La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia 568 - 1797
Nobody really knows where the Venetians came from. A quick look at any native will tell you they were most certainly not Italian: shorter, fairer and often with blue eyes. Whatever their origins, it is generally agreed that these first inhabitants settled in the dank, misty islands of the north Adriatic Lagoon around the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire. They are accepted to have been refugees, fleeing the invading Hun and Germanic tribes. Who else but refugees would settle in such an unpromising spot? Many of the 118 islands are submerged at high-tide even today. The shallows are muddy and difficult to navigate. The inhospitable nature of the lagoon, however, became its greatest attraction: it was safe. Not only was it safe, but food was plentiful. The Lagoon teems with fish and shellfish, and with various aquatic and wading birds.
The Veneto plains are lush and rich, regularly irrigated and refreshed by the Po and Piave rivers. As the city expanded and needed to feed its growing population, it looked inland for opportunities. Its military power enabled it to annex these areas for food production – once it had stripped them of wood, which could be used for building up its maritime fleet and, of course, traded for other valuable commodities. At first, the area simply extended the agriculture of the drier islands (such as the famous artichokes of Sant’Erasmo), but these new areas really came into their own when maritime trade brought the water-intensive staples of rice and corn. Very few pasta dishes are associated with Venice, but she’s blessed with hundreds of risotto and polenta dishes!
|Fegato alla veneziana - delicious, soft polenta with stewed liver
In 1081, a Venetian fleet sailed to the assistance of the Byzantine Emperor against the Normans. Needless to say, this was no more a philanthropic expedition than the British voyages to India seven and a half centuries later! In return for her help, Venice was granted important trade concessions, establishing her as Europe’s principle broker for trade with the Muslim east. Just over a century later, the Doge joined the Fourth Crusade, led the attack on the city of Constantinople and seized control. With Constantinople sitting on the edge of Asia and at the head of the Silk Road, Venice could enjoy sole control over all trade with the Middle and Far East. Although the great city was lost again to the Lascari in 1261, the mighty Venetian fleet continued to control the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean for four centuries. In that time, Venetian merchants held monopolies on the import into Europe of citrus plants, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, mace & nutmeg, cloves, myrrh, frankincense, balsam, coffee, sugar, silk, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires and most emeralds. It’s no wonder the Spanish financed Columbus’s expedition to find an alternative route to the Indies!
The warring cities and principalities of the Italian peninsula would grow to resent Venetian power and wealth. Constantly looking over her shoulder to assess the threat from inland, she needed to seize control over ever greater territories, and by the fifteenth century Venice ruled most of north-eastern Italy, the Adriatic coast and significant parts of Dalmatia. This vast domain encompassed the wine-growing regions of Soave, Abruzzo & Valpolicella, the game-rich Dolomites and parts of Romagna around Modena and Parma. Although it would never be possible to raise livestock on the islands of the now overcrowded city, these more distant possessions furnished the wealthy tables of Venice with pork, hams, beef, cheeses & butter, game birds and wild boar.
But the mighty and glorious Venetian Republic is still worth remembering and celebrating. Raise a spritz this summer to a city unequalled in its beauty; a city rich in history and culinary genius; the city that gave us coffee shops, salume, polenta and risotto; the city of Marco Polo, Vivaldi and Canaletto; the Queen of the Adriatic – the Most Serene Republic of Venice.