Venice at sea, by Tristan Rutherford
Faune, June 2019
In 10,000BC the waters broke on a two-million-year Ice Age. The Adriatic was reborn as watery Eden as sea levels rose by a biblical 120m. Montenegro’s shore became a fjord. Croatia’s coast became a dot-to-dot of forested isles. And the Lagoon of Venice became the Mediterranean’s largest wetland where glossy Ibis swooped and Jack Snipes snooped. Early fishing communities pecked a living from a 100-island larder of green crabs and mantis shrimp.
The emerging state gobbled all before it. Timbers were driven into saltmarsh to anchor the islands fast. But for every church constructed, another hillside of Croatian alder trees were culled - the species being essentially waterproof as piles calcified in the mineral rich lagoon. Greedy mouths required food from afar. Apples from Anatolia and carobs from Egypt turned Venice into a entrepot of global trade.
Growing commerce required more ships. This time Slovenia’s stocks of oak and birch were defenestrated by Venice’s all-consuming arsenal. Here oar-powered galleys were mass produced in a Ford-like assembly line. To protect tradings roots, anti-piracy fleets turned the turbulent Adriatic into a Venetian lake. The sea was nicknamed "Mare di Venezia” on medieval maps.
Unsurprisingly everybody wanted a piece of plucky Venice. Now her waterways turned from pantry and artery to protector and moat. The starvation siege by Lombard King Pepin in 810 was doomed from the start (as one might expect from a man whose brother was named Pepin the Hunchback, and grandfather Pepin the Short). In response the Venetians simply removed the canal channel markers until the Lombard fleet was stranded in the muddy lagoon for six disease-ridden months. To further insult the hapless Pepin they bombarded his army with bread rolls. Owned!
In 1380 the grand Genoese fleet arrived to teach Venice a lesson. This time the Venetians blocked the larger canals with stones, using agile little boats to outmanoeuvre the bulky galleys from Genoa. Big isn’t always best.
By the 14th century the Queen of the Adriatic was in her pomp. The world’s greatest thalassocracy acquired other nicknames like Stato da Màr, La Dominante and City of Bridges. Tiny Venice was a Euro Singapore. Trading embassies were founded far as Lebanon, Constantinople, Alexandria and Cyprus.
Palazzi rose to reflect conduits of commerce. The Ca d'Oro palace featured Moorish arches from whence dates and pomegranates also came. Travelling merchants like the Polo family - brothers Niccolò and Maffeo with little Marco in tow - shopped further still. Democracy was formed by an annually elected Council of Ten magistrates with full judicial powers. Rule of law allowed those who became rich to secure their wealth, an evergreen way to encourage more.
Golden ducats encouraged painters and scholars. Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese found easy patronage under the Venetian school of art. Aldus Manutius established a mass-production printing press. Low-cost editions of Aristotle, Dante and Virgil were cranked out to eager readers. Manutius also created a typeface based on the era’s calligraphic sloping handwriting. It's now known as Italic.
Venice secured its status with soft power. Like modern day micronations Monaco and Abu Dhabi, it warded off invasion by educating aristocratic youth while lending to their parents. The super-rich were entertained with fancy boat races, the Grand Prix of their day. In 1574 French King Henry III was welcomed with a personalised carriage and a 1,200-dish feast. The words regatta, lido and sequin all derive from Venice. For two more centuries the city slow-danced into decadent decline in a never-ending calendar of masked balls, while Ottomans, Austrians, British and French gobbled up its neglected territories. In 1797 Napoleon’s army simply strolled in and carted off canvases, statues and the handful of war galleys that could still float. The Most Serene Republic was dead.
Worse still, the floating city became the sinking city. The picturesque wetlands that once defended Venice threatened to overwhelm it. Every high tide became an ordeal. If waters rose one metre then 5% of buildings would be flooded. Two metres meant 100% inundation. The city’s watery nadir came in 1966 when an unprecedented acqua alta - swollen by rain-bloated rivers, a full moon and scirocco winds - reached 194cm. Some 75% of shops were destroyed. Where doges and potentates had once sealed deals, dead rats and dirty linen floated past. High tide marks still visible on St Mark's Square today show how near Venice came to closure.
Like a new Ice Age, these Noah-esque floods receded on a new world. One for which 24m annual tourists, for all their faults, would pay in hotel bills, gourmet blowouts and a €5 per night stay tax. (Plus, from 2019, a €10 daytrip tax.) As tourism trumped heavy industry, birdlife rocketed. Each winter the Provincia di Venezia pays 15 teams of experts to count avian species by boat, kayak and airplane. Its studies have proven that ever more cormorants jet in from Poland and Denmark, as greater flamingos glide up from Tunisia and Algeria. Even bottlenose dolphins, seen in historic Venetian heraldry, have returned to seal their approval of the lagoon.
A final story encapsulates Venice’s renaissance. It’s the magical tale of the Dorona di Venezia grape. Once used to produce silken white wines for the Doge’s dinner table, the vine was wiped out in the 1966 acqua alta. Or so it was assumed. In fact 88 hardy plants (like the alder it had become resistant to both salinity and rot) still clung to outlying islands and convent vegetable plots. After ten years of careful breeding the first 5,000 bottles were produced in 2010. Any good? At €150 per half bottle it captures Venice in a glass: timeless, unique and luxuriously expensive, with a saline whipcrack to prove the lagoon is never far away.
Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti write travel stories covering the entire Mediterranean for the Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Delicious.