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The Silk Road

Venice Piazza

Geography & History


Geographically and culturally poised between Rome and Constantinople, its artistic culture seemingly half Eastern, half Western, its terrain half land, half water. But it is as a city of waters that we think of Venice.

During the 5th and 6th centuries refugees from the mainland of northeastern Italy were fleeing from northern invaders and took refuge in the many islands situated in the marshy lagoon at the head of the Adriatic Sea, protected by sandbanks (lidi; singular lido). The refugees settled on the many islands and began to build monasteries, hospitals, and factories. Today tourists to Venice visit some of these islands: Murano for its glass, Burano for its lace, and Torcello, whose cathedral, founded in 639 C.E., is the oldest building in the lagoon. The lagoon provided an ideal refuge because it is shallow, and boats unfamiliar with the channels will run aground. The down side to this is that the channels and canals need constant care to keep them from silting and the tides flowing. Floods are a constant threat (in 1966 Venice experienced the worst floods in its history).

The Rialto, the highest area in the lagoon, became the center of Venice, which is built on 118 small islands and is only three square miles in area. The Lido, a slender bank of land about eight miles long, forms a natural barrier between Venice and the open sea. In the 19th century it became a fashionable seaside resort and is the only island in the lagoon with roads (it is linked to the mainland by ferry). Beginning in the 13th century, when the first sea walls were built, there have been ongoing experiments with tidal barriers in an effort to combat the ever-present threat of flooding.

The Grand Canal within Venice itself bisects the city following the course of an ancient riverbed. Where once the great trading vessels made their way to the city's commercial hub, the Rialto, today vaporetti (waterbuses) ply the waterways carrying commuting Venetians, and gondolas take tourists past the merchant houses and palaces that border the winding waterway.

Evidence of Venice's historic role in world trade can be read in the map of Venice itself. Its narrow streets take their names from the products traded in the city. There are the Street of the Spice Dealer, the Street of the Almond Dealer, and streets for the dealers in beans, oil, wine, and iron pots.


Venice is situated at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, perfectly located to be a maritime power and a gateway between the Silk Road cultures and Europe. With few exceptions (the Fourth Crusade in 1202-1204 being perhaps the most important), Venice chose to acquire and maintain its power through commerce rather than military conquest.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Veneti, in order to escape successive invasions by the Goths, Huns, Avars, Herulians, and Lombards, fled from the mainland of northeastern Italy (called the Veneto) to the wild and uninhabited islands along the marshy coast. They established their own government and functioned for some time with relative autonomy while nominally part of the Byzantine Empire. The traditional date for the founding of the Venetian Republic is 697 C.E. An oligarchy of patricians elected a doge, as they called their nominal leader. The Venetian Republic, which lasted from 697 to 1797, was referred to as La Serenissima, "The Most Serene Republic," because of its remarkably stable government.

Venice and Constantinople, another great port city, had a complex relationship; at times they were partners, at others rivals in commerce and war. Venetian fortunes rose and fell in relationship to Constantinople. From the 8th to the 11th centuries Venice was a semi-independent province and then an ally of Byzantium, the Christian state that succeeded the Roman Empire in the East. In 1056 the Great Schism split the Catholic Church between the Latin church in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church based in Constantinople. Venice remained with the Latin church in Rome. In 1202 the elderly and blind doge, Dandolo, left Venice at the head of what would be the Fourth Crusade and instead of going to the Holy Land, held by Muslims, in 1204 sacked Christian Constantinople. This event was a turning point, marking the beginning of Venice's ability to create trade agreements in the eastern Mediterranean, of Venice's trade monopoly, and of its great wealth. As his share of the spoils Dandolo did not want great mainland possessions but rather access to ports along which he could build a trading empire for Venice. Most of the best harbors of the Byzantine Empire became Venetian, ensuring Venetian economic prosperity. The 13th century was a time of relative peace between Venice and other flourishing city-states in Italy such as Genoa (a long-time trade rival), Naples, and Sicily. During the 14th century Venice was the most powerful Western trading partner along the Silk Road.

The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and established the Ottoman Empire, which immediately began to expand its imperial holdings. Venice lost most of its territories in the Aegean Sea as a result of naval wars with the Ottomans between 1465 and 1479. Its empire began to decline also because of the rise of new commercial rivals in Europe and the discovery of alternate sea routes to Asia. Weakened, the beautiful city became a sought-after prize. In 1797 Napoleon conquered and looted Venice, handing it over to Austrian control in 1798. The Austrians gave it to Italy in 1866, and in 1870, when Italy became unified, Venice joined the Kingdom of Italy.

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click images to enlarge and view captions

  • Silk: Venice's arts, architecture, and crafts were very much influenced by luxury goods and arts from Byzantium and Asia, and the decorative arts of the Italian city-states. For instance, during the Renaissance merchants brought silk to Venice from Anatolia, Iran, Central Asia, and China, and Venice became a center for silk weaving as well as a major center for the silk trade. Venetian weavers developed velvets. In addition, the activity of itinerant craftsmen meant that Venetian weavers living in Anatolia and Turkish weavers living in Venice were instrumental in transmitting weaving techniques and motifs of the Silk Road cultures.