Patriots and Tyrants - Marion Lansing

The Story of Venice

Over the seas in Italy there stands a wonderful city which is built half on water and half on land. Its streets we should not call streets at all, for they are streams and canals of water. When one wishes to go from one part of the city to another, one steps from ones' own doorway into a boat or gondola instead of a carriage or car. These streets of blue water spanned by arched bridges and lined with marble palaces make Venice one of the most beautiful cities in the world; but if you went there, you would be sure to wonder why men went to the trouble of building these wonderful palaces and cathedrals on the shifting sand bars of the Mediterranean when they had all the firm land of Italy behind them. Perhaps you would ask of some Venetian the reason, and he would tell you this story, of which the men of Venice are very proud, for it is one of the earliest stories of liberty.

Many centuries ago the fair land of Italy was in sore distress. There came down over the Alps on enation after another of wild northern barbarians. They descended into the provinces of Italy like a whirlwind, trampling down the vineyards and setting fire to towns and villages. The first to come was Alaric with his Goths, and the whole land was laid waste by his armies, as they moved on towards Rome. Then Alaric died and was laid to rest in the river Busento, and for a time the land had rest.

It was fifty years before the next barbarian conqueror came, but when he appeared, the invasion of Alaric was as a summer wind compared to a wild hurricane, for this was Attila the Hun; Attila the Destroyer, of whom it was said that where he stepped grass never grew again; Attila the Scourge of God, who declared that he would cross over into Italy to hunt, and when they asked him what he would hunt, said with a brutal laugh, "Hunt? What should I hunt, but Romans?"

Down over the Alps he came to the fair cities of northern Italy, with their sculptured halls and their marble villas, and laid them waste. Padua and Concordia, Milan, Turin, and Aquileia fell before him, but the last to fall was Aquileia. For three months the city held out, and the barbarians, who were unused to sieges and did not know how "to fight against stone walls," were at their wits' end. One day as Attila gazed at the city walls and pondered how he might get past them, he saw the storks leaving their nests and flying with their young away from the city. By their going he knew that famine had set in, and he rejoiced that the obstinate citizens who had held out against his swords must yield before the prospect of starvation.

So Attila waited, sure that each day would be the last, and that the people would throw open the gates and surrender the city to him. But the people of Aquileia were too clever for the dull barbarian. One day he noticed that a stork lighted on the figure of a sentinel standing at one of the towers, and perched there. "Surely a stork would not light upon a man," said Attila to himself, and he ordered an, attack on the city. Then he found that these sentinels who had been guarding the walls against him were blocks of wood cut in the form of men. The citizens had set them up to deceive the Huns, while they, with their women and children, were escaping by night from the city. Not all had yet escaped, but, while Attila and his warriors were breaking down the altars and robbing the palaces of their treasure, a large company of Aquileians were making their way along the shores of the Mediterranean, seeking some place of refuge from the barbarian.

As they journeyed along the shore, giving in every village the terrible word, "The Huns are upon us," they came to a place where there was a bay or lagoon almost landlocked by a group of low islands which stretched across its mouth. The fugitives looked at these islands and said, "There we should have water between us and the Huns; there if anywhere we should be safe." The kindly fisher folk lent them light boats, and they went over to the farthest island and stretched awnings and built huts and dwelt in safety; and that was the beginning of Venice.

Did they not go back to their city when Attila and the Huns were gone? you ask. Some of them did,—many of them; but they came back. From that time on Italy had no rest. The Alans and Vandals wandered through the land and fought with the Goths and Romans, and everywhere there was war and horror save on the Venetian islands. There the people dwelt in peace.


It was a simple life that could be lived on the low sand banks. No one could lord it over his neighbor, for no one's house was better than any other, and every one earned his living by fishing or making salt, which could be exchanged on the mainland for cloth and provisions, and so served as money. Men of all classes worked together deepening the channels so that their boats might pass through, and driving posts and making walls of woven reeds, which they bound against the banks of the islands to keep the sand from washing away. To build a house they drove posts and laid walls which would hold the sand foundations firm, and then built a stairway to the first floor, where the living room was to be. Their boats they kept tied like horses to the posts of the lower room. Gradually the islands (there were twelve larger ones and many small ones) came to be places of refuge from the barbarians. The island people were hospitable and welcomed those who sought shelter,—with this exception, which is written in their books, "They would receive no man who was a slave, nor a murderer, nor a man of wicked life."

During the time of peace, when Theodoric ruled the land, the little fishing settlement grew and became prosperous. Then the Lombards came down on Italy, and as usual they came first to the cities of Aquileia and Altinum, which had been rebuilt. They were the "cruellest of barbarians" and the most dangerous conquerors, for they came to seize the land and dwell in it.

