What is Venice, Italy?

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    Venice is a city located in Italy, in the south of western Europe. It is best known for its beauty, architecture, and art. Its historical buildings and canals are what most people know of Venezia but the city is rich of a unique culture and lifestyle shaped by its location in the middle of a lagoon and centuries of a unique political and economic history. Often called the Serenissima, after the successful Republic which governed the city, Venice, Italy has always been a favorite of artists but many habits and things currently part of our daily life were born in this small but immensely important city.

    Some of you might have seen thousands of pictures, videos, movies, and documentaries about Venice. Other might have only heard its name but have never looked for information about it. So, we thought of collecting here some of the most important and exciting information about “Venice.”

    What is Venice?

    Venice is an Italian city. According to the legend, its foundation took place on the 25th of March 421 C.E. Since 1866 C.E., Venice is part of Italy (Italian State).

    History, Geography, background, essential facts about Venice

    Where, when, how? Let us start with the roots that brought Venice into existence!

    Where is Venice, Italy?

    Venice is located in the North East of Italy, in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon at the end of the Adriatic Sea. Venice is entirely surrounded by salt water and run through by canals.

    How old is Venice?

    Despite the legend dating the birth of Venice to 421 C.E., the city’s growth started in 812 C.E., after Carloman’s failed attempt to conquer the Venetian lagoon. We can say that Venice is over 1.200 years old.

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    What are the origins of Venice?

    The Venetian Lagoon had been populated since its natural formation in 800 BCE, because of the presence of fishes and birds which attracted fishermen and hunters. The first significant settlements in this area were Altino, Torcello, and Metamauco.

    Since 697, the area of the Venetian Lagoon became an independent dukedom of the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire: a Duke, nominated by Byzantium, was in charge to administrate the Venetian Lagoon.

    After escaping an assault by Charlemagne in 810 CE, the center of the political power was moved in 812 CE from the surrounding areas to Rivus Altus, now Rialto, the heart of the future Venice.

    Was Venice always Italian?

    For 1.100 years, Venice has been an independent Republic. This makes the Venetian Republic the longest lasting Republic in the world.

    When the Venetian Republic ceased to exist in May 1797, the domain over the city changed several times over the following 70 years:

    • From 697 (812) until 1204: Venice and its domains were independent yet under the protection/watch of the Byzantine Empire.
    • From 1204 until 1797: Venice was entirely independent and the most influential power in the Mediterranean area.
    • May 1797 – January 1798: In May 1797, Napoleon overthrew the Venetian government. Venice became a French possession.
    • January 1798 – March 1805: In March 1805, France handed over Venice to the Austrian Empire. Venice became an Austrian possession.
    • March 1805 – April 1814: In March 1805, Venice was handed back to France. Venice becomes a French possession again.
    • April 1814 – March 1848: After Napoleon’s death, Venice is returned to the Austrian Empire. Venice becomes an Austrian possession.
    • March 1848 – August 1949: Venetians rebel against the Austrian domain and take over their city. Venetians create the Republic of Saint Mark.
    • August 1949 – October 1866: In August 1949, the Austrian Empire overcomes the Venetian resistance. Venice is, again, an Austrian possession.
    • October 1866 – Today: In October 1866, Venice becomes part of the Italian Reign. Today Venice is part of the Italian Republic founded in 1946.

    When was Venice built?

    Between 812 and 1797, Venice has been an entirely independent and wealthy city and the heart of the Venetian Republic.

    It was during this millenary independence of the city and of its citizens that most of the town has slowly been built. Since Venice is a small island that doesn’t offer space for new buildings, the facades of several palaces on the Grand Canal were regularly modified by their wealthy inhabitants, to follow the latest trends and fashions of their time!

    How was Venice built?

    Venice wasn’t built on the water, nor was it made on an island. Venice has been built on 118 little islands close to each other that were surfacing the water of the lagoon.

    To build on such a soft, sandy and muddy ground, Venetians had to come up with a solution. Whenever a new building had to be erected, Venetians would hammer two rows of pile all along its perimeter, and fill the space between these rows with mud. The enclosed area would then be emptied from its water and mud and let to partially dry. The following step was planting, all close to each other, long piles of wood deep into the ground, until they would reach the firmer soil several meters below. The piles would then be cut to be all at the same level on the surface, and the spaces between piles would be filled with stones and concrete. The final step, consisting of laying big wooden plates on the piles’ heads, created the ground floor upon which the rest of the building would be built.

