A malarial swamp is a strange place to put a city - unless you`re under attack by Huns and Goths. And so began the story of Venice in AD 452. Crafty settlers soon rose above their swampy circumstances, residing on land that was lifted above tides by wooden pylons driven into some 30 m of soft silt.


Once terra firma was established, Venice set about shoring up its business interests. While rival Genoa was busy charting routes to the New World, Venice concentrated on controlling the last leg of the spice and silk trade routes to Europa. Jealous Genoa tried to take over the city and its maritime trade in 1380, after Venice was weakened by the plague. But Venice prevailed, and the city soon controlled a backyard that stretched from Dalmatia to Bergamo.


By the mid-15th century, Venice was swathed in golden mosaics and rustling silks, and doused in incense to cover the belching sulphuric smells that were the downside of a lagoon empire. La Serenissima (the Most Serene) retained its calm during this time with a complex system of checks and balances, plus bouts of outright repression: the Great Council elected a doge to preside over council matters, while Venice`s shadowy secret service, the Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of Ten), thwarted conspiracies with a network of spies. ALISON BING


Venice made a killing in the Crusades as a triple agent, accepting a Frankish commission of 84 000 silver marks to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control, but continuing to trade with Muslim powers from Syria to Spain. But when the balance of the Frankish commission wasn`t forthcoming, Venice decided to claim Constantinopole with the aid of the Franks. While the city was ostensibly claimed for Christendom, Venice also benefited: ships loaded with booty were sent back home.ALISON BING


As Venice lost ground to pirates and Ottomans, the city again rose to the occasion, conquering Europe by charm instead. Venice`s art was incredibly daring, bringing sensuous colour and sly social commentary to familiar religious subjects, while Venetian music was irresistibly catchy, instigating a merry mingling of men and women, Italians and Germans, clergy and socialites.


Church authorities were not amused, and repeatedly censured Venetians for depicting holy subjects in an earthy Venetian light and for playing toe-tapping tunes in churches. But, in 1767, after persistent reproaches from Rome, Venice calculated the amount of revenue that it had rendered to Rome in the previous decade; the result was a grand total of 11 million golden ducats. Venice promptly closed 127 monasteries and convents, cutting the local clerical population by 50 % and redirecting to the city`s coffers millions of ducats that would otherwise have gone to Rome.

Assassin's Creed presenting old dark Venice

Meanwhile, Venetian tastes and trends stealthily took over drawing rooms across the continent, and the city became a playground for Europe`s upper crust. Nunneries in Venice held soirees to rival those in its ridotti (casinos), and Carnevale lasted up to three months. Venetian `white widows´ with husbands at sea took young, handsome cicisbei (young manservants) to tend their needs. Not coincidentally, Venetian ladies also occasionally fell into religious fervours entailing a nine-month seclusion, and abandoned orphans soon filled four well-funded ospedaletti (orphanages). By the 18th century, less than 40 % of Venetian nobles bothered with the formality of marriage, and the regularity of Venetian annulments scandalised even visiting French courtiers. ALISON BING

Assassin's Creed presenting old dark Venice

Venetian courtesans were widely admired taste makers and poets in the 14th century, so the city`s idea of a crackdown was to decree that ladies of the night should have red lights attached to their gondolas, and should only display their wares in windows fromthe waist up rather than baring all in the streets. By the end of the 16th century, the town was flush with some 12 000 registered prostitutes, creating a literal red-light district. Today, however, red beacons mostly signal construction - but you can enjoy a decadent dinner at Antica Carampane (the Old Streetwalkers), near Ponte della Tette (Tits Bridge).


By the time Napoleon arrived in 1797, Venice had been reduced by plague and circumstance from 175 000 people to fewer than 100 000, and the Venetians` reputation as fierce partiers did nothing to prevent the French and Austrians from handing the city back and forth as a trophy. By 1817, one-quarter of Venice`s population was destitute, and when Venice rallied to resist the Austrians in 1848 - 1849, the Austrians` blockade left it wracked by cholera and short on food. The indignity of it all would fester until Venice joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

Antonio Vivaldi
The glamorous city took on a workaday aspect in the 19th and 20th centuries. Factories were added on Giudecca, a railway bridge was built, and Mussolini added a roadway from the mainland, literally bringing Venice into line with the rest of Italy. Venice capitulated to Fascism and Allied troops in turn, and the war and the shock of the mass deportation of the city`s Jewish population in 1943 - 1944 helped precipitate an urban identity crisis. By 1966, Venetians were abandoning the city for Milan and other postwar economic centres, and Venice seemed as forlorn as a party where invited guests had decided they had better things to do. ALISON BING


Then, on 4 November 1966, disaster struck. Record floods poured into 16 000 Venetians homes in terrifying waves, and residents were stranded in the wreckage of 1400 years of civilisation. But Venice refused to be mired in despair, instead calling on its many admirers for aid. Assistance poured in from Mexico to Australia, and from millionaires and pensioners alike; Unesco coordinated some 27 private organisations to redress the ravages of the flood. Photographs of the area (available online at LINK! show Venetians drying ancient books one page at a time, and gondolas gliding into bars for spritz (prosecco-based cocktails) served by bartenders in hip-high waders.

