The first-time visitor to Venice arrives full of expectations, most of which turn out to be well founded. All the photographs you’ve seen of the Palazzo Ducale, of the Basilica di San Marco, of the palaces along the Canal Grande – they’ve simply been recording the extraordinary truth. All the bad things you’ve heard about the city turn out to be right as well. Economically and socially ossified, it is losing hundreds of residents by the year and plays virtually no part in the life of modern Italy. It’s deluged with tourists and occasionally things get so bad that entry into the city is barred to those who haven’t already booked a room. And it’s expensive – the price of a good meal almost anywhere else in Italy will get you a lousy one in Venice, and its hoteliers make the most of a situation where demand will always far outstrip supply.
As soon as you begin to explore Venice, though, every day will bring its surprises, for this is an urban landscape so full of things to do that you can’t walk for a minute without coming across something that’s worth a stop. And although it’s true that the city can be unbearably crowded, things aren’t so bad beyond the magnetic field of San Marco, and in the off-season (Nov to Christmas; Jan to Easter, excluding Carnevale) it’s possible to have parts of the centre virtually to yourself. As for keeping your costs down, Venice does have some good-value eating places, and you can, with planning, find a bed without spending a fortune.
The monuments that draw the largest crowds in Venice are the Basilica di San Marco – the mausoleum of the city’s patron saint – and the Palazzo Ducale – the home of the doge and all the governing councils. Certainly these are the most dramatic structures in the city: the first a mosaic-clad emblem of Venice’s Byzantine origins, the second perhaps the finest of all secular Gothic buildings. But every parish rewards exploration, and a roll-call of the churches worth visiting would feature over fifty names, and a list of the important paintings and sculptures they contain would be twice as long. Two of the distinctively Venetian institutions known as the scuole retain some of the outstanding examples of Italian Renaissance art – the Scuola di San Rocco, with its sequence of pictures by Tintoretto, and the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, decorated with a gorgeous sequence by Carpaccio.
Although many of the city’s treasures remain in the buildings for which they were created, a sizeable number have been removed to Venice’s museums. The one that should not be missed is the Accademia, an assembly of Venetian painting that consists of virtually nothing but masterpieces; other prominent collections include the museum of eighteenth-century art in the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Museo Correr (the civic museum of Venice), and the city’s superb showcase for contemporary art, the Punta della Dogana.
Venice’s cultural heritage is a source of endless fascination, but you should also allow time just to wander – the anonymous parts of the city reveal as much of the city’s essence as the highlighted attractions. And equally indispensable for a full understanding of Venice’s way of life and development are expeditions to the outer islands of the lagoon.
Tourism is far from being the only strand to the economy of the Veneto, the surrounding region of which Venice is capital. The rich, flat land around the Po supports some of Italy’s most productive farms and vineyards, and industrial development around the main towns rivals even the better-known areas around Milan, making the region one of the richest in Europe. At Marghera, just over the lagoon from Venice, the Veneto has the largest industrial complex in the country, albeit one that is now in decline. Padua and Verona are the main tourist attractions after Venice, thanks to their masterpieces by Giotto, Donatello and Mantegna. None of the other towns of the Veneto can match the cultural wealth of these two, but there are nonetheless plenty of places that justify a detour – the Palladian city of Vicenza, for instance, the fortified settlements of Castelfranco and Cittadella, and the idyllic upland town of Asolo.
For outdoor types, the interesting terrain lies in the northern part of the Veneto, where the wooded slopes of the foothills soon give way to the savage precipices of the eastern Dolomites. Because most of the high peaks of the Dolomites lie within Trentino-Alto Adige, and the eastern Dolomites are most easily explored as part of a tour of the range as a whole, the area of the Veneto north of Belluno is covered under Trentino-Alto Adige. Similarly, the eastern shore of Lake Garda is covered as part of the Lombardy and the lakes.
Small groups of fishermen and hunters were living on the mudbanks of the Venetian lagoon at the start of the Christian era, but the first mass migration was provoked by the arrival in the Veneto of Attila the Hun’s hordes in 453, and the rate of settlement accelerated when the Lombards swept into northern Italy in 568. The loose confederation of island communes that developed owed political allegiance to Byzantium. But with the steep increase in the population of the islands the ties with the empire grew weaker, and in 726 the settlers chose their own leader of the provincial government – the first doge.
The control of Byzantium soon became no more than nominal, and the inhabitants of the lagoon signalled their independence through one great symbolic act – the theft of the body of St Mark from Alexandria in 828. St Mark displaced Byzantium’s St Theodore as the city’s patron, and a basilica was built alongside the doge’s castle to accommodate the relics. These two buildings – the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale – were to remain the emblems of the Venetian state and the repository of power within the city for almost one thousand years.
Before the close of the tenth century the Venetian trading networks were well established through concessions granted by Byzantium in the markets of the East. By the early twelfth century Venetian merchants had won exemption from all tolls within the eastern empire and were profiting from the chaos that followed the First Crusade, launched in 1095. Prosperity found expression in the fabric of the city: the basilica and many of its mosaics are from this period. The Fourth Crusade, diverted to Constantinople by the Venetians, set the seal on their maritime empire. They brought back shiploads of treasure (including the horses of San Marco) from the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, but more significant was the division of the territorial spoils, which left “one quarter and half a quarter” of the Roman Empire under Venice’s sway and gave it a chain of ports that stretched to the Black Sea.
After the Sack of Rome in 1527 the whole Italian peninsula, with the exception of Venice, came under the domination of Emperor Charles V. Hemmed in at home, Venice saw its overseas territory further whittled away by the Turks as the century progressed: by 1529 the Ottoman Empire extended right along the southern Mediterranean to Morocco, and even the great naval success at Lepanto in 1571 was followed by the surrender of Cyprus.
The decline continued throughout the 1600s and by the eighteenth century Venice had become a political nonentity: the playground of Europe, a city of casinos and perpetual festivals. Napoleon finally brought the show to an end: on May 12, 1797, the Maggior Consiglio met for the last time, voting to accede to his demand that it dismantle the machinery of government. After Waterloo, Venice fell to the Austrians and remained a Habsburg province until united with the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
The need for a more substantial economic base led, in the wake of World War I, to the construction of the industrial centre across the lagoon at Marghera, adjacent to Mestre, which in 1933 was connected to Venice by a road link. After World War II Mestre-Marghera’s growth accelerated greatly, and the mainland conurbation has continued to expand, to the detriment of the centro storico. The factories of Mestre-Marghera are essential to the economy of the province, but have caused problems too: apart from polluting the lagoon, they have siphoned many people out of Venice and into the cheaper housing of Mestre, making Mestre-Marghera today more than three times larger than the historic centre of Venice, where the population has dropped since World War II from around 170,000 to under 60,000. No city has suffered more from the tourist industry than Venice – around twenty million people visit the city each year – though without them Venice would barely survive.