Legend asserts that the grand pageant of Venice began precisely at noon on Friday, March 25, 421 AD, when the first stone was laid at the site which would eventually become the Basilica San Marco (or another church near the Rialto if you subscribe to a rival theory). While this spring date is highly auspicious, tying in with the mythic founding of Rome, pagan rites celebrating the earth’s rebirth, and Christian holy days, the actual history is less exact.
We do know that in Roman times the low-lying islets in the lagoon off the northern reaches of the Adriatic were routinely visited by hunting and fishing parties. Despite the abundance, the thought of living amid the mud flats would probably have struck the mainland inhabitants as ridiculous. Times change, however. Several centuries later, the Roman Empire was running out of steam and invading barbarians, mainly Huns and Visigoths, swept through Padua and Verona and the other rich cities of northeast Italy. Suddenly, the marshy islands of the lagoon made an attractive refuge.
While the rest of Europe entered its darkest age, the nascent Venetians became engineers. The cities they had known were constructed on solid earth; the Venetians would have to make their own. Into the ground available to them, they drove pinewood piles, closely packed, and topped these with dense Istrian stone to form impermeable building foundations. Gradually, the lagoon water was tamed into canals between the islets and bridges built to draw the patchwork quilt of islands into one governable unit. Dwellings arose, sturdier and more secure with each passing generation. Beyond the growing city, they also had to keep the river channels navigable and free of silt, become expert in tides, and explore the seas for stable trading partners.
In Whispers of Vivaldi, the final Tito Amato mystery, the singer-sleuth is on the way to beg a favor from an aristocrat when he gives us his take on his homeland’s history:
Tito’s time was the mid-1700s, and in his heart, he realized that his beloved Venice was dying. The ancient city whose navy had once ferried Crusaders to the Holy Land and ruled the eastern Mediterranean like a seafaring queen, had been deserted by fortune. Venice survived only by fleecing the foreigners who flocked there to enjoy her musical and artistic treasures, the famed courtesans, the equally famed gambling houses, and especially, the six-month Carnival. To Tito’s regret, his city was wasting herself in a maelstrom of pleasure and gaiety.
There was, however, one civic occasion that still made Tito and his countrymen proud: the Marriage to the Sea. Stemming from around the year 1000 AD, every May, on the day after the church festival of Ascension, Venice celebrated her symbolic marriage to the sea. With great pomp, the Doge and his court boarded a magnificent state barge known as the Bucintoro. Every man with a boat followed the gilded Bucintoro over the basin to the Porto di Lido, a channel that gave access to the open sea. After prayers and hymns, the Doge tossed a golden ring into the water, declaiming, “I wed thee, O Sea, in a sign of perpetual dominion.” Besides underscoring that Venice and the sea were indissolubly one, other nations were reminded that Venice ruled the waters. The Sensa, as the fete was called, was held until Napoleon conquered the much diminished Venetian Empire and ordered the Bucintoro dismantled.
Beverle Graves Myers, January 13, 2014