Flooding in Venice has led to multiple deaths and devastating water damage, BBC News reported Thursday. The city announced plans to accelerate building structural protections for the city to safeguard it from abnormally high tides. Here’s what makes the lagoon city so famous.
According to the BBC, over 80 percent of the city of Venice is underwater. Landmarks like St. Mark’s Square, Ca’ Pesaro Art Gallery, and The Gritti Palace have all suffered water damage due to the high water levels that have afflicted Venice in recent days. The damage wrought by the natural disaster has been profound. BBC News reported Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as describing the damage as “a blow to the heart of our country.” The sentiment is likely felt by people locally and globally due to Venice’s historical and cultural significance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Most Serene Republic
“[Venice] arose out of the chaos of the barbarian invasions of the late Roman Empire,” said Dr. Kenneth R. Bartlett, Professor of History and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto. “In the 5th to 7th centuries, northern barbarians crossed the Alps to ravage the Roman settlements on the Lombard Plain, so the Roman refugees sought safety in the almost impenetrable lagoons and swamps of the delta of the great River Po.”
In this delta, Dr. Bartlett said, they drove millions of wooden stakes into the local sandbars, building a formidable city built on fishing and seaward trade. Initially, its governmental hierarchy was loose and unstructured due to the newness of the city, not to mention its inhabitants’ independent nature.
“At first, they lived under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, whose Italian capital was nearby at Ravenna,” Dr. Bartlett said. “But by 726, a republic headed by a duke—or doge in Venetian dialect—had been firmly established, and the emperor at Constantinople no longer had any influence in the doge’s appointment.”
Over time, Venice’s most prosperous merchants formed and solidified an upper-class, and yet, it largely avoided major turbulence. “The basic constitution of the republic lasted for 1,100 years, from 697 to 1797, when it was finally suppressed by Napoleon,” Dr. Bartlett said. “This helps to explain Venice’s appellation of ‘La Serenissima,’ or in English, ‘that Most Serene Republic.'”
The Patron Saints of Venice
Venice’s first patron saint was St. Theodore. “As the Venetians established their independence from Constantinople, it became important to be represented by a less Byzantine patron,” Dr. Bartlett said. “Equally, as Venice grew in wealth and power, it became desirable to adopt a saint of greater stature.”
Thus, came St. Mark. “The story is that St. Mark went on a voyage to preach the Gospel in Italy,” Dr. Bartlett said. “One night his ship was sailing just off the barren coast where Venice would arise half a millennium later. On that night, St. Mark had a dream, and in this dream an angel came to him saying ‘Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.'”
In English, “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. This is where your body will rest.” Although the story is somewhat far-fetched, Venetians took it to heart. According to Dr. Bartlett, in the year 828, they sent two merchants to Alexandria—where St. Mark’s body laid—to steal it. In order to smuggle the body out past Alexandria’s Muslim guards, the merchants hid him in a barrel of pork, knowing it wouldn’t be opened.
To that end, Mark was warmly welcomed in Venice, where he made quite an impact. Today much of the city is centered around a large area that bears his name.
“The heart of Venice is divided into three essential areas,” Dr. Bartlett said. “There’s the Molo San Marco; it’s the quayside that faces into the semi-enclosed part of the lagoon known as Bacino, or the Basin of St. Mark. Then there’s the Piazzetta, or the Little Piazza of St. Mark—this is the rectangular space running north of the columns to roughly the southern facade of the Basilica San Marco. Finally, there’s the Piazza San Marco itself; it’s the large area that extends westward from the main facade of the Basilica.”
Sadly, almost all of this much-storied city is now at the mercy of its ability to bear water. With Venice scrambling to literally bail itself out, prayers to St. Mark may currently be on the uptick for the Most Serene Republic.
Dr. Kenneth R. Bartlett contributed to this article. Dr. Bartlett is Professor of History and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto, where he earned his Ph.D. and has taught for the past 30 years. A distinguished teacher, Professor Bartlett has received numerous teaching awards and honors.