Republic of Venice: The Rise & Fall of a Maritime Powerhouse

The Republic of Venice was known as one of the mightiest and most stable governments of Europe until its dissolution.

Aug 5, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
Detailf from the official flag of the Republic of Venice used by the Doge Domenico Contarini (1659-1675)


Today, Venice is thought of as a tourist destination. There is something magical about a city built on the water, the winding canals piloted by singing gondoliers. It is a beautiful and somewhat inconceivable city, as its massive stone buildings rise over its famous bridges and piazzas, all on the water. Today, Venice is incorporated into the greater country of Italy, but for over 1,000 years, it was a republic of its own, with a stable government, thriving economy, and rich culture. This is the history of the Republic of Venice.


Origins of the Republic of Venice

A map showing the medieval lagoon of Venice, via Muslim Heritage, Foundation for Science, Technology, and Civilisation


Sitting in the very northern corner of the Adriatic Sea, the area that is today Venice was once the site of a Roman settlement called Opitergium. However, many towns in the area were destroyed in the second century, including the original settlement.


Unrest was rampant in Europe. The Roman Empire had fallen, and during the sixth century, massive swaths of land on the continent were sacked and destroyed by the Huns and the Visigoths. The people who began to gather on islands near the shore of the Adriatic were called incolae lacunae, or “lagoon dwellers.” Most were refugees from nearby Roman cities like Padua and Aquileia. Maritime and salt operations began, allowing the people there to build a functioning region on the coast. However, the settlements were destroyed in 667 CE by the Lombards.


The remaining lagoon communities decided to band together after the declining power of the Byzantines gave way to the strengthening of the Lombards. They formed the Duchy of Venetia and became increasingly autonomous due to their position in the lagoon. The lagoon community elected its first doge or duke, Ursus, in the eighth century. The doge was confirmed by the Byzantine Empire, who initially held power over the lagoon settlements. According to legend, the Venetians elected their first doge in 697 CE; however, accounts of this only date from the 11th century. Regardless of when the first doge came to power, the main seat of power at this time was not in the modern city of Venice but in the mainland city of Eraclea.


The lion, the symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist, the patron saint of Venice, via My Catholic Life

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Three factions were represented in the early reign of the doges. First was the pro-Byzantines, then the pro-Frankish, and the faction that maintained the need for independence. By 803 CE, however, the independence faction won out, as the emperors of the Franks and the Byzantines recognized the autonomy of Venice. By the end of the 9th century, the Republic of Venice had moved to the modern city on the island of Rialto and had begun building its many famous bridges and canals. The city on the water was built by driving wooden piles into the marshy ground, which, instead of rotting, petrified and provided a stone-like foundation for the growing population. Around this time as well, the body of St. Mark was brought to the city, and he was named the patron saint of Venice.


Building a Mercantile Economy 

Doge Pietro Tradonico, via the British Museum, London


Through the early Middle Ages, the Republic of Venice began to build its military. It soon became one of the strongest naval fleets in Europe. Under Doge Pietro Tradonico, Venice established a trade deal with the Holy Roman Empire and secured control of the Adriatic Sea from pirates. The economy of Venice began to ramp up with the slave trade from Slavic and Eastern European regions and continued to expand, especially when the Byzantine Emporer Basil II decreed that merchants from Venice would not be subject to taxes imposed on other European merchants and Byzantines that traded in Constantinople.


This Byzantine edict allowed the Republic of Venice to maintain a direct link to the spice trade of the Near East. Access to the spice trade made the republic incredibly wealthy. Venice served as a middleman in the trade route between the Middle East and Europe, a role it held nearly exclusively.


In their control of the Adriatic, Venice eclipsed the other republics of the Italian Peninsula. Their economy was a powerhouse in controlling trade from the East, and they set up the first business exchange in the world for traders from all over Europe. This trade was supplemented by Venice’s  production of fine silks and glass. The republic also further established its military, building the Venetian Arsenal, a national shipyard that supplied armies both to the Byzantines and later to the Crusades.


The Entrance to the Arsenal, Venice by Bernardo Bellotto, c. 1740s, via Google Arts & Culture


During the Fourth Crusade, the deposed Alexios IV Angelos of the Byzantine Empire, after pledging to assist the Venetian and French Crusaders, backed out of a deal he struck to regain power. In response, the Venetian Crusaders besieged Byzantium and ransacked Constantinople, taking works of priceless art and claiming them.


After the hegemony of the Byzantines was destroyed, the Venetians gained several strategic territories in the Aegean Sea, including Crete and Euboea, and continued to flex their power through the medium of trade and naval domination. In doing so, they also launched one of the most famous expeditions in history, that of Marco Polo, into the land of the Mongols, with whom a trade agreement had been signed in the 1200s.


Throughout the 14th century, Venice intermittently fought with the Genoese, who were ruled by the French. By 1403, the Venetians claimed victory and with it, the control of eastern trade routes and naval hegemony. The Venetian Republic was a powerhouse within the medieval era thanks to, in no small part, their isolated position. While Venice was also in the business of gaining territory on the Italian mainland, the defensive position of its capital was unmatched.


