In research for a centre: the founding of the City of Venice

Venetia around 840 AD, detail

“The King Pepin told the Venetians “You are under my reach and my provision as you are in my country and in my domain”. The Venetians answered him “We want to be subjects of the [East] Roman Emperor and not of you!””

(Consatntine VII Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, Chapter 28


The Venetian Republic is an example of continuity of centrality: for more than thousand years Venice had been a state, and for 800 a sovereign state. Its corpus rei publicae (body politic) is well-known and studied. What interests us is the political “heart of the city” and of the Republic: the area around the Piazza San Marco. We show that the longevity of the Venetian Republic was due, amongst other things, to a fixed and stable established centre politic. In this article we find about the dynamics in which the City of Venice, as a central place of the Venetia, was born. We map this spatial configuration in three steps: the situation in the year 600 AD, then in 720 AD, and a last one in 840 AD. In a second article we study the Venetian Republic between the years 1000 and 1797, centred around San Marco.

Eldest Daughter of the Empire, the founding of a central place of Venetia

During high Roman times the region was inhabited by the Veneti/Venetoi: an Italic people related to Latins and maybe originated in Asia Minor. The Tabula Peutengeriana, a late IVth or early Vth-Century representation, shows Aquileia as the most important city of the region, Altino as a secondary city, and Concordia Sagittaria an important town. After Emperor Theodosius, this Regio X Venetia et Histria became a part of the Western Roman half of the Empire, governed by the Imperial court from Ravenna. This was to change with the collapse of the Imperial authority in the West.

1- Venetia before the Venetian Republic: the beginnings of the Lagoon centrality

In the 450s the Lagoon was a refuge for the many fleeing the horrors of the “Dark Ages” and the collapse of the Imperial rule in the West. In 548 AD the Imperial army recovered many parts of Italy and reincorporated it into the [East] Roman Empire, then governed by Justinian and his coimperatrix Theodora. Venetia becomes again a part of the Empire: in 584 AD the region is organised into an exarchate centred in Ravenna[1] and established to resist the Lombard invasion of the Italian provinces. Venetia is an Imperial district in which the Lagoon communities grew with the arrival of many, fleeing the conflicts between the Empire and the invading Lombards. Every community (usually an isle[2]) elected its own tribune, and they all were subject to the exarch.

Venetia, around the year 600 AD

Our map shows the situation around the year 600: The Lagoon communities were beginning to be more and more prosperous with the important number of refugees arriving from the hinterland. After the fall of Aquileia to the Lombards its people moved to the isle of Grado (under Imperial protection), where they founded a “Nova Aquileia” and a new patriarchate. People of Concordia Sagittaria fled to Bibione and to different communes of the Lagoon. Oderzo, then seat of the Imperial district of Venetia, was hardly able to resist the Lombard incursions. By the year 600 AD, Padova was about to fall in their hands. Later and with the fall of both, people of Oderzo fled to Melidissa (renamed Heraclia, honouring Emperor Heraclius); and those of Padova and Altino settled in Torcello, inside the Lagoon and where the bishop of [destroyed and deserted] Altino built his new episcopal seat.

2- The birth of a central power, and the itinerant central place

Venetia, around the year 720 AD

The Venetian State, as a distinct political entity, came to existence around 697 AD, during the reign of Justinian II, [East] Roman Emperor and the last of the House of Heraclius. After Oderzo had fallen to the Lombards, many patricians took refuge in Heraclia (Eraclea), now seat of the [East] Roman government. The map shows this “withdrawal” of the Venetian communities to the littoral, where they could be safe from “Barbarian” raids and where they could be in direct contact with Constantinople and the exarchate in Ravenna. Later, Heraclian tribunes, along with those of other Lagoon communities, elected a representant, Paulicius Anafestus (Paulo Anafesto), to speak for them, militarily and politically, before the Emperor in Constantinople: thus new political entity, the “Duchy of Venetia” (later known as the Dogado), came to be recognised by the [East] Roman Empire. By 720, a revolt broke out against the iconoclasm of the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian. The Lagoon tribunes elected a new leader, Ursus Hypatus (Orso Ipato), now called dux Venetiae, or doge in Venetian dialect, as their chief magistrate.

