On the surface, Venetians fit the Italian profile. They speak the language, eat pasta, dress impeccably and love opera. And yet, they are different. They are less religious, have built no walls around their old city, have sacrificed cars for gondolas and generally look outward rather than inward for artistic inspiration (the Venice Biennale is a modern-day continuation of this mindset). In some respects, Venice is quintessentially Italian, but in others, it’s a world apart and the Venetians like it that way. This island city has always kept mainland Italy at arm’s length.
Venice’s original settlers abandoned the mainland of Italy and relocated to the remote islands of an Adriatic lagoon in order to evade barbarian invaders — Goths, Huns, and Lombards — in the fifth and six centuries. The lagoon’s 550 square kilometers / 210 square miles of salt water (the largest wetland in the Mediterranean) offered protection and an opportunity to found an independent republic, unhindered by the instability ashore.
By the 9th century, the islands’ inhabitants were ready to unlock another advantage of their new location. The lagoon’s vast waterways, punctuated with deep channels suitable for the passage of large sailing vessels, set the stage for Venice’s economic and military ascendancy as a maritime trading powerhouse. Over its 1000-year history, the Venetian Republic would leverage this natural asset to become a powerhouse in maritime trade. By the 13th century, Venice was the principal supplier of the Mediterranean link in the spice trade, controlling nearly 70% of the spices brokered from the Far East into Europe.
The vast cities of primary trading partners — Byzantine Constantinople and Islamic Cairo — were the showplaces of the world and played a critical role in shaping the Venetian aesthetic. After all, you are what you see. As a result, the Venetian architectural style is a fusion of both Byzantine and Islamic forms overlaying a Latin Christian foundation. The Eastern influences on the architecture of Venice are often overlooked; you just have to look in the right places to find them.