Anything but Italian 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.
Original settlement 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.
Rise of an empire 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.
Influences from afar 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.
Byzantine: floorplan and mosaics
Venice’s famed St. Mark’s Basilica was modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles, built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). This Byzantine church was destroyed by the Turks in 1453, so now the Venetian “copy” is the real thing. In accordance with its prototype, it’s based on a classic centralized-Greek-cross design with five domes, one over each arm and one over the central crossing, with all resting on pendentives.
Plus, St Mark’s famed mosaics are the quintessential Byzantine decoration. The oldest mosaics in St. Mark’s were executed in the late 11th century by Byzantine mosaicists from Ravenna. From an artistic standpoint, these are the most important mosaics in the church and certainly merit attention. To see them, just look up before you enter the main body of the church, since those most easily visible are located in the narthex, technically the lobby of the church, just above the main entrance doorway. The mosaics are positioned in mini niches, flanked by colonnettes and consist of the Virgin Mary flanked by the apostles and four evangelists. Watch our video on the mosaics in the domes of St. Mark’s Basilica (left).
Islamic: Dome lanterns
Even in this definitively Byzantine inspired church, there are Islamic influences, for example, the ribbed lanterns topping the domes have a distinct feel of those topping minarets in Mamluk Cairo. Watch our video to explore further Eastern influences on St. Mark’s Basilica
Islamic: inflected arches
This masterpiece of Venetian architecture clearly employs some Islamic elements. The inflected arches of the façade’s windows give the palazzo a distinctive Islamic feel. While the narrow profile of the windows and their arrangement is derived from Christian precedents, the inflection of the arches has Islamic inspiration. Also the stone or marble frame around the main floor windows – used for the first time in the Gothic period to highlight the importance of these central windows – might have been borrowed from the Islamic alfiz.
While the Venice of yesteryear is gone, the legacy remains. Keep in mind when touring this city, the voice that echoes is not that of Florence’s Dante Alighieri, the famous Italian pre-Renaissance poet, but rather Venice’s Marco Polo. A walk through Venice is really a walk around the world, a city that truly bridges East and West.
Since the founding of the Venetian Republic in 697, the city of Venice fought to preserve its status as an independent trading center bridging East and West. With this guidebook, we explore the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica, a symbol of the city’s greatness. Read more about this guidebook.
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