Venice is known throughout the world as a beautiful and romantic city where time has stood still for hundreds of years. As you wander the narrow streets of Venice and cross its many hundreds of bridges, consider the fact that the city has barely changed since the end of the Venetian Republic, and the lack of cars and trucks only adds to this timeless atmosphere.
A History of Venice
For more than a thousand years Venice was at the heart of the Republic of Venice though the islands in the Venetian Lagoon were inhabited even before that. Fishermen made their livelihoods here even back in Roman times, and by the year 421 the first church was dedicated. A governing committee for the lagoon islands was established in 568 so this really signifies the beginning of Venice as we know it today.
There are conflicting stories as to when the first elected leader of Venice came to power, and who it was, but the Republic of Venice was formed in 697 and was recognised as an independent republic from the 9th century onwards.
The Powerful Venetian Republic
It didn't take long for the Republic of Venice to become a powerful force. Their strategic position at the north end of the Adriatic Sea certainly helped, and they formed a large and strong navy to defend themselves and to battle for outside territories.
The Republic of Venice was not just a warring nation though. Much of the wealth of the Republic came from trading, and the city state became a popular commercial centre where particularly silk, spices and grain were bought and sold.
Much of the rich architecture of Venice was built during this time of great wealth and power, and the exquisite and lavish buildings and interiors were constructed as a display of this power and to show what a wonderful place the Republic of Venice was to the outside world.
The Origins of the Carnival of Venice
The flamboyant culture of Venice was also later highlighted by the Venice Carnival, known throughout Europe for hundreds of years as a time for balls and parties. The first Carnevals were seen in the mid to late 1100s, but the festival really gained its reputation from 1268 onwards when the beautiful Venetian Masks first started to appear. Over the next 30 years the Carnival of Venice grew in popularity and in 1296 the Senate declared it (the day before Lent) would be a public holiday.
From the 17th century the Carnival of Venice really attracted the attention of non-Venetians and the aristocracy of Europe travelled to Venice to have fun at the masked balls and parties. The Carnival earned quite a reputation for debauchery, helped by the fact that most people were wearing masks so there was a very laisser faire attitude among many of the carnival goers!
Unfortunately the revelry was eventually banned and the Carnival of Venice became a thing of the past. Wearing Venetian Masks had become a daily habit for many Venetians and so mask wearing was also greatly restricted because the Senate was worried about malicious intents and not being able to identify the culprits.
Napoleon Conquers the Republic of Venice
Although the Venetian Republic had been a powerful and wealthy force their stature began to falter from the second half of the 15th century onwards. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to conquer in 1797 the Republic had run out of power and Napoleon easily took Venice. Unlike many conquering forces Napoleon respected and appreciated the wonderful architecture and culture of Venice and didn't interfere greatly with the Venetian's lives. Both Napoleon and Austria ruled over Venice for a time, then in 1866 the city state became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
The Carnival of Venice is Revived
Meanwhile carnival time in Venice had taken a back seat and became a time for children to dress up and have parties, not the adults! Finally in 1979 it was decided that the Carnival of Venice should be started again, following the great tradition of years gone by, and helping to attract tourists to Venice during a time of year that's usually very quiet.
And it worked! The Venice Carnival has now become one of the world's most popular carnivals once again, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to Venice every year around the time of Lent.