Albert J. Ammerman

Rethinking the Origins of Venice

The opening chapter of Venetian history has long been its most obscure one. Previously, there was not enough firsthand evidence available to make much headway on the problem. Now archaeology is throwing new light on what happened in the period from the 4th century A.D. through the 8th century A.D. The paper begins by reviewing three traditions of scholarship and how each of them approaches the question. For those in classical studies, it is seen as a curious coda: unlike the other major medieval cities of Italy, Venice appears to have had no Roman roots. It is not mentioned by name in any of the classical sources. For those in medieval studies, on the other hand, it is a necessary prelude — one that is laden with frustration, however. Before the 10th century, there are almost no documents in the archive to work on. For those who study the chronicles written by much later Venetians in an attempt to reconstruct the origins of their city, starting with John the Deacon in the 11th century, the material is primarily of cultural and historiographical interest. What actually happened in the early period is not the main issue. Before 1985, Venice was the only great historical city in Europe with no urban archaeology. Now this has all changed. The second half of the paper looks at four themes that are emerging as a result of the recent fieldwork. One is the essential continuity of habitation in the lagoon from Roman times onwards. In other words, life did not start from a clean slate in the lagoon as Venetian tradition would have it. A second theme involves the dispersed character of early settlement patterns in the lagoon. In short, Venice may have been more of a place broadly inhabited by a local society than anything one might regard as a city. The third theme concerns the nature of the Byzantine connection as it is reflect by what is recovered from the archaeological sites. The fourth theme is the considerable effort that was dedicated to taming and transforming the environmental setting of early sites in the lagoon — the work that, over time, laid the foundations for the eventual rise of the city.


Patricia Fortini Brown

Born Free and Christian: The Origins of Venice According to the Chronicle Tradition

By the 11th century Venice had become a city, but one whose origins were shrouded in a misty — and mythic — past. Lacking a Livy or a Tacitus, the city’s chroniclers were forced to invent an urban history from fragments of myth and legend. Its builders, by contrast, constructed a past through the employment of allusive architecture and sculpture. Both approaches aimed to affirm the myth that Venice had been born free and Christian. This paper will explore the development of three major components of the myth and the emergence of a civic chronology in the period between the 11th and 14th centuries. The first narrative strand is the Trojan ancestry of the Venetians (with Antenor reaching Venice before the Trojans even find their way to Rome in some versions of this legend). The second strand is the legend of Saint Mark’s visit to the Lagoon and the foretelling of his eventual return to Venice (the praedestinatio), which was fulfilled with the arrival of his bones from Alexandria eight centuries later (the translatio). The third strand is the foundation of Venice, as a city, by three consuls from Padua (a Roman town) at noon on the day of the Annunciation (March 25) in A.D. 421. While not all these elements are actually present in the earliest extant chronicle, written by John the Deacon in the 11th century, it is possible to trace their elaboration in a series of subsequent chronicles. These include the Chronicon Altinate and the Chronicon Gradense (12th century), Martino da Canal’s Estoires de Venise (13th century) and the chronicles of Jacopo Dondi and Doge Andrea Dandolo (14th century). As an expression of the Venetian sense of the past, the legends hold a central place in the self-definition of the Venetian Republic and what has come to be called the Myth of Venice.


Robert Cecchi

New Evidence on the Foundations of the Basilica of San Marco

One of the monuments of major importance for the study of early Venice is, of course, the Basilica of San Marco. In the literature of the last fifty years, many different hypotheses have been put forward for the size and the form of the first church on the site. The paper presents the results of recent work on the foundations of the Basilica, which help to resolve this basic question. According to tradition, two merchants removed the bones of the Evangelist from a church in Alexandria and brought them back to Venice in A.D. 828. In his will, Doge Giustiniano Parteciaco asked his wife to build the first Basilica of San Marco and it was consecrated in 832. Subsequently, under Doge Domenico Contarini, the Basilica was rebuilt in the second half of the 11th century A.D. At issue is the relative importance of the earlier and later phases of the Basilica’s construction. The new evidence comes from an extensive series of cores made down through the foundations of the church by the Procuratoria di San Marco in 1991 and 1992. In all, there is now the possibility to examine more than 300 linear meters of coring in the case of the Basilica’s foundations. Radiocarbon dates done at Oxford University on wooden poles and planks that belong to the original foundations give dates that are much older than the 11th century A.D. The type of cement used for the foundations — cocciopesto — turns out to be an early one as well. Thus, both lines of evidence indicate that a large church stood on the site in the 9th century A.D. — that is, at a time when Venice was still within the byzantine sphere of influence.