This time the people did not wait for their coming. Once more the storks rose from their nests, and good Bishop Paul looked up to the towers of the city of Altinum and saw them going. First the birds flew round in circles, and there was a great chirping and chattering. Then all at once they picked up in their beaks those who could not fly, and flew away together to the southward. The good bishop had been in sore perplexity as to what he should advise the people, for he knew, as did every one, that the Lombards were coming, who destroyed cities as the flame licks up dry grass, and that all who stood in their way would be killed. Now he knew that the sign had been given him. He called the people together and told them that as the birds had gone away, so they too must seek safety in flight. The citizens divided into three parties, two of which sought shelter at neighboring cities; but the third group, of which Bishop Paul was the leader, stayed behind, not knowing which way to go. Two days they waited, and on the third day a strong, clear voice was heard (so the story goes) saying, "Go up into the tower and look at the stars."

The good bishop climbed the tower, and lo, the reflections of the stars made paths on the water to the islands beyond the lagoon. Then he went down and told the waiting people what he had seen, and they filled boats with such goods as they could carry, and the good bishop led them, and they came safely to the islands and landed and were saved.

This time the people had fled from the mainland never to return. While the Lombards were rebuilding their cities, the fugitives were building a new and fairer city on the islands which had sheltered them in trouble. They brought blocks of marble and columns of precious stone from the churches on the mainland, and began to build fine palaces and churches and bridges, some of which are standing to this day.

At first there had been no need of government. Each island brought its matters to the head of its noblest family to be settled, and each community lived for itself, the people from Aquileia paying little heed to those from Altinum. But the rule of the Lombards was rough on the mainland, and they constantly threatened evil to the island people; and the sea was infested with pirates who made pillages from the water. No single settlement could defend itself from these dangers, and, moreover, there were frequent disputes between the islands over fishing and trade rights. So the people of the lagoon called an assembly to elect twelve officers, to be called tribunes, one for each island, who should govern their affairs.

This plan of tribunes worked for a while, but there was always quarreling between the different men and the different island towns, and meantime the enemies of Venice were growing stronger. The Lombard dukes made new efforts to rule the islands, and the Slavic pirates came down upon them more and more often. Then Christopher, patriarch of the largest island, called a general assembly, and pointed out to the people that these quarrels were endangering their life and safety as well as the independence for which they were so eager, since they were making them weak before outside foes. He proposed that the Venetians should choose one man as head of the state. The people knew that his words were wise, and chose for themselves a duke or doge. From that time on, for a thousand years, the affairs of Venice were managed by doges elected by the people.

The ceremonies connected with these doges were very interesting. When a new one was to be chosen, the people came together and elected him by acclamation, that is, by the shouts of the crowd when the name was spoken which met their approval. Then he was carried shoulder high to the church, which he entered barefoot in sign of humility. There he swore to govern according to the laws and to work for the good of the people.

Doge's procession

As time went on and the office of doge became more important, the doge was treated as a very grand personage. When he went abroad on state business, a great umbrella was held over his head, waving banners were borne before him, trumpets blared to announce his coming, and an ivory chair of state was carried, in which he should sit, wearing his sword of office and holding a scepter. On such occasions he wore a silk mantle with a fringe of gold. This was fastened by a gold clasp over a tightly fitting tunic trimmed with ermine. Long red hose reached to his waist, and he wore a richly jeweled cap of the queer, peaked shape which you see in the picture, which came to be known as the doge's cap, for no one else could wear one like it.

The people who chose the first doge did not know what an important office they were making, but one thing which they began was never changed. The doge was always elected by the people, which was a wonderful thing in those days of families of kings. He might take advantage of his power and become a tyrant, but the people could always depose him and choose a new doge in his place.

The success of Venice in building its city on the water and managing its affairs came near being its undoing. So long as the sand flats sheltered only a band of fugitive fisher folk, no one cared what happened there. When a city of fine buildings, dwelt in by prosperous trading people who held with their fleet the control of the harbor, could be seen across the blue water, the rulers of Italy began to look across with covetous eyes. First the Lombard cities laid before the Roman general who governed Italy their claim to manage the affairs of Venice.

"These people who live over there on the water," they said, "came from the cities where we now live. If they had stayed here, they would have been under our control. Just because a little water separates us from them, why should they presume to be an independent state?"

It was poor reasoning, and the Roman general knew it.

"We," replied the Venetians, "have made these islands habitable, and these canals navigable. They would have been worth nothing had we not labored over them. The creator has a right to his creation. The islands belong to those who made them, the waters to those who know how to defend them. We have a right to be free."

