• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Genesis of the Nemesis: Venice Rising

According to legend, Venice obtained its relics of St Mark from Alexandria in AD 829. Apparently the pork-barrel-smuggled saint – a stickler for Venetian politics – rather eccentrically signalled that he didn’t want to become the bishop’s property so he was given to the doge Justinian Particiaco who deposited him in the palatine chapel of the doges: San Marco.

That ninth-century structure, however, burned down in 976. The cathedral we see today was constructed 1063-84. It commemorates the event in a mosaic known as Vaticinatio “the Prediction” in the Cappella Zen (originally one of San Marco’s main entries until 1500). Spectators must keep a straight face as they watch Mark snooze in a boat and dream that he’d one day be the patron of a city not yet founded. Other (more realistic) mosaics show the two merchants (Tribunus and Rusticus) stealing the body. A mission sometimes justified as a rescue attempt in what may have been a garbled memory of Islamic requests for marble columns that sometimes escalated in the confiscation of church materials (that the interventionist Venetians melodramatically pretend would have culminated in the abduction of Mark).

In other words, Venice – according to its own legend – burst on the international stage as a trailblazer; a city-state willing to save (by means foul or fair) the titans who’d created Christendom. Even its oldest narrative, Istoria Veneticorum, written by John the Deacon (ambassador of doge Pietro II Orseolo [991-1008]) had his kinsmen down as nothing less than Romans who, having survived barbaricum, could now rescue the crumbling empire’s greatest talismans. In short, a sort of ex occidente lux on speed.

Setting its self-regard aside, it’s worth exploring how the city enters non-Venetian sources. Paul the Deacon’s History of the Langobards, for instance, described the transfer of the bishop of Aquileia (mainland) to Grado (lagoon) in order to pre-empt the Langobard invasions (568-). There was no mention of the city or region’s population accompanying the bishop, however, nor to what extent the lagoon was already inhabited.[1] More to the point, the bishop’s exile was framed as a very temporary measure with king Agilulg (590-616) restoring the patriarchate to Aquileia during his reign.[2]

The fact ninth-century documents attest the appearance of Attila near the lagoon has been used by historians to push the start-button of the Venetian origo gentis back to the Huns. Indeed, this also appears to have been Constantine VII’s position, which identified the “Venetici” as Romans with the intelligence to flee before the onslaught from the Steppes.[3] And the emperor must have been relatively well informed given the Eastern Roman Empire fortified the lagoon in their efforts against the Goths. Indeed, its power structure linked the people(s) there to the Exarchate of Ravenna either by mirroring the hierarchy or directly linking them in the offices of tribunus, magister militum, spathario or ipato.

The Venetians emerge from these sources as fishermen, salt traders and slave dealers. The basic formula of power that underpinned their daily lives was that Langobards owned the mainland and Romans the seas. The islands, then, were a Byzantine domain. As much is clear from the fact that one of the first settlements to enter the sources was Cittanova Eracliana (Civitas Nova Heracliana). An inscription, too, dates to 639 and celebrates the erection of S. Maria in Torcello. It cites the donation of property by the magister militum Mauritius to build S. Maria Assunta and certifies the transfer of the bishop from Altino to Torcello i.e. a safe area of the lagoon.

To conclude, while the old wooden Venice may have sheltered behind the “wooden walls” of Constantinople’s fleet (indeed I suspect the Venetian presence in Rome [dated to 748] where they sold wares and bought slaves occurred via Byzantine sea routes rather than than the 330-mile landlubber’s paths) it was clearly not a dependency. Hence its ability to, first, sign a treaty with the Langobards in the eighth century, which permitted Venetian transit along the rivers of the Germanic kingdom) and, second, negotiate the Pactum Lotharii in 840 which amounted to an alliance against the encroaching Slavs.

[1] That the lagoon was inhabited is clear from the sixth-century jottings of Cassiodorus who exalted the simplicity of the lagoon lifestyle and its peoples’ livelihoods.

[2] The scale of the Aquileia vs. Grado conflict deserves a book not a footnote. According to tradition, the former’s see was founded by St Mark (sent by St Peter) prior to his mission to Alexandria. Sitting at the head of the Adriatic Sea, it was acknowledged as a metropolitanate by 381 but rebelled against the acquiescence of pope Vigilius during the Three Chapters debacle. Both Aquileia and Grado used the title of patriarch from 560 onwards (in a clear attempt to bolster their authority against what they perceived to be the papacy’s treachery). Grado, however, slowly fell back into line (while retaining its title) but Aquileia maintained its stance and went into schism. The Lombards soon renounced Arianism, however, which left Aquileia unprotected and all three parties (papacy, Grado and Aquileia) were reconciled at the Synod of Pavia (699). The pope gave the pallium to Serenus of Aquileia but acknowledged Grado’s hierarch as a patriarch too, probably as a sop. In 1027, the pope effectively declared Grado defunct by granting Aquileia supremacy over it. Almost four centuries later, however, the Venetian conquest of Aquileia meant its patriarchate was transferred to the Serene Republic by Nicholas V in 1451. Rather sadly, Aquileia’s end came in 1751 when the pope (under Austrian pressure) created a vicariate apostolic with a residence at Gorizia which effectively reduced the patriarchate to its own parish. As an addendum, Venice’s original ecclesiastical unit had been the bishopric of Olivolo (later Castello), which was subordinate to Grado until the 1451 merger (when Venice inherited Aquileia’s patriarchate); a status that manifests today as the right to wear the cardinal’s scarlet vestments even when not created a cardinal in consistory by the pope.

[3] Modern historians prefer to place greater emphasis on sea-level changes (than invasion evasion) as a factor in the formation of Venice. This is underpinned by a belief that changes in the river delta meant mainland cities could no longer act as ports due to climatic changes and a gradual build-up of the coastline.