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A Candle in a Dark Age

Mosaic from S. Maria Assunta, Torcello

See The Invention of Venice for before AD 568.

Through the tinted Venice glass of the Republic’s later historians, this early period was a golden age. One chronicler called the Venetians

a lowly people, who esteemed mercy and innocence, and above all religion, rather than riches. They affected not to clothe themselves with ornaments, or to seek honours, but when need was, they answered to the call.

The towns scattered across the islands were as yet only wood and thatch, interspersed with gardens, each house with its little boat ‘tied to posts before their doors like horses on the mainland’. An early visitor was the bishop of Oderzo, St Magno (or Magnus, d. 670) who fled here from the Lombards and founded eight of the city's first churches: Santi Apostoli, San Pietro di Castello, Santa Maria Formosa, Santa Giustina, San Giovanni in Brágora, San Zaccaria, San Salvador, and Angelo Raffaele.

But beneath the surface some embryonic political troubles were already taking shape. To prevent the settlements from sliding into anarchy, a Patriarch of Grado named Christopher called an assembly of citizens and convinced them of the need for a single authority. In 697, a certain Paoluccio Anafesta was supposedly elected as the first Doge (from dux, the common title of Byzantine provincial governors), although there is some doubt that such a person ever existed.

More likely, the decisive events occurred during the Iconoclast struggles, beginning in 726. Emperor Leo III’s war on religious images was intensely unpopular in Italy; Pope Gregory II and his new allies, the Lombards, quickly exploited the discontent. There were revolts in Ravenna, the seat of the Byzantine exarch (viceroy). A doge, Orso Ipato, elected in 726, seems to have helped the exiled exarch retake the city.

What happened next is unclear. Some reports say there was civil war in Venice between the partisans and opponents of Byzantium. However the process evolved, Venice must have been master of its destinies after 752, when the Lombards took Ravenna and effectively ended any Byzantine pretensions to rule over northern Italy.

If the Venetians were now free, their ‘Golden Age’ was definitely a thing of the past. Nearly all the early doges tried to turn the office into a family dynasty. Not many of them died in bed; one Patriarch was thrown off the top of his palace’s tower. Factionalism continued unchecked in a stream of intrigues, rebellions and assassinations.

And the Venetians discovered a commodity even more profitable than salt – slaves, mostly Christian Slavs destined for the flesh markets of North Africa and Spain. The new state started its career with few friends.

Even without slave-trading, Venice’s wealth and the essential difference of its society were enough to earn it distrust in the narrow-minded world of feudal Europe. A 10th-century official in Pavia wondered: ‘… these people neither plough nor sow, but can buy corn and wine everywhere’.

The slave trading earned the Venetians one formidable enemy, the righteous Charlemagne. Since 752, the Franks had been the leading power in Italy, thanks to Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, who delivered the peninsula from the Lombards. They claimed dominion over all northern Italy, including the lagoons, and relations were tense until 810, when amid another factional struggle the Doge, Obelario de’Antenori, actually invited the Franks to send in their army.

Charlemagne’s son, another Pepin ('King of the Lombards'), was not long in arriving. Facing real danger, the Venetians responded with decision. The treacherous Doge was expelled, and defences rapidly organized. The channel markers and buoys were removed, making the shallow lagoon impassable to anyone not familiar with it. Malamocco, the capital, was abandoned as indefensible (unlike the present Malamocco, this island was east of the Lido), and the new Doge, Angelo Participazio, concentrated the defences around the Rialto.

Pepin besieged them for six months, but could not penetrate the lagoon—thanks in part to the heroic resistance of the inhabitants of Poveglia—before the summer heat and disease took their toll. In the end, the Venetians had to concede a tribute, but they had survived their greatest trial so far. A treaty was signed recognizing the sovereignty of Constantinople, the convenient legal fiction under which Venice would grow and prosper for centuries to come, but also a tie that would confirm its isolation from the rest of Italy.

Doge Participazio, the hero of the hour, presided over the reconstruction. The momentous decision was made to move the capital to the Rialto – Participazio’s home, but also a central, defensible site. The fight against Pepin had made the Venetians a united people, and from that time they combined to build Venice.

Next: Venice takes off ...

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art