca' -- The abbreviated use of the word "casa" is used for the noble palazzi, once private residences and now museums, lining the Grand Canal: Ca' d'Oro, Ca' Pesaro, and Ca' Rezzonico. There is only one palazzo, the Palazzo Ducale, the former doge's residence. However, as time went on, some great houses gradually began to be called "palazzi," so today you'll also encounter the Palazzo Grassi or the Palazzo Labia.
calle -- Taken from the Spanish (though pronounced as if Italian, ca-lay), this is the most commonplace word for street, known as via or strada elsewhere in Italy. There are numerous variations. Ruga, from the French word rue, once meant a calle flanked with stores, a designation no longer valid. A ramo (literally "branch") is the offshoot of a street and is often used interchangeably with calle. Salizzada once meant a paved street, implying that all other, less important calles were once just dirt-packed alleyways. A stretto is a narrow passageway.
campo -- Elsewhere in Italy it's piazza. In Venice the only piazza is the Piazza San Marco (and its two bordering piazzette); all other squares are campi or the diminutive, campielli. Translated as "field" or "meadow," these were once small, unpaved grazing spots for the odd chicken or cow. Almost every one of Venice's campi carries the name of the church that dominates it (or once did) and most have wells, no longer used, in the center.
canale -- There are three wide, principal canals: the Canal Grande (affectionately called "il Canalazzo," the Canal), the Canale della Giudecca, and the Canale di Cannaregio. Each of the other 160-odd smaller canals is called a rio. A rio terrà is a filled-in canal -- wide and straight -- now used as a street. A piscina is a filled-in basin, now acting as a campo or piazza.
fondamenta -- Referring to the foundations of the houses lining a canal, this is a walkway along the side of a rio (small canal). Promenades along the Grand Canal near the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto are called riva as in the Riva del Vin or Riva del Carbon, where cargo such as wine and coal were once unloaded.
ramo -- Literally "branch," a small side street.
salizzada -- The word originally meant "paved," so any street you see prefaced with salizzada was one of the first streets in Venice to be paved.
sottoportego -- An alley that ducks under a building.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.