The Golden Age & War in Venice

View of Venice (detail) by Jacopo de Barbari, 1500, via the Minneapolis Institute of Art


By the end of the 15th century, Venice had secured many holdings in the Italian Peninsula, including Verona, Padua, Este, Bergamo, and Cremona. The incursion into the mainland helped protect trade routes into Europe. In addition to Italy, Venice also dominated the Dalmatian coast during the 15th century, with its territory extending from Istria to Albania in a forced deal with King Ladislaus of Naples. The king, while attempting to escape back to Naples, sold the land. Venice quickly took hold of the situation and installed nobles along the entire coast.


However dominating their holdings were, another powerful empire plagued the Venetian Republic during the 15th century. The Ottomans had taken most of the former Byzantine territory and began maritime campaigns against the Venetians in 1423. The Ottomans sought to acquire Venetian territory in the Adriatic, Aegean, and Ionian Seas. In the mid-1400s, the Ottomans captured the Kingdom of Bosnia and once again began a war with Venice.


The Ottomans, led by Mehmed II, capture Constantinople, via the World History Encyclopedia


War with the Ottomans lasted until 1503, when Venice ceded some of its territories on the Greek and Albanian coasts. The trouble was not over, however, as the League of Cambrai was formed against Venice in 1508, which comprised Spain, Hungary, France, and the Holy Roman Empire, all led by Pope Julius II. The Venetian army was initially defeated but rose again and recaptured important territories like Verona, Padua, and Brescia. The war lasted seven years until the Pope and Spain broke off from the alliance. Though the Venetians had retaken several territories after the imperial war, they would never expand again.


The Ottomans recaptured Cyprus in the 1570s, which furthered the republic’s loss of territory and power. In turn, the economy of Venice started to decline due to its lack of control over the spice trade. This downturn was furthered by its uncompetitive manufacturing industry and the loss of its trade partners to the Thirty Years’ War. Through its rivalry with the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg Spain, the Republic of Venice was riddled with war throughout the 17th century. It also began a series of hundreds of years of war with the Ottomans.


The Venetian Renaissance

The Feast of the Gods began by Giovanni Bellini and finished by Titian, 1514/1529, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


While Venice was losing its military and economic power, its cultural capital shot up in value. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, Venice was still La Serenissima, or “the most serene,” considered one of the richest and most powerful Italian cities and a standard in stable government. It saw upholding the arts as a branch of government, and the republic’s style of control and stability certainly influenced the style of its art and architecture.


Though the Republic of Venice produced several artists, architects, sculptors, and musicians of fame, many were not from the city itself. Many artists came from Venetian holdings like Padua, Verona, Brescia, Istria, and Dalmatia. The city itself did, however, become known as the center for Renaissance book publishing and represented a unique style of art that would influence much of Western Europe for the centuries to come.


Painting in the Venetian School was mostly ignored by Italians but well-loved by foreigners. The Venetian government saw art as a political asset. According to Edward Muir in his work Images of Power: Art and Pageantry in Renaissance Venice, the style of harmonious government in Venice was reflected in its painting. Instead of focusing on dynamism or linework, as many other Italian Renaissance artists did, the Venetian style was characterized by color and reposed, feminine shapes. It was also dominated, in sculpture as well, by the lion of Saint Mark, a classical symbol of the republic. Some of the most well-known Venetian Renaissance painters were Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto.


The Palazzo Dario, built in the early Renaissance, via Wikimedia Commons


The architecture of Venice reflected its stability and confidence as a republic as well. The doges wanted the architecture to reflect the power of their imperial republic, mostly through self-aggrandizement. Massive marble statues and façades celebrated the political and economic victories of Venice. Stately, albeit more conservative, palaces created a sort of worship of the power of the republic.


Music was also unique in Venice due in part to the coupling of St. Mark’s Basilica and the polychoral tradition of Venetian music. It was some of the most popular music to come out of the Renaissance and provided a basis of grandeur for the republic. The opposing choral halls of the basilica allowed polychoral acoustics to be used at their full power and remained dominant until the introduction of the Baroque style of music.


The Fall of the Republic of Venice

The French occupation of Venice, via Delicious Italy


A century plagued by war followed on the heels of the cultural Renaissance in Venice all the way through to the 18th century. After losing the territory of Crete to the Ottomans in the latter half of the 17th century, the Turks also began the last Turkish-Venetian War in 1714. By the end of the 18th century, most holdings of Venice were on the Italian Peninsula. Most Venetians enjoyed a relative century of peace despite the war with the Ottomans.


In 1796, peace was disrupted at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Habsburg Austrians. After a series of invasions and occupations within the Venetian territory, the republic eventually conceded and became the Provisional Municipality of Venice within the Austrian territory. The last doge, Ludovico Manin, abdicated and surrendered unconditionally on May 12, 1797. The legacy of the Venetian Republic, however, lived on as an inspiration for Enlightenment thinkers as far as stable and prosperous republican governments were concerned.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.