20 Facts You Didn’t Know about Venice

El ziorno de la Candelora, de l’inverno semo fora. Today we are celebrating Candelora in Venice! So good that there are grandparents who recall this phrase, the feast and its origins. Christmas time is officially over, and we have have reached the peak of winter, called Imbolc in Celtic terms. But did you know that Candelora, February 2, marks the start of the original Carnival, celebrated long before it was officially launched in Venice by a Senate decree in 1296?

On La Candelora, people were “getting rid of winter”, celebrating with feasts and bonfires in the Lagoon since Roman times. Just one the many forgotten stories making up our Venetian heritage ..

If you would like find out more about Venice, we’ve prepared a special online course for you, presenting Venetian history, traditions and lifestyle, cuisine, art and architecture, agriculture and gardening, and Venessian (Venet, the language of Venice).

This is Venice viewed from the Venetian perspective, as we tell it in our online course Venetia: Venetian Culture and Heritage, of which we just released an updated edition.

Exploring the true Venice and her heritage starts on Piazza San Marco. The setting tells it all: This is the opulent stage of a merchant state. The Piazza was the seat of the Government, shown off on official occasions. First comes the Government building (Palazzo Ducale – Doge’s Palace). But the Republic also needs an official church, so the Basilica di San Marco was built next to the Doge’s Palace and dedicated to a renowned saint.

A Republic so conscious of her reputation, curious and always open to innovation and creativity, must produce and collect books! Thus, Biblioteca Marciana was inaugurated, just across the Doge’s Palace. The origins of the library are told in a guided tour taking place on 14 February, as part of the exhibition Gli ultimi giorni di Bisanzio – The last days of Byzantium.

From the Piazza we start diving deeper into the colorful mix of Venetian history and heritage, discovering Venetia as she wants to be seen, a premier merchant nation. Start with discovering 20 snippets of history.

#1: Venice wants to position herself merchant nation, but how does she go about to reach that aim? She’s looking for allies, helping her learn about trade and finding business partners. And Venice had all she needed, as one community in the Lagoon were settlers from Byzantium. The second ally was the Republic of Amalfi (839 – 1131), the only true friend Venice ever had. Amalfi helped Venice considerably in growing the spice trade in the Levant.

#2: Other allies Venice found after the year 1000 AD were the coastal cities of Dalmatia, who turned from staunch enemies into reliable friends. Read more about the Veneto-Dalmatian friendship in our blog post Defining Moments.

#3: If you want to start a merchant venture, you need a super business plan! Business ventures were organized and financed at the major marketplace in town, called Rialto, officially opened in 421 AD. This market acted as logistics center, where several tons of spices arrived every year from the Levant. Here, the spices were mixed according to Venetian recipes, packaged and delivered to clients all over Europe. The logistics center was stretching across 14 islands and became the largest financial center of Europe, seated at the Banco Giro buildings.

#4: Setting up a state-managed import-export business wasn’t enough to feed Venice: For this reason, 12 Lagoon islands were dedicated to growing fresh produce, herbs, and fruit. And also, wine! For 800 years, Venice produced the so-called malvasie vines. There are four vineyards in Venice still growing them.

#5: Venetians also created botanical gardens, and by the year 1500, there were 483 of them in town. Many were spice gardens, as the merchants brought young spice plants and seeds to Venice.

#6: The Venetian merchants soon found a new market in Europe: Great Britain! The first Venetian cogs (muda delle Fiandre, on their way to Brugge) reached Southampton in the year 1328. They carried sultanas and dried fruit, which soon became a major ingredient in plum cakes.

#7: The cogs didn’t return empty-handed to Venice, but laden with beer! Since then, English beer became a favorite drink here in Venice, and was also used to flavor meat dishes and soup.