    How did Venice look in the past?

    Unsurprisingly, the general city aspect had some significant changes over the centuries.

    Streets and squares, or “campi,” often had no pavement. Squares often had animals and vegetable gardens. Indeed, Venetian squares are called “campi,” rather than “piazze” like in the rest of Italy, which literally means field!

    For many centuries Venetians were obliged to make use of their boats to move through the city. Only in later centuries, the islands got connected with each other by hundreds of bridges.

    A further change regards the number of canals. In the past, there were several more canals, but over time they have been filled in, or “interrati” to make more prominent pedestrian areas and increase practicability. This process took place rarely during the Serenissima, but after its fall and the subsequent Austrian domain, 28 canals have been filled in in just 50 years, from 1816 to 1866.

    How many canals, bridges and churches?

    Venice is known for its many alleys, canals, bridges, and churches… but how many are they?

    There is a total of:

    • 2650 alleys in Venice, for a total of 157km! The smallest ally measures just 52cm.
    • 182 named canals in Venice (that can eventually break down into a few more canal segments)
    • 435 bridges in Venice, of which 72 are private.
    • 139 churches in Venice, of which only 88 are still operating and holding mass at least once a week. The remaining churches have been converted into schools or community buildings.

    How big is Venice?

    The whole surface of Venice measures 7,98 km² or 3,08 square miles. Yes, Venice is small.

    To be more precise, 2 km² belong to the Arsenal and are a military zone with limited access. The “public” surface in the city is barely 6 km²!

    How many people live in Venice?

    The number of people who live on the island of Venice has fallen below 55.000 in October 2016.

    In 1951, over 170.000 Venetians were living in Venice.

    Even though Venice is so small, how could it become so rich and powerful?

    The primary sources of the immense wealth and power of the Republic of Venice have been the trades and the ability of the Venetians to program, organize and administrate their possessions. The administration of the city, the justice, the colonies and the commercial routes have always been carried out with extreme attention by the Government of the Serenissima, making it possible for the “small” Venice to compete with huge Empires.

    What is the Serenissima?

    “Serenissima” is one of the nicknames that was and is used to indicate the ancient “Republic of Venice,” which was known as “Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia.”

    In Italian, Serenissima means “the most serene.” This is precisely how the republic felt in comparison to most of the surrounding empires and states: the most serene Republic.

    How was Venice organised?

    While the Government of the Serenissima changed over the course of centuries since 1292, it remained the same until the end of the Republic in 1797.

    The base of the power of the Venetian Government was the Great Council, an assembly made by all the Venetian aristocrats who were over 25 years old. The Great Council counted on average over 1.000 voters. The Great Council was responsible for the election of every office in the Serenissima: the Doge, the Doge’s Counselors, the Senate, the Council of Ten, The Council of the Wise,

    The head of the Republic was the Doge, whose power, however, was minimal and was always under the control of the Council of the Wise, the council of the Doge’s Counselors. The Doge’s Counselors were six, each representing one of the six districts of Venice, and were elected every 8 months. The Doge and his six counselors represented the Minor Council.

    The Minor council and the three chiefs of the Quarantia Criminal, or Justice Magistracy, formed the “Serenissima Signoria,” the Serenissima’s Lordship.

    While the Serenissima’s Lordship had to watch over executive and legislative matters, all its actions were controlled and needed approval by the Venetian Senate, an assembly of over 120 people.

    The Council of Ten, made up of 10 aristocrats, the Doge, and his six counselors, was a special council created to fight emergency situation such as coupes. It had the right to condemn anyone to death, without appeal. The Three State Inquisitors, which counted one member of the Doge’s Counselor and two of the 10 aristocrats, was a secret council for dealing with very delicate situations and secret operations. The choices of the Three State Inquisitor would be communicated to the Great Council if they were not secreted, but they could not be changed.

    The high control that the various offices and councils had one over another, and the even greater complexity of the voting system, completely prevented authoritarianism and has been a guarantee for the extreme stability, fairness, and efficiency of the Venetian Government for 11 centuries.

    What are the other names/nicknames of Venice?

    Venice has several names in several different languages and several nicknames.

    How is Venice called in different languages?