Acqua Alta in Venice
Venice`s acqua alta (high-water) bravado may be its saving grace at a time when the population has continued to leave the city for the lower rents and job opportunities on the mainland, and cruise ships inundate the city with day trippers. But despite dire predictions, Venice has not yet become a Disneyland version of itself or a lost Atlantis. The city remains relevant and realistic, continuing to produce new music, art and crafts even as it seeks sustainable solutions to its rising water levels. Venice today is anchored not merely by its ancient pylons, but by the people who put them there: the Venetians. ALISON BING


Look around: all those splendid palaces, paintings and churches were created by a handful of Venetians. In the city`s entire history, there have only been about three million Venetians who could claim grandparents from Venice. With the 60 000 official residents aesily outnumbered by visitors on any given day, Venetians may seem like a rarity in their own city. The population has halved in size since 1848, and 25 % of the population is over 65. But there are 2000 children still playing tag in Venice`s campi (squares), and local universities keep the city young and full of ideas. If you don`t always encounter locals on the main thoroughfares it`s because Venetians prefer to andare per le fodere (to go by the inner linings) of the city`s 3000 backstreets.

Four Seasons - Vivaldi

Despite its reputation, this is not just a city of the idle rich. Most Venetians live in flats, and 1000 Venetian palaces are now used as hotels and B&Bs. Hard-working Venetians pursue artisanal occupations that might sound esoteric: paper marbling, glass-blowing, octopus fishing. But they are constantly reinventing these traditions, and in tiny storefronts you can glimpse artisans turning paper into a purse, glass into jewellery, and baby octopuses into brilliant cicheti (Venetian tapas). Resting on past glories would be easy, while topping them seems impossible - but, as usual, Venetians are opting for the impossibile. ALISON BING

       VIVALDI - Concerto in C (RV558) and G minor (Carnival in Venice) 

THE USUAL OUTSIDER - insider dynamic doesn`t quite wash in cosmopolitan Venice, whose excellent taste in imports ranges from Byzantine mosaics to the Venice Film Festival. Bringing a world-class art collection with you is one way to fit in, as Peggy Guggenheim and Francois Pinault discovered. But you don`t have to be a mogul to venexianarse (become Venetian). Of the 20 million visitors to Venice each year, only some three million stay overnight; staying in a locally run B&B is a chanse to experience Venice among Venetians. In addition, you can eat like a Venetian, attempt a few words of Venetian dialect or learn a Venetian craft. But the surest way to win over Venetians is to express curiositiy about them and their city - so few day trippers stop to make polite conversation that any attempt is received with surprise and appreciation. As you`ll soon find out, those other 17 million visitors are missing out on excellent company. ALISON BING

                Antonio Vivaldi - Concerto No. 10 for 4-violin in B minor 


The sheer number of masterpieces packed into Venice might make you wonder if there`s something in the water here. The reason may be more simple: historically, Venice tended not to starve its artists. Rather than suffering for their art, many Venetian artists and architects did quite well by it. So instead of dying young and destitute, painters such as Titian and and Giovanni Bellini, and architects such as Jacopo Sansovino and Baldassare Longhena all survived into their eighties to produce late, great works.

Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese

Venice`s guild of house painters included some of art history`s greatest names. One dues-paying member, Giovanni Bellini (c 1430 - 1516), passed on his tremendous skills with human expression and glowing colour to two rather apt pupils: Giorgione (1477 - 1510) and Titian (c 1490 - 1576), whose work can be compared in the Accademia. Vittore Carpaccio (1460 - 1526) rivalled Titian`s reds with his own sanguine hues, but it was Titian`s Madonna of the Assumption in I Frari that cemented Venice`s reputation for glorious colour.


But though art history tends to insist on a division of labour between Venice and Florence - Venice had the colour, Florence the ideas - the Venetian school had plenty of ideas that repeatedly got it into trouble. Tintoretto may have earned key public commissions, but his lightning - bolt brushwork, which drew out human drama even in religious scenes, proved controversial. The luminous colours of Paolo Veronese (1528 - 1588) were never in question, but his decision to depict Germans, Turks, gamblers and dogs among the saints in The Last Supper drew censure from the Church. He refused to change the picture, instead renaming it Feast in the House of Levi.

Paolo Veronese - Venice Renaissance Painter

Pietro Longhi (1701 - 1785) dispensed with the premise of lofty subject matter and painted Venetian social satires, while Giambattista Tiepolo (1696 - 1770) turned religious themes into a premise for dizzying ceilings covered with rococo sunbursts. Many Venetian artists turned their attention from the heavens to the local landscape, notably Canaletto (1697 - 1768). And, instead of drawing popes on thrones, portraitist Rosalba Carriera (1675 - 1757) captured her socialite sitters on snuffboxes. ALISON BING

  1. Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips) - An AWOL housewife starts life anew in Venice.
  2. Casanova - The story of the philanderer`s life; watch the Fellini version with Donald Sutherland rather than Lasse Hallstrom`s take (despite Heath Ledger`s winsome presence).
  3. Don`t Look Now - Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland`s demons follow them to Venice in Nicolas Roeg`s taut thriller.
  4. Casino Royale - The action-packed finale in this film takes James Bond down the Grand Canal (don`t worry, that palace survived).
  5. Death in Venice - Luchino Visconti takes on Thomas Mann`s story of a Mahler-esque composer, an infatuation and a deadly outbreak of disease.