#8: Venice and Britain became close partners during the following centuries, with all its ups and downs. 40 British families settled permanently in Venice (in Dorsoduro mostly) and the Venetian merchant system was the basis for the business model developed jointly by Britain and Venice, called Levant Company (also called Venice Company). The trade income from the Levant Company was used to create the East India Company.

#9: Trading in spices meant that Venetian bakeries flourished:  Did you know that macaroons were first baked in Venice, and introduced in France by Caterina de Medici? The Medici family owned a palace in Venice, on Campo della Bragora.

#10: This commercial success also had a downside, and legends about a spiteful Venice black nobility popped up in Europe, especially after the fall of the Republic in 1797. Venice disappeared from history textbooks. Allegations of a cruel Venice were first published by Pierre Daru in Histoire de Venise, expressing the author’s anger about the Venetian victory over France in a naval battle, fought in May 1797 off the coast of Tunisia.

#11: The Republic of Venice took the health of her citizens, and merchants, very seriously. Did you know that Venetian physicians practiced, above all, spice and plant-based medicine? The Government created a sound public health system, often resorting to aromatherapy to fight contagious diseases. Read more in our blog post: See the Redentore Feast With Venetian Eyes.

#12: New settlers enriched Venetian culture in many ways. Our culinary heritage was coined in particular by the 30,000 Greek residents of Byzantium, who moved to Venice in the years following 1453.

#13: Hospitality was the Venetian code word when it came to integrating people with different cultural backgrounds. Venetians have always considered meeting people from other countries as enriching experience. The Government set up clear rules aimed at enabling know-how transfers in many fields of science, such as medicine.

#14: Venice shared her medical know-how with Europe. For example, Paracelsus and Hildegard von Bingen, during the Middle Ages, sourced their knowledge through Venice. Venetian spice masters and physicians collected ancient Greek and Roman know how, forming academic circles which even corrected and updated the works of ancient masters. Read more our blog post: When Spices were cultivated in Venice.

#15: To fight contagious diseases, the Government created a sanitary corridor in the Lagoon, consisting of the Lazareti islands, where merchants arriving from overseas voyages had to stay for forty days (quarantena = forty days). The Republic also created an international messenger service, sharing news of outbreaks of highly contagious diseases with their neighbors in Europe.

#16: Venetian doctors, in a co-operation with colleagues from Damascus, developed an early form of the smallpox vaccination, 100 years before Pasteur. This sounds incredible, so I’m sharing the cover of the original document: Avviso del Magistrato alla Sanità: Mandatory vaccination for the merchants of Venice, to protect them against smallpox, published on 7 October 1770.

#17: Finally, Venice was open to inventors and researchers from around the world. Think of Galileo Galilei who presented his binoculars to the Doge of Venice in the loggia of the Campanile!  Leonardo da Vinci is also connected with Venice, told in the exhibition at Chiesa di San Barnabà (Le Macchine di Leonardo).

#18: What happened to the Venetian spice gardens after 1797? Many were lost, but know-how on agriculture and gardening, still remembered in Venice in the late 1890s, were written up by Frederick Eden, brother in law of British garden architect Gertrude Jekyll, in his book A Garden in Venice.

#19: A form of Venessian, the ancient language of the Republic, is living on in today’s Veneto. Today there are 16 dialects of Venessian spoken. The lingua veneta has been recognized by UNESCO as independent language deriving from Latin and ancient Greek. Venessian was the lingua franca of merchants in the Levant for 1000 years, and was still spoken in Greece until the 1950s.

#20: A number of country and town names around the world derive from Venice: For example, the country name Venezuela derives from Venice, and a number of cities were called Venice in North America. There are also a number of replicas of the Campanile di San Marco, including the Banker’s Trust building on 14 Wall Street.

This is Venice told by Venetians, the former home to pioneering research, artisans, creators, and communicators. Strengths that Venice should draw upon when it comes to redesigning her future role. Read more on the story of Venice, told from the Venetian perspective: Venetia – Venetian Culture and Heritage


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