Sailing the Seven Seas: How Swampy Venice Joined Italy

Once a series of murky lagoons, Venice today is a city of grand buildings in a collage of East-meets-West architectural styles.
Countless bridges lace together the neighborhoods of Venice.
By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw

In Roman times, people didn't live in the Venetian lagoon. But the region had important mainland cities. Convoys of Roman ships passed from port to port through a series of lagoons they called "the seven seas," hence the term we use today.

In the 5th century, Rome fell, and barbarian Visigoths and Huns ravaged the farmers around northeastern Italy. Hoping the barbarians didn't like water, the first "Venetians" took refuge in lagoons. For centuries there was no "Venice" as such...just refugee settlements in the Venetian lagoon. But the area would grow to become a powerful trading post.

The lagoon was littered with tiny, muddy islands created by river sediment. Refugees squatting on this miserable land kept streams from silting up. The streams eventually became canals. A collection of about 120 natural islands became Venice.

From the start, these former farmers harvested salt and fish for their livelihood. Later, using trading savvy gained from the salt and fish business, they began trading up the rivers. With the rise of Byzantium, east-west trade expanded. Venetians were there as middle men, selling goods from the East to consumers in the West.

Merchants ran a profitable triangle: timber from Venice to Egypt for gold to Byzantium for luxury goods to Venice. As this went round and round, Venice amassed capital and its mercantile fleet grew to be the biggest in the Mediterranean.

Eventually Venice expanded its economy beyond trade. It became the leading optical center. Understanding medicine as a chemical rather than an herbal business, Venice had Europe's first real pharmaceutical industry. Venice made Europe's first cheap paper from rags rather than sheep skins, and offered the first copyright protection in 1474. A paper and printing industry boomed. Already clever at trading products from other countries, Venice now peddled its own stuff.

By 1100, an arsenal of shipbuilders was producing a new warship almost daily. This put the "fear of Venice" into visiting rulers. When France's King Henry III dropped by, Venice entertained him with a shipbuilding spectacle: from ribs to finished in four hours. Then, it was completely outfitted in about three more hours, gliding down the exit canal.

But Venice's power peaked. With the Ottoman defeat of the Byzantine Emperor (messing up established trading partners and patterns), Vasco da Gama's voyage to India (opening up trade routes that skirted Venetian control), the appearance of English and Dutch shipping in the Mediterranean, and devastating plagues, Venice declined.

Napoleon invaded Venetian territory, and French ideas of citizens' rights caused the populace to reevaluate its thousand year long aristocratic rule. In 1797 the last Doge ("doazh," or duke) abdicated, ushering in a period of French and Austrian rule. In 1866, Venice joined the Kingdom of Italy.

Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Venice guidebook.