3- The birth of the City of the Venetians, a terraferma in the water

The Venetia around the year 840 AD

Later and under the rule of the Theodatus Hypatus (or Teodato son of Orso Ipato, doge 744-755, and ancestor of the Dandolo-Ipato famous Venetian clan) the polity’s seat moved from Eraclea to Malamocco, in today’s Lido, as Eraclea was considered too close to the terraferma. But after Frankish armies had laid siege to Malamocco, the doge Angelo Partecipazio moved the ducal residence to inside the Lagoon and established his base by the Rivoalto (Rialto) island, in what would become the City of Venice. The City was born, stricto sensu, as a central place for the Venetian Duchy: it was chosen for its place, being inside the Lagoon, far from both land and sea. Now the new political power had to establish itself, militarily and symbolically, in the newly Civitas Venetiarum, that is, “City of the Venetians”. She was born the “farthest possible” from the Frankish Empire, and the closest possible to the [East] Roman Empire in Constantinople.

…And the birth of a central relic

This Duchy, under East Roman suzerainty, was still under the protection of Saint Theodore of Amasea, a military “Eastern” saint. But it would soon acquire a new one[3]. In 828 AD some Venetian soldiers and merchants stole the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria and buried it in their newly-established centre, in what would become the Saint Mark’s Basilica, the most important building of the Republic. Venice now had a patron saint who was a apostle: a peer to Saint Peter the Apostle of Rome and his brother, Saint Andrew, Apostle of Constantinople. The space around Saint Mark’s relics becomes an effective military post and an effective administrative centre (around the Doge’s court), and a symbolic centre (around Saint Mark’s relics).

Translation of the relics of Saint Mark, on the façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica, XIIIth Century. Source: Wikimedia.

We can see that the established new centre was literally a central place of assembly for the people of Venetia : the City of Venice is younger than her polity. This centre would last till the abolition of the Republic in 1797. We can ask the question: what made the City of Venice a terraferma, a stable land, in that fluctuated Lagoon and troubled time? The Venetians themselves built their isles and their human effort was very important in edifying a state “ex nihilo” after fleeing the hinterland. But another factor was very important: the possession of very precious relics, that is, Saint Mark’s alleged body.

The relics and Lion of Saint Mark, the confirmation of the centre

The newly-built centre needed its saint and its founding myth: the Venetians found it in the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist. They had to find their founding myth in a Biblical figure: the author of the Second Gospel and the companion of Saint Peter (and, some would say, the writer of Saint Peter’s narration of Jesus’ life).

Local Christian legends speak about Saint Mark the Evangelist preaching in the Lagoon, while going to Rome. He would have a vision in the Rivoalto (Rialto): an angel told him: “Pax tibi Marce, Evangelista meus. Hic resquiescet corpus tuum” (“Peace be with you, Mark, my Evangelist, thy body shall rest here”). The story is most probably apocryphal, but it could have been very important to justify the stealing of Sant Mark’s relics then the announced independence of the Venetian Republic vis-a-vis Rome and Constantinople, vis-a-vis these “God and Caesar”.

An ancient Christian tradition considers the Lion of the Tetramorph as the symbol of and of the Bible of Saint Mark. The Gospel according to Mark begins by this account (Mark 1: 2-3):

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

The “crying voice” is considered to be a roaring lion. Thus the Lion of the Tetramorph has become the symbol of Saint Mark. Thus his Lion has become the symbol of the Venetian Republic and of the City of Venice: the Lion is the ultimate mark of the sovereign presence of the Serenissima, in Venice and throughout its maritime possessions. Saint Mark, by his Lion, has become the symbol of the City, the Republic, and their sovereignty.

The representation of the Lion of Saint Mark as sovereignty and existence of the Venetian Republic is clear on the façade of te Ducal Palace: the Doge is kneeling beofre the Lion, he is but a servant of the Republic, whose coprus rei publicae follows the Roman example: the Republic is itself sovereign, and its chief magistrate (the Doge) is the representant of the Republic’s sovereignty, but he has none of his own.

