Last updated on 25 March 2019
We are celebrating a special day here in Venice, in the midst of spring blossoms (in the images of this post, I’m taking you to the Rialto Market on a sunny 25 March, and a little beyond the market, towards San Cassiano). For Venice is celebrating her Birthday! Venetia, as Venice is called in Latin, the second official language of the Republic, celebrates 1597 years on 25 March 2018!! The historians of the Republic set this day on purpose, revealing that Venice was founded in the month dedicated to the Roman God of War, Mars, on 25 March 421 AD. So, their choice tells us a lot about how the Government of the Republic of Venice envisioned both the City and the Stato do Mar. It also gives us the decisive hint that Venice existed before the Roman Empire crumbled in 476 AD.
The Roman Empire expanded beyond the shores of the Lagoon, well into the shallow swamps called Seven Seas (Sette Mari) extending about 770 km², an area almost one-third larger than the Lagoon is today. There were Roman settlements on Murano and on Sant’Erasmo. The Lagoon was at the “doorstep” of the Roman cities Altinum and Aquileia, and their inhabitants built villas on the islands for re-creation and hunting, vegetable farming and fishing. The Roman Via Annia crossed the Lagoon called I Sette Mari – the Seven Seas.
The Venetian Government chose 25 March as birthday of Venice because Annunciation Day (Annunciazione della Vergine Maria) is celebrated on that day. The Roman Empire dedicated 25 March Venus, the goddess of beauty. Venice was envisaged to become just the right mix between power (Mars) and beauty (Venus).
The birthday legend of Venetia was passed to us on by Marin Sanudo (1466-1536), an official historian of the Republic of Venice. His book on “De Origine, situ e magistratibus Urbis Venetiae” was re-published in 2017 by a Venetian research center on medieval history, Centro Cicogna.
Why did ou ancestors choose the Rialto archipelago to build Venice? During Roman times, three populations lived in the Lagoon: The Enets lived in the southern Lagoon around Chioggia, Pellestrina and the island Malamocco. The Romans built villas in the Lagoon which stretched from Patavium (Padua) to Murano and Altinum. Byzantine merchants and Romans settled on and around the Torcello archipelago. These three settlements needed to find a new home when the Lagoon was hit by a series of natural catastrophes in the year 350 AD. Lagoon soil is forever shifting, a phenomenon we call subsidenza in Italian. Sea quakes destroyed islands and created new ones. The fate of Malamocco, the island hit by a seaquake off the Lido, is just one of many islands disappearing under the water for good.
Enets, Romans and the Byzantine merchants gave up their former islands and began moving to a solid and safe archipelago consisting of 118 islands in the heart of the Lagoon. They called the island group Rivus Altus because it was less exposed to tides and located on the banks of the river Brenta crossing the Lagoon and reaching the open sea at Punta Sabbioni. This natural “deep-water” canal, called Canal Grande today, connected the Rivus Altus islands to the mainland and the open sea.
The first monasteries on the Rivus Altus islands created vineyards and the first herb gardens and orchards in the eastern part of the island group, which is today’s sestiere di Castello. The central area of the island group belonged to the merchants, though. This flat and level area was just fine to create the city’s market, called Rivus Altus as well. Today, we call it the Rialto Market.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, Venice became part of the eastern Roman empire and officially independent in the year 1304 (Venice behaved like she was an independent state, though). Byzantine cogs (I’m describing them in this article) served as models for the ships built at the new Arsenal, the largest shipyard in Europe until 1797. Did you know that Arsenale derives from the Arab word darsena meaning dock? The ancient language of the Republic of Venice, called Venessián, picked up a number or Arab words as well.
Legend has it that on 25 March 421, the first stone was laid to build the church San Giacomo di Rialto on Piazza di Rialto (Doge Enrico Dandolo referred to the Rialto area, consisting of 14 islands, as Piazza). Most probably, this market was in place before the first market church was built.
On 25 March 421, the Rialto Market consisted of an erbaria (herb market) and probably a beccheria (farmer’s market also selling meat), and the old pescaria (fish market, moved to the current Pescaria building in neo-gothic style only in 1907). Finally, the corderia market was built, and the food market shifted to the west. The old market area became the official commercial and financial center of the Republic of Venice in the year 1097.
Now, while Venice is basking in the sun, which cake would she choose to celebrate her birthday? She’d certainly love one of the cakes made from almonds, for which Venice has been famous since 1200. A few pastry stores in town still bake this special cake, among them are Dal Mas, alla Bragora, Chiusso, Pitteri and Tonolo. The cake is called Torta Greca, the Greek Cake. Below you can one of them at Pasticceria Dal Mas.