Venice is celebrating her Birthday Weekend! 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. Their choice tells us a lot about how the Government envisioned to position both the city and the Stato do Mar. It also gives us the decisive hint that Venice existed before the Roman Empire crumbled in the year 476 AD.
The Roman Empire didn’t stop on the shores of the Lagoon, it comprised this shallow water basin extending about 770 km², much larger than it 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 is celebrated (Annunciazione della Vergine Maria). Earlier, during the times of the Roman Empire, 25 March was dedicated to Venus, the goddess of beauty. Venice was envisaged to become just the right mix between power (Mars) and beauty (Venus).
The birthday legend of Venezia was passed on by Marin Sanudo (1466-1536), one of the official historians of the Republic. By the way, his book on “De Origine, situ e magistratibus Urbis Venetiae” was re-published by a Venetian research center on medieval history, Centro Cicogna.
Why was the Rialto archipelago chosen to build a city on?
During Roman times, three populations lived in the Lagoon and on her shores: The Enets lived in the southern Lagoon around Chioggia, Pellestrina and the legendary island Malamocco. The Romans built villas in the central part of the Lagoon, stretching from Patavium (Padua) across the Seven Seas to Murano and further to Altinum. Byzantine merchants, together with the Romans, settled on Torcello.
These populations, the three cultures of the Lagoon (read more about them here) were looking for a new home when the Lagoon during 100 and 500 AD was hit by a few severe, natural catastrophes. The Lagoon soil is forever shifting, sea quakes were no exception, sinking islands and creating new ones.
Thus, Enets, Romans and Greeks not only traded with each other but started settling together on an archipelago consisting of 118 islands in the heart of the Lagoon because they had to leave their original islands. They called the island group they were settling on Rivus Altus (again, a Latin name). These islands were less exposed to tides and conveniently located on the banks of the ancient bed of the river Brenta. This natural deep-water canal, which we call Canal Grande today, connected the Rivus Altus islands easily with the mainland and the open sea.
So working together, they laid the foundation of what was to become Venice. The first churches were built in Byzantine style because the officials and merchants from Byzantium living permanently in Venice contributed to developing the city and her overseas trade network. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, Byzantium took over and Venice was part of it until 1304. Byzantine cogs (I’m describing them in this article) served as models for the ones built at the new Arsenal, the largest shipping yard in Europe during the Middle Ages. In the year 1000 AD, it was able to churn out one cog a day. By the way, Arsenale derives from the Arab word darsena meaning dock (Byzantine and Arab culture in the beginning were complementing each other and sometimes overlapping geographically).
Legend has it that on 25 March 421, the first stone was laid to build the church San Giacomo di Rialto at the area called La Piazza di Rialto (a definition coined by Doge Enrico Dandolo, by the way). In the eastern part of this Piazza, a large market was created on L’Isola di Rialto. First, the market consisted of an Erberia (Herbs and Vegetables market) and the Beccheria (Butcher’s Market), as well as the ancient Pescaria (Fish Market which was moved later to the current Pescaria building). Finally, the Corderia buildings were added, the food markets shifted to the west and the ancient market area was used for negotiating and financing spice expeditions.
PS – which cake would Venice chose to celebrate her birthday? She’d certainly love one of the most ancient cakes we know of. A few pastry stores in town still bake it these days, amongst them are Dal Mas, alla Bragora, Chiusso and Tonolo. It’s the Venetian almond cake called Torta Greca, the Greek Cake, whose recipe is Byzantine and goes back to the 12th century.