The Doge kneeling before the Lion of Saint Mark, Porta della Carta, Ducal Palace, Venice. Source: Didier Descouens, Wikipedia.

The centre confirmed by the relics

As we saw in our maps, after almost hundred and forty years of “itinerant” centre, the Venetians built their capital city in the Rivoalto (Rialto) isle. Numerous factors participated in “confirming” the centre here: it did not move again till the end of the Republic in 1797.

Venice was found “between land and sea”, on a “moving” unstable land, that was stabilised technically by the great know-how of the Venetians, and politically by edifying great institutions, that time very different from the rest of the Western European states (and more similar to the [East] Roman model). But on the founding, like many other polities, lies the relics of Saint Mark: an Evangelist and disciple whose existence in the City could make her stand Rome and Constantinople. Saint Peter may have been the rock for Rome, while Venice’s terraferma is Saint Mark.

Many representations show this founding “on Saint Mark”. But here, to conclude, we show one from te time towards the end of the Republic: a map of the Venetian Lagoon in 1780. Venice is represented as a sovereign woman, wearing the corno ducale, and sitting on a half ship-half land (symbol of the Republic being between land and sea). But, most importantly, Venice is sitting on the Lion, Saint Mark’s: the Lion is what stabilises her where she is.

Detail from Lodovico Furlanetto’s map of the Venetian Lagoon (1780), made for the Venetian Senate. Source: BnF Gallica.

We can ere see an important pattern, existent in the founding of many political entities: the “confirmation” needs its relics, and sometimes an apocryphal story about them. The centre needs its mythology in order to root itself where it is. Our maps showed the changes in borders and political context, and how the location of the centre had, every time, to answer to these challenges.

After exploring the birth of the centre of the Venetian Republic, in the next article we explore that most serene centre of the Most Serene Republic: How, for almost thousand years, the sovereign Republic of Saint Mark kept her centre in the very same place, on the relics of her patron saint.

I mapped the birth of Venice based on the shoreline of today: but it was different. I will modify and improve the maps when I get more information, geographical and historical, about the conditions of the Venetia of that time. Please, if you read the article and have more information to refer me to, tell me and you will be thanked in the article. 


[1] Ravenna was the political centre and the capital city of the Western Roman Empire between c.400 and 476 AD. Then it became the capital of the Ostrogoth Kingdom before the [East] Roman reconquest.

[2] The sealine of that time was different: most communities of the today Venetian metropolitan region were isles or separated from the mainland by swamps.

[3] The Venetian Republic never abolished the cult of Saint Theodore (patron saint of the human struggle against swamps). But he was relegated to a second rank. Venetians did not recognise between the two military Theodores: Theodore Tyro and Theodore Stratelates. The maritime entry to Venice is guarded by Saints Mark and Theodore.

Cite this blog post
Jack Keilo ( Jacques Keilo ) (2018, February 8). In research for a centre: the founding of the City of Venice. Centrici. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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2 Responses

  1. 09/10/2023

    […] 53. I Longobardi furono i principali responsabili della creazione anche di un’altra frontiera culturale, questa volta con i Bizantini, all’estremità meridionale del Friuli Storico. Rappresentando questo un altro capitolo di storia alquanto complesso ed essendo sostanzialmente separato da quello che qui vi abbiamo raccontato, mi limito a dire che la sua importanza risiede nel fatto che, col subentrare della potenza marittima veneziana e la nascita del Ducato di Venezia (il Dogado, embrione della futura Repubblica) attorno al 700, le località marittime e lagunari interessate si ritrovarono ad avere come punto di riferimento molto più Venezia che non l’entroterra friulano; di questo si ritrova evidenza ancor’oggi nei vari dialetti veneti locali, come il gradese e il maranese.     […]

  2. 21/10/2023

    […] Sito “Hypotheses”, pagina “In research for a centre: the founding of the City of Venice”: […]

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