Fifty years later the emperor of Constantinople sent a minister, Longinus, to look over his province of Italy. The western part of the Roman empire had fallen to pieces, but the emperor at Constantinople still claimed authority in Italy. Now it happened that the Venetians, who were a great trading people, wanted to enter into friendly commercial relations with the eastern empire, but they did not wish to lose their right to govern themselves. They gave Longinus an imposing welcome. He was met, as he stepped from the boat which brought him from the mainland, by the sounds of bells and flutes, cytherns and other instruments. He saw what valuable allies the Venetians would be, and he urged them to declare themselves subjects of the eastern empire. They gave him the same answer that they had given the Roman general.

"We made these islands; we made this lagoon a great navigable harbor,"—this they had told the Lombards. For Longinus they had still another argument: "We withstood the barbarian invasions. No conqueror has ever stepped on these islands. God, who is our help and protection, has saved us in order that we may dwell on these watery marshes. This new Venice which we have raised on the lagoons is a mighty habitation for us. No power of emperor or prince can reach us save by the sea alone, and of them we have no fear."

"Truly, as I heard from others, so have I found ye," replied Longinus,—"a great people with a strong habitation. Dwelling in this security, you need fear no emperor nor prince."

He saw at once that he could not make subjects of them, but he urged them to enter into a friendly treaty with the empire.

"We will enter into a trade treaty on one condition," replied the Venetians,—"that we have to take no oath of allegiance or submission."

"No oath shall be required of you," he replied.

The Venetians furnished him a vessel and escorted him to Constantinople, and there was made out the treaty between the empire and Venice. The Venetians had gained their point. They were recognized for the first time as an independent state.

Two hundred years passed, and the city on the lagoons had become fair and strong, when a new power appeared in Italy. Charlemagne crossed the Alps, destroyed the Lombard kingdom, and was crowned in Rome. The Venetians saw their powerful neighbors on the mainland humbled, but the emperor did not have time to cross over to them. Their hour came in the days of his son Pepin, who in the division of the empire had become king of Italy. It did not please him to hear of this free state, which held itself so proudly on the edge of his kingdom, and he sent word to them that they were part of his realm, and ordered them to furnish troops and vessels to help him subdue his enemies.

The Venetians saw that the crisis had come. Now the strength of their independence was to be put to the test. They sent to King Pepin a refusal, and prepared to defend themselves. By the advice of their doge they moved their wives and children, and such property as could be carried, to the little island of Rialto, which lay in the center of the lagoon and was inaccessible by land or sea. Then the fighting men established themselves at Albiola, and waited for the coming of the king. They had not long to wait. Pepin was very angry at their message. He had other business on hand, but his fleet and his army were in northern Italy and he thought it would be a little matter to go over and put these presuming rebels in their proper place. He reached Venice in January. This is the old record of his coming:

"Now when King Pepin came against the Venetians with an army and a fleet and much people, he encamped on the mainland over against the ferry to the Venetian islands. The Venetians, seeing King Pepin coming against them with intent to ship his cavalry over to the island nearest the mainland, blocked up his passage with a barricade of ships."

That was the beginning. Pepin and his army stayed six months. They tried to get over to the islands by a bridge of pontoons which they built; the Venetians stood on the nearest island and shot arrows and other missiles into their midst, and the bridge fell through with the great weight of soldiers which was put on it. They tried to attack by sea, and succeeded in taking all the outer islands, but as they made triumphant progress into the lagoon an unlooked-for difficulty met them. They went in as far as they could on a full tide, but their vessels were built for deep waters and they came to a place where the water was too shallow for them to proceed. Then the tide went out, and their vessels went aground on the shoals, and lay at the mercy of the Venetian archers. They built clumsy rafts of tubs and planks woven together with twisted branches of vines and olive trees. These could thread the shallow channels, but the Venetians enticed them on the sand bars.

There the city lay, with its domes and its spires standing out clear against the sky; but six miles of winding channels and treacherous shoals lay between Pepin and his desire. Summer came, and fever began to spread through his army. He made one last appeal to the Venetians. Standing on the mainland, with the Venetians waiting in their boats and on the beach of Albiola, he proclaimed in a loud voice his right to rule them.

"Ye are my subjects," he cried, "since ye come from my lands."

"We did not come over here to have a ruler," replied the Venetians.

Pepin had failed. The son of the mighty Charlemagne had to confess himself helpless before the island people. He withdrew with his army and died in that same year. The Venetians had made good their claim. They could preserve liberty among themselves; they could repel a foe. All through the Middle Ages this little free state lay between the empires of the east and of the west. For a thousand years, until the coming of Napoleon at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Venice remained an independent republic.

[Illustration] from Patriots and Tyrants by Marion Lansing