    Venezia (Italian), Venetia (Latin), Venexia/Venessia (Venetian), Venedig (German, Danish, Swedish), Venise (French), Venecia (Spanish) , Veneza (Portuguese), Venetie (Dutch), Venetsija (Russian), Weinisi (Chinese), Wenecja (Polish), Vu-enetsu-ia (Japanese).

    What are the most used nicknames for Venice?

    • The Serenissima
    • The Dominant
    • The Queen of the Adriatic
    • The Tourist Maze
    • The City on Water
    • The City of Bridges
    • The City of Canals
    • The City of Masks
    • The Floating City

    Venice Population, demography and economy

    So far we focused on the origin of Venice, how it was built, and its most representative numbers and dates. Let us now speak about what makes Venice a city: its inhabitants!

    Are there people living in Venice?

    Yes, some people live in Venice. Venice is a city and has been inhabited ever since its creation thousands of years ago.

    Currently, Venice has 54.890 inhabitants (26th November 2016)

    How are the people living in Venice called?

    People living in Venice and on the islands of the lagoon, each have a different name.

    People living in Venice are called Venetians, or “Veneziani” in Italian. Those living on the island of Murano are called “Muranesi.”

    People living in Burano are called “Buranelli,” and those in the nearby Torcello are called “Torcellani.”

    The island of the Lido is inhabited by “Lidensi,” the one of Pellestrina by “Pellestrinotti,” and the island of Chioggia by “Chioggiotti.”

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    Which languages are spoken in Venice?

    Venice is an Italian city since 1866, and its official language is Italian. Every Venetian can speak Italian, and many Venetians speak the local dialect, called “Venetian” or “Veneziano.”

    Besides the official language and the local dialect, Venetians often speak one or more other languages. Even though the numbers are increasing dramatically in the recent years, the tiny city of Venice has been the destination of millions of tourists for several decades. As a natural consequence, many Venetians learned the basics of English, French, Spanish, and German even without having ever studied them in school.

    Are there schools, hospitals etc. in Venice?

    Of course, there are! Venice is a small yet an important city, and as such it has several schools, 2 hospitals, 2 universities, as well as firemen and police stations.

    What do people living in Venice eat?

    Italy has a strong food tradition and food culture, and most Italians eat freshly made food, whether they are at home or dining out.

    Just like all Italians, Venetians have a diet that is primarily based on carbs and vegetables. Since Venice is an island, the Venetian cuisine has developed giving extra attention to seafood, while counting less than other Italian regions on meat.

    At home, Venetians will typically eat pasta and rice, especially as risotto, fresh vegetables, soups, Italian dairy products and fruits. When out, Venetians usually avoid eating a simple pasta or risotto and will instead opt for a pizza in a pizzeria or several fish dishes in an excellent local restaurant.

    What is the Venetian economy based on?

    The overwhelming majority of the Venetian economy is based on tourism. Tourism, however, has many aspects. The most significant difference between two types of tourism is the length of the stay of the tourists, which profoundly influences their behavior and, therefore, their impact on the city. Day-trippers significantly contribute to the proliferation of mass-produced souvenir shops, low-price-low-quality restaurants, and supermarkets, which are partially replacing fresh food with takeaway meals. Tourists who stay for two or more days contribute to the local economy by staying in hotels, going to restaurants, and taking the time to discover the high-quality artisanal production that still exists in the city.

    What is so special about Venice?

    History

    For 1.100 years, from 696 C.E. to 1796 C.E., Venice has been an entirely independent city and the heart of the Venetian Republic. In the course of such a long time, Venice always had its own language, coins, trades, traditions, statal organization and groundbreaking inventions.

    These facts are even more remarkable if we consider that Venice counted on average only 150-200.000 inhabitants, yet the city was capable of competing with entire countries or also of taking over Empires thanks to its incredible wealth, brilliant strategies, and unrivaled organization.

    Culture

    The cultural heritage in Venice is vital and can still be seen and felt amongst many Venetians of today, who respect and preserve the Venetian culture, traditions, and lifestyle.

    The respect of the Venetian culture and lifestyle, in particular, can be seen as a natural consequence of the geography of the city itself.

