Understanding Venice, Traveling Back in Time

The Lagoon is a gem in green and blue, and sometimes, in grey. Yet, beyond beauty and colors, she is a living organism to be valued, even more so in our times. She has been home to three ancient cultures, feeding the colorful settlements they built, called Le Venetie, the small Venices, since the year 2100 BC. Ever since, the settlers have benefited from this lush environment interspersed with large fresh water lakes teeming with fish and sea food.

This article answers a few questions we were asked by readers and guests at Grandmother’s hotel. Why does Venice look+feel+taste so different from other parts of Italy? Who are the ancestors of the people living in Venice today, who urbanized the Lagoon and set the basics for the Venetian Republic to become a successful merchant state ? What is history and what is legend? So here is the ancient story of the Lagoon and the three cultures who shaped this environment, told in a journey across the Seven Seas (the Lagoon) in the year 410 AD.

We take you on an enigmatic voyage, crossing the Lagoon from south to north in the year 410 AD when her size was still 870 km². We are crossing I Sette Mari – the Seven Seas, and we will make it very visual so you can really experience this journey. We will cross seven lakes (Lagoon basins), separated from each other by flat islands (lidi sottili) connected by a maze of shallow canals (the water here is less than knee-deep!).

And we want you to get involved :-) so we have prepared a few questions for you (and links to the answers!) at the end of the article.

You start your journey on a flat boat (caorlina) on a sunny morning in March. The air is clear and balmy with a sharp edge so you can make out the snow-capped Alps mountains in front of you, that is, in northerly direction.

You are traveling north-east, passing by gardens where salads, cabbages and carrots are growing in profusion on islands consolidated by red bricks and wooden poles (just like they are today, the technique hasn’t changed!) There are no stone bridges connecting the islands overgrown with elder flowers, wild salad plants and spinach. Instead, people are testing their balance skills, crossing the islands on wooden makeshift bridges.

Your boat now leaves the garden islands behind, entering a large lake, so shallow that the boat needs to stop several times. The passengers to get out and walk knee-deep in the water for a few miles. After six hours of walking in the mud during low tide and resting on the shores of Popilia, a verdant garden island overgrown with willows and poplars, you can finally make out a group of ten green islands on which vines are growing profusely, just across from you on the right. In the midst of the vineyards, you can watch women tending to the vines. Finally, you feel a torrent while your  boat is trying to enter the mouth of what seems to be a deep canal, or rather, a river.

Rowing against this current, at last, you have reached deeper water again and the journey can continue with the passengers onboard their little boat. After a sharp turn to the left, you can see a few wooden houses with straw roofs and a fish market stretching across several islands. People also sell salt, fruit, wood, ceramic pots and offer loaves of flat darkish bread and goat milk to the travelers.

On the next morning, your journey continues, your barge turns right finding its way amongst lush green reeds, entering a second lake which is smaller and a little deeper than the first. After half an hour, you reach the garden island called Amurius, which looks very different. It’s like you have entered a different country, and in a way, you have. The island has a luxurious air, studded with stone villas whose white and grey marble floors are decorated with precious stone pebble mosaics. But your boat continues north, reaching yet another turquoise lake which is rather shallow so you can easily make out the ground teeming with fish.

All of a sudden, striking wooden vessels are appearing in the distance, drawn by horses and oxen through the shallow canals, they can only proceed very slowly along islands overgrown with tamarisk and willows. Their striped red-golden sails make these oversized boats overwhelming in such a flat green environment.

Proceeding amongst muddy islands overgrown with herbs and sea lavender, you now reach a fourth lake containing the sprawling archipelago called Majurbum. It consists of twenty islands dedicated to growing orchards of all kinds, apple and pear trees mostly but also chestnut trees and hazelnut. Blackberry shrubs line the canals and stone villas similar to those on Amurius seem to hide under willows and elder flowers. On the right, you can make out salt pans in the distance, extending for miles on end.

Another narrow, garden-lined canal takes you to the fifth lake, and here you notice immediately that the quality of the water changes. Acqua cheta – calm and dark, the water smells different. This is a fresh water pool where sea rose carpets are floating next to algae. You turn left as the lake is getting wider and can make out yet another archipelago consisting of more than 90 tiny islands. You have arrived at Turicellum and Ammiana, counting 8.000 inhabitants in the fifth century.

Turricellum looks very “international” amidst curated gardens, but the center and essence of the island is a large harbor. Here, the strange-looking impressive vessels you have seen before are moored. The people here wear different clothes (white linen and brown leather belts) and they speak a different language. In fact, you can hear three languages spoken in this harbor. It seems you have arrived in yet another country.

Above is are a few impressions of Turicellum and the strange vessels which are actually the fleet of the Eastern Roman – Byzantine empire whose seat was Byzantium (from 390 AD also called Constantinople) – picture source: Boat: Unità militare navale. Vase: Le Porcellane.

Men are loading the strange merchant vessels with salt while unloading glazed ceramics mostly colored white, black, yellow, orange and red. You can see heaps of plates, vases and cups. These merchants seem to have come a long way to this city and her archipelago. Turicellum looks so different to what you have seen in the southern part of the Lagoon. Here, exotic plants are growing just like they would in the southern Mediterranean, olive trees, oranges and lemons. You can find quarters made up of stone villas and others consisting of wooden huts. It’s a lively market place where you can buy local and exotic fruit, wine, ceramic pots, salt and spices, pepper in particular. Especially, pepper is much sought-after and the most expensive good at this sprawling market. The foreign tradespeople have their own luxurious stone villas. Many live here on a permanent basis, which accounts for the exotic gardens and plants. The atmosphere is so different here, yet there’s no sign that these two cultures are clashing in any way. On the contrary, they trade with and benefit from each other …

Finally, you are continuing your journey to reach another, smaller lake of the Seven Seas on whose shores an ancient metropolis is located. She’s called Altinum, the grand hub of the North, just two miles from the lively harbor and connected to the lively Turicellum island group by a straight canal lined with warehouses storing salt, ceramic pots, wine and olive oil barrels. Beyond the city on the right, you can make out a glimpse of the seventh lake, bordered by emerald-green pine trees – pini marittimi. This area to the east is called Equilium, famous for its wild horses, but there are also bears and wolves at times, especially during winter.

Today, we still find traces in Venice of the sumptuous white city, compared by Titus Livius, Strabo and Vergilius to the city of Baia on the Gulf of Naples, home to 70,000 people. While you are in Venice, watch out for le altinelle, which refers to marble reliefs retrieved from this ancient white city called Altinum. These reliefs were brought to Venice and integrated into red brick buildings, many churches and squares in town.

Now we’ve got seven questions for you:
  • What’s the name of the people living in the southern lake of the Seven Seas?
  • What’s the name of the marketplace located on the shores of the deep canal? Who do the vineyard islands belong to?
  • How do we call the islands Popilia, Amurius, Majurbum, Turicellum and Equilium today?
  • What are the foreign looking trades people in Turicellum called, and why are the sails of their boats painted red-and-gold?
  • Which languages are spoken in the Lagoon?
  • Which are the three cultures of the Lagoon?
  • Where did the vessels come from?
Did you guess ? Click here to read the answers !!

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  1. (sigh) Every time I read one of your posts, I am transported there again. Such a beautiful description of the lagoon, the culture, etc. Another gorgeous blog that makes me long to return.

    Posted 3.17.18 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      Thank you dear Vanessa! This story also includes Sant’Ariano, which is part of the Ammiana islands that I’m describing in this blog post. Hope you can return soon to the Lagoon ❤

      Posted 3.18.18 Reply

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