had its economic, religious, and organizational distinctives because it governed islands whose population originated in a specific part of the Veneto. By 726 the Iconoclastic movement—a religious phenomenon demanding the destruction of holy images—reached the Byzantine outposts in Italy. Although the rest of the Eastern Empire was loyal to the Orthodox Church, these Italian communities were bound to Rome. Prompted by the pope, they briefly asserted independence from Byzantium, only to think better of it later—except Venice. The Venetians elected Orso Ipato as doge (leader) in 727, the first head of a polity that would last almost 1,100 years, the most enduring republic in history. When Orso’s son Teodato succeeded him in 742, the seat of government was moved to Malamocco on the Lido, and Venice was recognized as an independent city within the Byzantine Empire.

In 755 the pope urged the Frankish king Pepin the Short to invade Italy, ending Lombard rule; they were finally defeated in 773 by his successor Charlemagne. Charlemagne’s son Pepin II sent a force against the islands of the lagoon in 810. It overran Chioggia and Pallestrina, the southernmost littoral island, before turning on Malamocco. Although the Franks were repelled with heavy losses, the confederation moved its capital to islands near the center of the lagoon that were protected from naval attack by sandbars. Formed by sediment from the Brenta River (the Grand Canal marks its former course), those islands were known as Rivo Alto or Ri’Alto (high bank). After the Franks withdrew, the capital remained there, and 828 saw the establishment of the city that has been known for eight centuries as Venice, with its famous Rialto bridge.

Venice was built on its unlikely clutch of islands by gradually reclaiming land from the lagoon or by forming new land behind seawalls and dikes, backfilled with soil brought by boat from the mainland. Timber—oak and pine for piles and larch for the boards—was cut in the northern Veneto forests and floated across the lagoon. Multiple rows of piles were driven into the hard clay substrata under the muddy islands. In this way the natural waterways between them were turned into defined canals, and new ones were formed by blocking the ends, excavating the waterway, forming a bed of sand-clay mixture and then flooding it. Typically, since space has always been at a premium, the buildings of Venice stand literally on the edge of the canals, creating the city’s unique appearance.

Platforms of larch boards were laid on the tops of piles, supporting foundation courses of water-resistant Istrian stone. The superstructure of the buildings was usually brick, sometimes stuccoed or (for greater prestige) faced with decorative marbles and architectural moldings. Each island had its campo (field), an open space too small to be dignified with piazza. The campo had a communal reservoir, fed with rainwater from the surrounding buildings, and (usually) a church, sometimes with a freestanding bell tower called a campanile. These open spaces were the center of community life, the location for markets, shops, and warehouses in the ground floors of the surrounding larger houses. The parts of the island remote from the campo were reached through unpaved streets and alleys. From the beginning of the twelfth century, narrow thoroughfares and the corners of canals and bridges were provided with street lighting—the first in any European city.

Venice was divided into siestieri, or sixths, one of which—the labyrinthine Santa Croce—was eventually merged with two others, Dorsoduro and San Polo, the city’s commercial core since the eleventh century. The others were Cannaregio, Castello, and San Marco, which has been the seat of political power since the age of La Serrenissima—the Serene Republic of Venice.

The glorious and sometimes bloody history of that republic is beyond our present scope. Suffice it to say that mostly through canny business skills and judicious conflicts, by the end of the first millennium a.d., Venice had secured the northern end of the Adriatic and soon after that established herself as a key maritime trade center, not only in the Mediterranean but also across the world to distant China. During the Crusades and after 1204, her territories were extended to the Aegean islands, Crete, southern Greece, and even part of Constantinople. Competition with other Italian seafaring states, especially Genoa, simply served to increase her commercial dominance, and in the fifteenth century she expanded