    One of the most actively lived aspects of the Venetian culture is the Voga alla Veneta or Venetian Rowing. Venice has a relatively thriving rowing community, with dozen rowing clubs all over the city and the islands of the lagoon, counting thousands of members of any age, gender, and social background. This community, which organizes several regattas all through the year, is growing bigger every year and it can count on several paladins who work hard for teaching it to children and preserving an activity that is older than Venice itself!

    Traditions

    In its long history of independence, the longest in human history, Venice has developed a broad range of traditions and festivals that are peculiar to the city.

    The most famous Venetian tradition is the Carnival of Venice with its elaborated masks and costumes which nowadays attracts millions of tourists every year.

    While the Carnival is indeed the most famous Venetian tradition, there are other festivals that are much felt by the local population such as the “Festa del Redentore”, the “Festa della Madonna della Salute”, the “Festa di San Martino”, the “Festa della Sensa” and the “Regata Storica”.

    Architecture

    Since the city of Venice has been built over a very long time, the styles of the different palaces depend on the time in which the facade was made. The styles range from the early Romanic architecture to the latest Neoclassic style.

    • Romanic style: Sant’Alvise Church and the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello.
    • Gothic style: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Basilica.
    • Renaissance style: San Zaccaria Church.
    • Barocco style: Santa Maria della Salute Basilica.
    • Neoclassic style: San Simeon Church
    • The fabulous Saint Mark’s Basilica has been strongly influenced by Byzantine style, to which were added elements of the Romanic and the Gothic style.
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    Lifestyle

    In some ways, the Venetian lifestyle has not changed much from how it was at the time of the Serenissima.

    Venetians are still moving by foot most of the time, preserving the sense of community between Venetians, making it easy to see and greet each other while on errands, and maybe stopping for a quick “cichetto” or a glass of wine in the closest bacaro, or wine bar.

    When Venetians have a bit of time on their hands, the quickest and easiest way to have some space and liberty is taking their motor boat and enjoying a lovely day in the lagoon, or going to a rowing club to do some Venetian rowing and glide over the shallow waters. Both possibilities reinforce the natural tie between the Venetian citizens and the Venetian lagoon, as it has been for thousands of years.

    What is Venice famous for?

    Famous Landmarks and Icons

    For being such a small city, the number of landmarks and iconic elements of Venice known worldwide is impressive. Let’s just name a few:

    • Saint Mark’s Basilica
    • Doge Palace
    • Bridge of Sighs
    • Rialto Bridge
    • Grand Canal
    • Accademia bridge
    • Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
    • Burano’s colorful houses
    • Murano Glass
    • Winged Lion
    • Gondolas
    • Venetian Masks

    This list does not include many objects, words, and concepts that were born in Venice and you might be using every day…

    Famous Venetian words that you regularly use.

    Let’s start with “ciao.” “Ciao,” one of the most known Italian words and even used in many other languages, has Venetian origins. At the time of the Serenissima, used in the form “s-ciavo,” it was a formal greeting used by the speaker to show a volunteer subduing.

    “Ghetto” is a Venetian word too, and it indicated an area of Venice in which Jewish people were confined. Since that first “ghetto,” other cities in Europe adopted this solution and used the Venetian word to indicate it.

    “Ballot Box” is a Venetian word, and “great electors” (of the electoral college) is a Venetian concept. When the government had to elect a new Doge, a very complex system based on choice and a degree of randomness would take place. The randomness in the selection of the “great electors” was ensured by the use of anonymous golden and silver balls, called “ballotte.” The great electors that had been nominated would then elect the new Doge.

    To “be in the red” is a Venetian expression. The Ghetto was the place of birth of the first pawn shop. This pawn shop, called “Banco Rosso,” gave out red receipts to those who were bringing their belongings in exchange for money. Since then, a person who had no money turned to the “Banco Rosso” and was said to “be in the red.”

    Famous Venetians creations that you didn't know were invented in Venice

    Some Venetian inventions, such as cultivating the shallow lagoon for salt and the production of transparent glass, are very well known and are at the core of the Venetian trading success all across the Mediterranean areas.

    However, some inventions are less known but still regularly used today.

    The Serenissima invented the first “Arsenale,” or shipyard, working on an assembly-line basis, which made it possible for Venetians to build a whole warship in one single day.

    The Serenissima created the Banco di Giro, a public bank which used the double-entry bookings and made it possible for traders to pay without actual use of physical money. The Banco di Giro is the first example of a National Bank.

