25 March 421 (?) – 25 March 2021: How much truth is there in the Venetian founder legend?

On 25 March 2021, we celebrate a very special birthday: Venetia is 1600 years old. No typo, because Venetia is the original name of “Venice”, offcially used until the late 18th century.

Can there be a better time than this special birthday to lift a few untold stories? Not about the city debating how and if she will survive. Not the city besieged by tourists, and then, desolate during all those months of the coronavirus lockdown. On her 1600th birtday, we could as well pause and travel back to Venetia. Let’s get started with the founder legend!

You may have heard that in the 5th century, the inhabitants of Altino, following the onslaught of the “barbarian invasions”, took refuge in the Lagoon. That’s just part of the story, the original text of the best-known founder legend tells moch more!

The birthday legend of Venetia was passed 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.

Marin Sanudo bases his book on Chronicon Altinate, a collection of ancient documents, which the historians of the Republic used to learn about the past and write up the story of Venice. The earliest manuscripts kept at the State Archive seem to be written between the 11th and 13th century, immensely helpful in uncovering the missing links between history and legend.

(1) The precise location of Venice and the port of Venice

L’anno 421. Li Heneti .. udendo i nuovi tumulti, che succedevano per l’Italia di Ataulfo Re de Visigoti il quale successe doppo Alarico, et similmente nella Francia, Spagna e Lamagna, quelli di altri barbari, senza aspettare l’ultima rovina .. doppo la distruzione d’Aquileia si risolsero di fabricare nelle lagune Adriatiche verso la foce del fiume Brenta, un luogo fermo, e sicuro che era in Riva Alta. Dove fatto, insieme un supremo Consiglio, determinarono una elettione de primi, tra loro, i quali havessero carico di edificare una Città di Porto, la quale servisse per refugio delle genti sparse per l’isole vicine, et in luogo di molte et deboli terre una Città sicura, e sola tenesse, nella quale per guardia del predetto Porto (in occasione di guerra) dovesse un’armata tenere.

A city was built in the Lagoon, near the mouth of the river Brenta, in a safe place near the port. It served as refuge for the population of the Lagoon islands,estuary and mainland, protecting the port at the same time.

So there was also an ancient port, located on an island group of the Ammiana archipelago. The Ammiana islands disappeared during seaquakes and due to subsidenza (sismic and similar movements of the Lagoon soil).

(2) The “founding fathers” of Venice

L’anno 421, il giorno 16 di Marzo, fu da i Consoli sopra ciò creati, fatto questo editto:”Si quis navalis faber, si quis nauticae reis paritus eo habitaturus se contulerit is immunis esto et c.” Alberto Faletro e Tomaso Candiano, o Zeno Daulo, furono quelli sopredetta opera eletti, i quali insieme con tre principali gentiluomeni, andati a Riva Alta, l’anno sopradetto 421 il giorno 25 del mese di Marzo nel mezzo giorno del Lunedì Santo, a questa Illustrissima et Eccelsa Città Christiana, e maravigliosa fù dato principio ritrovandosi all’hora il Cielo (come più volte si è calcolato dalli Astronomi) in singolare dispositione.

Chronicon Altinate even gives us the names of the founding fathers: Alberto Faletro, Tomaso Candiano, who together with Roman nobles / consuls, on 25 March 421, went to Riva Alta (most probably, the bend in the river Brenta running through the shallow Lagoon), today’s Rialto market: On Easter Monday 421 AD, the most serene Venetia was founded at the hour when the sun was highest in the sky (noon) and the stars in a very special disposition.

(3) Venetia, Padua and arrival of the Enets

E ciò successero l’anno della creation del mondo 5601 dalla venuta di Christo, 421; dalla editificazione di Aquileia, e Padova, 1583; e finalmente dalla venuta dè Heneti alla laguna la prima volta anni 13. Ovvero 14.

This sentence gives us the exact birth year of Venetia: 5601 years after the creation of the world, 421 years after Jesus Christ was born, and 1583 years after Padua and Aquileia were built (which means that Padua must have been founded in 1162 BC! Not by the Romans, but the Eneti, allies of the Trojans, who after losing the war of Troy found a new home on the shores of the Adriatic sea, in Patavium (Padua).

Does this mean that residents of Padua founded Venice? Yes, according to Marin Sanudo’s text written in 1500/01. In the early 16th century, Venice had temporarily lost connection to her mother town, Byzantium (= Constantinople), conquered in 1453 by the Ottomans.

So well, is there another second founder legend? It even tells us about the architect of the church at the Riva Alta ..

(4) The architect of the first church of Venice

The book Monasteri e Chiese by Flamino Cornaro mentions that the church consacrated on 25 March 421 was built by a Greek architect, called Eutinopo Il Greco. Following a fire which had destroyed 24 buildings at Riva Alta, architect and ship builder (!) Eutinopo built the church of San Giacométo. This church was consacrated by four bishops: Severiano from Padua, Ambrogio from Altino, Giacomo from Trevigi (Treviso), e Epone d’Opitergio (Oderzo).

In other words, the church was opened by representatives of the Venet / Roman population, and built by a representative of the Greek / Byzantine population: Over time, both populations settled on the Riva Alta islands: The Romans / Venets was living south of the Grand Canal (Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, San Polo), while the Byzantine population moved to the sprawling Ombriola / Olivolo island groups, north of the Grand Canal.

This legend also tells us 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, the market was in place before the first church was built, consisting of the erbaria (herb market) and beccheria (farmer’s market also selling meat), and the old pescaria (fish market). Finally, the corderia market was built, and the food market shifted to the west. From 1097, the old market area became the official commercial and financial center of Venetia.

How much truth is in these birthday legends?

Each document refers to 25 March 421, a special constellation of the sun and stars, and special day because it combined the Christian Annunciation Feast with Easter Monday. In addition, the Romans used to celebrate goddess Venus on 25 March, the goddess of beauty: Venetia was to become just the right mix between power (Mars – the god of war, to whom the month “March” is dedicated) and beauty (Venus).

“25 March 421 AD” tells us that Venetia officially existed before the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD.

Excavations revealed that the refugees from the Roman cities on the mainland weren’t the first settlers in the Lagoon: Around 200 – 300 BC, a large port facility existed on Ammiana, in the area later called Turricellum (Torcello). The port was built by Byzantine – Greek merchants as northern hub of their trading empire. Archeologists found ceramics from 144 cities of the Mediterranean area, so the port of Torcello must have been an important merchant hub, long before Venetia was “officially founded” at Riva Alta in 421 AD.


Valerie du Monceau 3 weeks ago · 1 Like  

I loved that the sun was highest in the sky and the stars in a special disposition. Very romantic correlation with Venus and Mars, male and female. Imagine if we were guided by these factors today. Perhaps that is why Venice glows in all her beauty. A correct alignment. Thank you Iris for a beautiful presentation.

Cat Bauer 3 weeks ago · 1 Like  

What a vast amount of information you’ve pulled together, Iris! Brilliant! You’ve answered many questions. Grazie, Cat

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