                                         Casanova (whole movie)
  • literature: Bing Alison. Venice Encounter: Background. ISBN 9781741049978. London: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd ABN36005607983, 2009., 166. -


Venice party planners outdid themselves for the reception of young King Henry III of France in 1574. As he approached the city on a royal barge rowed by 400 oarsmen, glass-blowers blew molten glass on rafts alongside the ship for his entertainment. (Sure beats balloon animals!). On arrival, the king was greeted by a bevy of Venetian beauties dressed in white and dripping family jewels into deep decolletages. Then came dinner: 1200 dishes, 300 bonbons and napkins made from spun sugar. But the masterstroke was the all-star decorations committee of Andrea Palladio, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto, who built and painted triumphal arches for the occasion. Try topping that at your next office party. ALISON BING

  • literature: Bing Alison. Venice Encounter: Sestieri - Lido. ISBN 9781741049978. London: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd ABN36005607983, 2009.,

  1. Shakespeare in Venice by Alberto Toso Fei - A captivating guide to the Venetian inspirations for Shakespeare`s dramas, including Othello and Merchant of Venice.
  2. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson - Napoleon`s cook pursues a card-dealing Venetian woman of mystery in this magic-realist fable.
  3. History of Venice by John Julius Norwich - A massive, engrossing epic, if a bit long on naval battles and short on recent history.
  4. Corto Maltese: Fable of Venice by Hugo Pratt - The Italian comic-book legend`s cosmopoltan sea captain cracks the mysteries of the calli (streets).
  5. Wings of the Dove by Henry James - A con man and a sickly heiress meet in Venice, with a predictable outcome but gorgeous storytelling.

Merchant of Venice


With 400 bridges connecting 117 islets across 200 canals, Venice`s natural setting is extraordinary - and extraordinarily fragile. The whole set-up is protected only by a slender arc of islands that halts the Adriatic`s advances.


You may have heard that Venice is sinking, but that`s not entirely accurate. The city is partially built on wooden foundations sunk deep into lagoon silt, and it`s held up miraculously well for centuries. But the foundations are taking a pounding as never before, with new stresses coming from industrial pollutants and wakes of speeding motorboats. At the same time, the dredging of deeper channels to accommodate supertankers and cruise ships has contributed to the rise in water levels doubling since 1900. Back than, Piazza San Marco flooded about 10 times a year; now it`s closer to 60. Technology advances have helped keep Venice afloat, and engineers now estimate that Venice may be able to withstand a 26 cm to 60 cm rise in water levels in the 21st century - which is great news, except for the fact that an intergovernmental panel on climate change recently forecasted increases as great as 88 cm.

The battle of Lepanto

Complex solutions aren`t easy, but simple gestures are. Recycling your waste and tidying as you go through Venice will be appreciated; when receptacles are scarce or full, take your rubbish with you. Spare the city the effort of recycling some 20 to 60 million water bottles annually by insisting on tap water. Gondoliers will sing your praises if you ask water-taxi drivers to go slower to avoid kicking up a wake. Spend time and money in locally owned businesses, and you`ll be assuring your Venetian hosts that all their effort to maintain the city is worthwhile. ALISON BING

Venice gondola serenade


The hot topic of the last 30 years in Venice has been a mobile-flood-barrier project known as MOSE. Ever since the great flood of 1966, many Unesco-affiliated agencies have been urgently concerned about this jewel box of a city, which contains many of the world`s great art treasures, and MOSE proponents say the city must be saved at any cost.

Venice - Lagoon: The MOSE System for the Defence Against High Waters

Estimated at a cost o1.5 billion pounds, the 30m-high and 20m-wide inflatable barrieres are intended to seal the three entrances to Venice`s lagoon whenever the sea approaches dangerous levels. This is only a partial solution, however, since flooding is also caused by excessive rain and swollen inland rivers.
But, as many Venetians are quick to point out, the city is their home, not just a treasure chest, and the impact of any stop-gap measure must be considered. Would flood barriers fill the lagoon with stagnant water, creating public-health risks and driving away tourists? Could MOSE change local aquaculture and end fishing on the lagoon? Will it delay solutions to underlying problems?

Beautiful Venice

The debate rages on a MOSE construction gets under way. Meanwhile, local environmentalists are keenly tracking the impact of global warming, cruise ships and pollution from the Marghera petrochemical plant on water levels, fishing prospects and everyday life in Venice. ALISON BING    
  • literature: Bing Alison. Venice Encounter: Background. ISBN 9781741049978. London: Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd ABN36005607983, 2009., 170. -

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