VeniceApartment > Venice Guide > Venice’s thousand year history


The history of the Venetian Republic from its origins up to the present day.

The birth of Venice

The islands of the Venetian lagoon were first inhabited in the 5th century when the mainland population sought refuge from the invasions of the Goths and the Huns and, later, the Lombards.  It was on this group of islands that the Byzantine Duchy of Venice was born.  In 751, the islands of the lagoon succeeded in freeing themselves from Byzantium rule and gained their independence. When the Franks attacked the lagoon islands, the inhabitants decided in 810 to transfer the capital from Malamocco to the Rialto island and, between the 9th and 10th centuries, this became the centre of the city’s political and economic life. Successive centuries saw the formation of the institutions of what would later become the Venetian Republic.  It was established that the doge should have the highest political and civil authority as successor to the Roman-Byzantine dux.  Alongside the doge was the Great Council, which was monopolised by the principal noble families, the Senate and the Council of Ten.  Although the positions were initially elected ones, they soon became the prerogative of a limited number of noble families and became hereditary positions. 

Sovereignty of the seas and the intense rivalry with Genoa

From the 9th Century, trade with Byzantium and much of the East resulted in a rapid expansion of Venice  The city became very important in the East after the Fourth Crusade which culminated, in 1204, in the sack of Constantinople and the establishment of the Latin Empire in the East.  It was this major expansion of its power which gave rise to the great confrontation with Genoa which began in the East, continued in the Adriatic and only came to an end in the 14th century with the Treaty of Turin which brought to an end the war with the rival maritime republic.

The hegemony of the neighbouring territories and the conflict with Turkey

Starting in the 14th century, Venice set out to conquer the most strategic areas of the mainland until it was able to boast a dominion which extended from the river Adda in the west as far as Friuli in the east, encompassing the whole area.  During the same period, the Ottoman Turks were making their presence felt in the eastern Mediterranean, progressively weakening the Venetian dominion.  The expansionist aims of La Serenissima, as the Venetians called their State, were eventually halted by the League of Cambrai.  The League, which was established by the Austrian Hapsburgs, Spain and France, defeated the Venetians in 1509, thus bringing to an end their conquests in Italy.  The decline of the Venetian Republic began at the end of 17th century and also hit artisan and manufacturing activity including jewellry, the glass industry, which since 1291 had been concentrated on Murano, and the printing industry.  This decline led to Venice progressively becoming only a tourist centre and, in 1797, the Republic itself ceased to exist when it was ceded to Austria by Napoleon.

The period from the Unification of Italy until the present day

After the unification of Italy, Venice decided to focus on three areas: the port as a modern industrial base; the reorganisation of the historic centre; and a major construction of hotels to consolidate its position as a tourist destination.  Today, Venice continues to concentrate the most important services within the city and attracts an impressive tide of tourists.  In 1973, a special law for Venice came into effect to safeguard the lagoon and, in May 2003, work began (and has still not finished) on the much discussed and expensive “Mose System” under which mobile flood barriers will be installed to isolate the lagoon from the sea during high tides.