Saturday 1 June 2019 dawned sunny in Venice. Enveloped in a blue sky, without the morning mist hiding the city during any day in May, the summer mood is gradually taking over. It’s the quality of the light and the height of the lush green grass and (edible) herbs we noticed at the Pineta di Sant’Elena, the green lung of Venice, a few days ago. which you can see on my Instagram account here.
1 June 2019 not just ushers in “summer” but in 2019, recalls a forgotten friendship shaping Venetian and European history, while it is the turn of Venice to host a special boating regata, La Regatta delle Repubbliche Marinare. Venice wasn’t the only sea republic, and it wasn’t even the first. Others were the guests participating in the Regatta in Venice today: Amalfi, Genoa and Pisa. And others again are almost never mentioned: Gaeta, Noli, Ancona, Ragusa. Of these, Ragusa also had a special relationship with Venice, but that’s another story.
The Peninsula Italica – as the Romans called what today makes up Italy, broke up into many tiny nation states after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. In its place, le Repubbliche marine cropped up, starting out as local communities trying to defend their populations against the repeated barbarian invasions from the North and Saracene attacks from the South.
Venezia nasce e rimane bizantina. There was only one area over which the Roman empire never held jurisdiction, the narrow stretch of Lagoons lining the northern Adriatic shores. These are the Lagoons of Venice, Marano and Grado, which have always been under Byzantine rule.
We cannot tell these stories in one blog post, but we do try and cover a little bit of background of today’s regatta: Today, Venice welcomes her former best friend and staunchest ally, Amalfi. And the images below show you the beautiful surroundings of this little nation state, with so many similarities to Venice, as you will soon discover.
Before Venice, there was the Republic of Amalfi (839 – 1131). Officially independent from Naples since 839 AD, its merchants built a little empire spanning the Mediterranean Sea. The Government and Merchants of Amalfi created a seafaring codex, Le Tavole di Amalfi, taken over and observed by the Republic of Venice (!!) until 1797.
For almost 300 years, Amalfi ruled the Mediterranean Sea. Its merchants built trading posts in Constantinople, Egypt, Persia and Syria. They brought home to Amalfi tons of precious spices and luxury goods. Amalfi built ships in their Arsenale. Doesn’t it sound like we’re talking about Venice?
The relationship between the two Republics developed on several levels. Amalfitan boats helped transport the white gold from the salt pans (saline) in the Lagoon to the Venetian trading partners around the Mediterranean Sea. Venetian merchants were allowed to make use of Amalfi-owned trading posts in Syria and Egypt in an incredibly generous way. In fact, they inherited these buildings and networks from Amalfi. And the Venetians were invited to Salerno to study the healing gardens and ancient Greek knowledge on medicine, spices and aromatherapy, as taught by Hippocrates.
From food to spices to mosaics. Venice would have developed very differently if it hadn’t been for Amalfi. When the Republic of Amalfi fell in 1131, it generously left her own embassies and trading houses to the merchants of Venice (!!). The spirit and power of Amalfi lived on in the Sovrano Militare Ordine di Malta, founded in Scala, a rione located above the city center of Amalfi. The history and connections between Venice and the Sovereigan Military Order of Malta are very close and complex: First, they took care of the wounded and ill in the Middle East during the cruisades. Second, they paved the way for Venice to settle on Cyprus and launch its utterly successful business of growing and selling cane sugar. Third, the Republic of Venice gave the Order of Malta a home in Venice in 1187. In Castello of course, next to San Lorenzo and San Severo and where the officials of Byzantium resided. This complex building, church and gardens are still here to this day.
We are going to cover more details of the story of Venice and Amalfi in our Venetia – Venice Culture + Heritage Class in June, as Amalfi was incredibly generous and paved the way for Venice to become the successful merchant state it was.
The regata taking place in Venice today is not (just) about folkore, or a tourist magnet only. And neither is Festa della Sensa, the Feast of Ascension Day, which Venice celebrates on 2 June 2019. Ancient regattas and feasts remind us of times when the map of the Mediterranean Sea looked different. And they remind us of the times following the fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD, and the situation before the Italian State was set up in the 1860s. A landscape consisting of small and tiny nation states on the Italic peninsula is present in our heads to this day. What are considered dialects in our times were once the official, languages of these tiny nation states. When you watch the colorful boats tonight, and the regatta race starting at 7 pm, it means that our common history, friendship, and heritage is celebrated tonight in Venice.
All images in this post show Amalfi.5