    The Venetian Government invented copyright. Every person with a good idea, design or product could apply and copyright their invention. Copyright gave protection for 10 years and could be renewed.

    Venice has long summers and a lot of canals that reflect the intense sunlight in every direction. This made Venice the perfect birthplace for the first pair of sunglasses ever. Sunglasses were designed and produced in Murano for wealthy Venetian families, and have been proven even conclusively to protect from UV rays!

    As we mentioned before, Venice is the place of birth of the first pawn shop.

    Venice created the first coffee houses, dedicated to the joy of coffee and chocolate.

    We admit we are curious to know if there are other inventions we don’t know about that are still part of our everyday’s life!

    Famous Venetian food and drinks

    Bellini! Carpaccio! Spritz! Baccalà!

    Nope, it’s not what we had for dinner at our last party. These are just a few of the most known Venetian creations when it comes to food and drinks.

    The Bellini and the Carpaccio have been invented by Giuseppe Cipriani in 1948 and 1950 for the renown Harry’s Bar in Venice. The notorious drink was named “Bellini” after its color, which reminded Cipriani of a shade of color often used by the famous painter Giovanni Bellini in its masterpieces. Similarly, the thin slices of raw beef were named “Carpaccio” because the intense red color of the meat reminded Cipriani of the saturated colors used by the great painter Vittore Carpaccio.

    The Venetian cocktail Spritz was born in Venice in the 1920s and became the “Venetian” cocktail by definition in the ’70s. Thanks to marketing and advertising, Spritz popularity has dramatically increased since 2008, and it became an official IBA cocktail in 2011.

    Baccalà, cod served in a creamy form, is a Venetian invention and an authentic institution in the Venetian culinary tradition since several centuries.

    For coffee and chocolate lovers, it is worth mentioning that Venice did not invent coffee, but Venice was the first city to import coffee and to spread its use to the western world. To thoroughly enjoy coffee, Venice was the first city to invent dedicated coffee houses which were specialized in the making of coffee and chocolate drinks.

    Famous Arts and Crafts

    Over the centuries, Venice has developed and refined several arts and crafts such as mask making, book-binding and the creation of beautiful fabrics. It is, however, two crafts in particular that brought an incredible prestige to the city: the Murano Glass and the Burano Lace.

    Murano glass creations became more and more popular throughout Europe thanks to the fantastic works by exceptionally gifted Murano glass masters, capable of creating works of beauty and complexity that were unrivaled anywhere else.

    The outstanding Burano Lace and the incredible amount of time needed for the making of each piece made the Merletto incredibly popular amongst the wealthiest royal families of Europe. Born as a fisherman island in the lagoon of Venice, Burano became the European heart for high fashion laces.

    Famous Venetians

    Over the centuries, many people have lived in Venice. Some Venetians, thanks to their arts, intelligence or deeds have become icons and have given pride to the city.

    Worldwide, the most known Venetians are the famous traveler and trader Marco Polo, the daring lover Giacomo Casanova, and the great musician Giuseppe Verdi. Many other Venetians have reached fame, such as: the first woman ever to graduate from University, the outstanding Elena Lucrezia Cornaro, the famous painters Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco), Tiziano Vecellio, Verone (Paolo Caliari), Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), Gianbattista Tiepolo, Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) and Francesco Guardi; the famous comedy writer Carlo Goldoni, the patriots Daniele Manin and Niccolò Tommaseo. But this is not all, Venice was also home of the world renown editor and humanist Paolo Manuzio who invented punctuation and italic, the precursors of feminism and defendant of women rights and values Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinelli. Finally, the legendary sculptor Antonio Canova, the architects Baldassare Longhena, Andrea Palladio and Antonio da Ponte, and the famous glass master Angelo Barovier who invented transparent glass were all from Venice.

    In case you’re wondering, yes, this is just a short list!

    Visiting Venice

    As you are reading this article, we imagine you might be coming to Venice in the future. To make it easy for you to have a quality experience of the city while making sure that you are having the greatest impact possible, we’ve been crafting many tools and information. You’ll find them all below. Enjoy!

    I'm visiting Venice. Why should I follow your recommendations?

    The way you visit Venice has an impact both on the quality of your experience and on Venice itself.  Chilling, exploring, shopping, eating and drinking where the locals do, can make a huge impact both on the memories you bring home and on the local economy and community.

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