Guidebook From swamp to Empire

Sense of place

From swamp to Empire

“No city ever had more undistinguished beginnings,” writes John Julius Norwich in his introduction to Venice: A Travellers Reader. “Venice started life as a funk-hole – a refuge for frightened men.” The ancestors of the first Venetians lived on the mainland in Aquiliea (called Altino at the time). Then, in the early years of the fifth century, the barbarians swept down laying waste to everything in their path and the local population “fled for their lives, seeking a refuge at once unenviable and inviolable, where their enemies would have neither the incentive nor the ability to follow them; and in the Venetian lagoon they found it.”    

Not once in their history did the Venetians regret that decision. “Without land, there could be no feudal system, no knights and serfs, so there was a measure of equality,” writes Roger Crowley at The Smithsonian. What’s more, incredible maritime prowess brought unimaginable wealth and enriching influences from around the world. Gold currency, marine charts, clocks and double-entry bookkeeping came from Genoa; printing came from Germany; and the manufacture of soap, glass, silk and paper from the Middle East. “Multiculturalism was an unselfconscious, everyday reality, embraced by almost all its inhabitants, rather than a political slogan of ethnic minorities,” writes Pankaj Mishra at Travel and Leisure.  “For the city’s most resonant message today is surely this: that a civilisation flourishes most when it is open to external influences, when it ceases to be a fortress and lets itself become a crossroads, a place of chance encounters and unexpected minglings.”      

Read up on the city’s history with these books:  

A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich, a definitive account of the city’s maritime empire.  

Venice, Lion City, Garry Wills, an in-depth look at the city in its 15th- and 16th-century glory days.

The Venetian Empire, A Sea Voyage, Jan Morris, a recounting of the glittering dominion of the Venetian Republic told as a journey along its historic trade routes.

Venice, Peter Ackroyd, a sumptuous vision of Venice from a world-class historian.  

Marco Polo, From the Khan Academy, the story of the most famous Venetian trader.

500 years of Jewish Life in Venice, David Laskin from The New York Times

Sense of place
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