810–1032

The First City of Modern Europe

Orseolo Doges in Ducal Palace, by D. Tintoretto,

Continued from Venice in the Dark Ages...

After moving Venice to its modern site on the Rialto, Angelo Participazio erected the first Doge’s Palace for himself. The pieces were falling into place; all that was needed was the right corpse.

In retrospect, the embroidered legends can be disregarded: there can be little doubt that the theft of St Mark from Alexandria in 828 was a calculated and brilliant manoeuvre of Venetian policy. Of the 55 holy cadavers abstracted from around the Mediterranean by Venice, this is the one that mattered. To underscore the tradition of Mark’s founding of the see at Aquileia, a legend was concocted that Mark had landed in Venice, where an angel appeared to him, saying ‘Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist; here your body shall lie.’

To medieval Italy, an Evangelist in your crypt was as good as an Apostle, maybe better. Besides giving the city a powerful protector in Heaven, Mark could intervene in more mundane affairs, allowing it to counter the theological and political pretensions of both Constantinople and Rome. The body was Venice’s Declaration of Independence. The Venetians wasted no time in stitching Mark’s lion symbol to their banners; their newly adopted battle-cry, ‘Viva San Marco!’, would be heard around the Mediterranean for nearly a thousand years.

Finding a home for the priceless relic became the first priority, and a Basilica was dedicated four years later – significantly, Mark was to rest in the shadow of the Doge’s new palace, and not in the cathedral on the distant island of Olivolo.

Despite the new foundation, Venice still conducted internal affairs with anarchic contentiousness. The Participazio family continued its near-monopoly over the dogeship, although after 887 they had to share their dominance with the Candiani.

One of these, Pietro Candiano IV (959–76), proved catastrophic. Vain and ambitious, Pietro conducted himself more like a feudal autocrat than a republican prince of merchants. His marriage with Waldrada, sister of the Marquis of Tuscany, brought him towns on the mainland, and he soon began to treat Venice as just another of his possessions. Coercing the Venetians to help him subdue rebellious Ferrara touched off a revolt to remember in 976: a mob stormed the Doge’s Palace and set it on fire, and before long the flames engulfed the still-wooden city. When the smoke cleared there were no Candiani left standing, and very little of Venice.

The Orseoli became the new dynasty, until another revolt put an end to them in 1032. Trouble came not only from within. In the 830s Arab corsairs appeared to plague Venetian shipping from their bases in Apulia and Sicily. In 899, the rampaging Magyars overran northern Italy. Once more the Lagoon saved the city, but just to sleep better the Doge built fortifications, stretching from the castle on Olivolo to the Grand Canal. Great stretches of lagoon must have been filled for it – part of the gradual process that was converting the Rialto islands into modern Venice.

The Arabs were not the only pirates. Beginning in the late 800s, Slavic ‘Narentine’ pirates, so-called for their bases around the Narenta river, would lie in wait among the maze of islands on the Dalmatian coast, posing a continuous threat to Venice’s trade lifeline with Constantinople.

After alternately fighting the pirates and paying them tribute, the Venetians felt strong enough to decide the issue by the year 1000. Doge Pietro Orseolo II’s naval expedition turned into a triumphal procession through Dalmatia, as town after town swore fealty to the Republic, and the worst strongholds of the pirates were burned. Soon the Doges were affecting the title ‘Duke of Dalmatia’, as another showpiece of Venetian folklore was evolving – the Marriage with the Sea.

In the 9th century, drawing the line between pirates and non-pirates would have been difficult. The difference comes later, when the histories are written. Most likely Venice preyed on her neighbours as much as they preyed on her, and her pretended monopoly over Adriatic shipping kept other towns from making an honest living on the sea. Croatian pirate historians, had there been any, would have noted that Venetians were still snatching off their countrymen for sale as slaves.

Towards legitimate competition, Venice reacted in much the same way. Comacchio, a rival trading town on the Po, was sacked by the Venetians in 866 and completely destroyed in 932. Further afield, Amalfi, Gaeta, Bari and, more ominously, Pisa and Genoa were testing seas and markets that Venice already regarded as her own.

One summer night in 998, a small boat silently entered the Lagoon. At the island of San Servolo it picked up a passenger and headed for the city, where its occupants made a moonlight tour of the quiet canals. In that boat was Otto III, the young and impetuous Emperor of the Germans, and his passenger was the Doge himself. Otto had arranged this secret visit to see the city as it was, without the stifling protocol. Already, Venice had to be seen: the greatest city of western Europe (excepting perhaps Muslim Cordoba and Seville) was an inconceivable marvel to any sleepy feudal soul. On the threshold of medieval civilization, it was also a sign of things to come.

Next...the first Crusades

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