How old is Venice?

how old is venice

Venice, 1600 years.

How old is Venice?

These days she celebrates her 1600th birthday. On national Tv, there was an hour and a half of beautiful images, music with chorus, orchestra, and soloists from Teatro La Fenice, and narration by the excellent Italian actor, Alessio Boni. Riding the Gondola through the deserted canals, drone footage (…nowadays mandatory.) over Saint Mark’s Square, and clear, blu water reflecting in the yellowish light of the setting sun.

It’s awesome. I would never in my life criticize an initiative like that, Nor could I possibly have anything against a legitimate reason for partying, be it somewhat sober and silent partying in these times of total lockdown. It’s still an excellent way to honor my wonderful city.

So, how old is Venice?

She was born on March 25, 421, at least that’s what the tradition says. We here all know that it’s not true, but we like to celebrate that precise day just the same. And why not? Nobody knows for sure when it all started. And it can’t be done… Determining one single day for the birth of the lagoon city. That’s just not the way it was.

venice gondolasSo, we know it’s wrong… But do you?

So I checked some of the featured snippets on Google, and a few websites, and I was astonished about how many of them are stating that day, March 25, 421, as the day when Venice was founded. And not only English sites, Italians too. On that specific day three consuls from Padova were supposed to have decided to build a metropolis in the middle of the shallow water, and then succeeded in doing it.

That just didn’t happen.

But how old is Venice?

Venice was not founded as early as in 421. The transfer towards the lagoon from the surrounding cities was slow and gradual, starting probably from the middle of the 5th century. In 697 the first Doge was declared in Heraclia on the landside north of Venice, In 775 the bishopry was moved to the lagoon city. In 810 the state administration was brought there, and with that is became the undisputed capital of the republic.

And I figured something has to be done here… 

So I called the producers at Rai, the state television, and said:

–  We have to debunk this idea. Everybody thinks it’s true… That Venice was born in 421…

  –  Naw, they said… Who could ever believe that? It’s just a party. Everybody knows that… Or don’t they?

Well, obviously they don’t. 

rialto bridgeNo, Venice was not born in 421… Not even close.

But where does this idea come from?

First of all… The history of Venice is not easily determined. We don’t have written testimonies, royal decrees, and legal articles. All we have are archeological findings and historically documented facts from the surrounding areas.

  • Chronicon Altinate is a manuscript from the 13th century, telling something of the history of the Veneti, the people of the region. It determines the birth of the city to 421.
  • The Doge Marin Sanudo wrote in 1514 after a devastating fire at Rialto. “Only the church of San Giacomo di Rialto survived the flames. This church was the first church constructed in Venice on March 25, 421.
  • In 1801 a priest from Pernumia writes a book about history, and he answers the question: How old is Venice? He states that three diplomats from Padova founded La Serenissima. And he even has their names… Publio Galieno, Simeone dei Lanconi, and Antonio di Calvo. The date is, of course, March 25, 421.

The year 421 was at the very end of the history of the Roman Empire. The Imperial forces had a very hard time defending the vast borders. The barbarians started to become a serious threat and soon they would have the upper hand. But it wasn’t until 452 when Attila the Hun entered Italy, that the Romans had to give up land more than temporarily. And it wasn’t until then, that there would be any reason for anybody to even think of starting building churches and palaces in the lagoon. That would have been completely absurd in 421.

how old is veniceAltino – The Roman stronghold. 

Altino just inside the northern part of the lagoon was sacced in 452. So was Aquileia, some 100 miles to the east. And Aquileia was a big fortress, one of the biggest in the Empire. After that most of the inland towns fell. And from there the region of Veneto was no more a safe haven.

The Altinians moved out into the lagoon, to Torcello the port settlement. And probably many other islands in the lagoon saw refugees fleeing the Huns. But that is 30 years after 421, and they most certainly weren’t there to build churches. They were there to survive, hide and then go back to where they came from to rebuild and revive.

The birth of Venice can’t be pinned down to a year and a day.

So why did they invent that precise day?

We don’t know for sure how old Venice is. Because, as stated before, we don’t have the documents. If they ever existed they were lost in fires during the ages.

One plausible theory is this:

Venice invaded and conquered Padova again in 1405, like on so many occasions before. This time, though, it seems the Padovanes were in particular discomfort with the Venetian superiority. They wanted their freedom. 

In this atmosphere, a few illustrious characters in Padova, Jacopo Dondi, Michele Savonarola, and others sort of collectively created a situation where it was actually Padova who invaded Venice, and not the other way around. Because Venice was created by Padova. It was Padova who had sent their ambassadors to Rialto and them who had created the oldest and most beautiful of Venice’s churches… San Giacometo di Rialto.  

But, still… We have no idea.

how old is venice
San Giacomo di Rialto.

San Giacomo di Rialto.

It is from the 11th century. The church isn’t older than that.

–  But what if there’s another church underneath? Another building on top of which the new San Giacomo was constructed?

Nope, not even that is true. It has been thoroughly examined. The Venetians want to know if their city is as old as they say, obviously. With x-ray equipment, they’ve checked, and there’s nothing underneath, other than the piles, and mud.

Documents from the 900th and the 1000s don’t tell of any church there. It was a market area, not full of palaces like today. So, no the San Giacometo is not from 421.

But how could they have kept the myth alive for so long?

I think it was convenient.

For the Padovanes, but also for the Venetians.

Venice was a major player in Europe and the Orient for half a Millenium. And it was convenient to have a start, a date, a reason. So, instead of centuries of migrants from the surrounding lands, peasants, and hillbillies, settling on the sandbanks, they got three ambassadors, a church, and God himself. That’s different. And it’s a much more suitable beginning for the most beautiful city in the world.

… But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the birth of the city on March 25.

venice saint mark's square