Maurizia De Min

New Archaeological Evidence from the Sites of Torcello and San Francesco del Deserto in the Northern Lagoon

The paper presents the results of the recent excavations carried out on two islands in the northern part of the Venetian Lagoon, San Francesco del Deserto and Torcello. In both cases, the investigation was undertaken as part of the work on the restoration of a monument of architectural interest. On San Francesco del Deserto (the site of a Franciscan monastery since the 13th century A.D.), the earliest pottery comes from a redeposited context and involves wave-rolled sherds that date to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. The excavations next to the church have also yielded coins, fragments of polychrome painted wall plaster and a wooden drain pipe all dating to the 4th century A.D. On the north side of the island, there are also the remains of a series of waterside structures (made of wooden poles and planks) which were built in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. Found in association with them are numerous fragments of amphorae, including those imported from the eastern Mediterranean. In the case of Torcello, an inscription found during the course of restoration work at the turn of the last century indicates that the bishop at Altinum (a Roman town on the mainland just behind the Lagoon) relocated his seat to the new Basilica established there in A.D. 639. The earliest architectural remains are those recovered from the excavations beneath the fourth nave of the Basilica. They take the form of a narrow walkway which dates to the 2nd century A.D.; it was laid down directly on the natural land surface of a small marsh island. Below the portico at the west end of the Basilica, the walls of a small rectangular room built in the 5th century A.D. have been recovered. On the north side of the basilica, there are the remains of a large hearth and a road, which both date to the 6th century A.D. The work beneath the fourth nave has brought to light several brick walls that may relate to the construction of the first Basilica. The excavations at Torcello now also reveal that the foundations of the first baptistery date to around A.D. 700.


Rupert Housley

Botanical Study of the Pollen and Other Plant Remains from Early Archaeological Sites in Venice

This paper explores the rich potential of the botanical record from Venice. Early archaeological sites in the city and in the surrounding lagoon provide suitable conditions for the preservation of a wide range of botanical remains, including pollen and spores, seeds and fruits, leaves, stems and roots, and wood. The permanent waterlogging associated with the wet conditions inhibit the bacterial decay of these delicate plant remains, the study of which may be very illuminating of past conditions. For example, the study of pollen grains from waterlogged layers close to early archaeological sites provides information on the physical environment of the site as well as telling us what sort of vegetation was growing nearby. By investigating a succession of such layers, it is possible to learn how the environment changed over time as people settled on islands in the lagoon and built their dwellings.

Botanical remains are informative in other ways. Examining the wood from a site will often show how the early inhabitants carefully selected different types of timber for particular purposes, depending on what properties were required. For example, identification of the timber from a waterfront construction uncovered in the excavation on the north side of the island of San Francesco del Deserto in 1998 showed that the upright poles were overwhelmingly of alder whereas the choice of wood for the horizontal planking was elm or oak. Since all three species stand up well to repeated wetting and drying, it is clear the builders understood their choice of building materials.

Seeds can tell us what kinds of foods the early Venetians consumed. Waterlogged deposits at Torcello have been especially informative with a good range of recorded species including cereals, nuts, fruits and even a possible medicinal plant.


Jennifer Mass

Early Glass in the Venetian Lagoon

While the technological and artistic achievements of Renaissance Venetian glassmakers are internationally renowned, much less is know about glass in Venice during earlier times. Recent archaeological excavations at the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, as well as on the island of San Francesco del Deserto, have led to the recovery of numerous glass finds that date to late antiquity. Previously, the best evidence for early glass in the Venetian Lagoon came from the glass furnace (dating to the 8th or 9th centuries A.D.) excavated on Torcello in the early 1960s. The new material from the site now provides good evidence for the period from the 4th century A.D. through the 7th century A.D. The finds are predominantly Byzantine ecclesiastical forms, which include bases of footed cups, vessel fragments with decorative or functional handles and shards of hanging oil lamps. Of special interest are several pieces of semicircular window glass. The chemistry of the glasses has been studied by means of electron probe microanalysis. It reveals that the glasses were prepared from natron, the mineral source of soda that was used in making Roman glass. The transition to a plant ash source of soda, the alkali source employed by Renaissance glassmakers in Venice, did not occur until much later in the medieval period. The elevated iron and manganese contents of the Byzantine glasses from Torcello (when compared to Roman imperial glasses) indicate that a lower quality glassmaking sand was used in their production. Events such as the Gothic Wars and the Lombard invasion of northern Italy may have disrupted the long-distance trade networks that were needed to obtain sand of high quality. The limited range of glass colors at Torcello as well as the notable absence of colors produced by manipulating the oxidation states of iron ions in the glasses suggests a decline in furnace atmosphere control following the Roman period. The impure sand available for glassmaking during the Byzantine period, together with a loss of furnace atmosphere control, may well have provided the impetus for Venice’s two major glassmaking innovations: the use of quartz pebbles as a source of silica and the use of purified plant ashes as a source of alkali.


Charles E. McClennen

Navigating Environments of Coastal Change in the Venetian Lagoon

To understand fully the archaeological remains incorporated in the top few meters of the sediments of the Venetian Lagoon, researchers need to be aware of regional subsidence. The subsidence is caused in part by tectonic thrusting of the Apennines from the south, and of the Alps from the north, out over the Po River plain. This plain is the upper surface of a sedimentary basin holding a layer of fluvial deposits as much as one to two kilometers thick. Dewatering of these river sands and floodplain deposits adds significantly to the subsidence rates in Venice. Cores and sub-bottom seismic reflection surveys reveal the sedimentary framework of the dominantly silty lagoon sediments that have generally kept up with the rates of subsidence and global sea-level rise over the last five thousand years, since the advancing Adriatic Sea last transgressed the Venice region. Within the lagoon there are three predominant environments of deposition: mudflats, salt marshes and tidal channels. Each has distinct sedimentary features and their distribution within the lagoon has shifted over time due to changing patterns of sedimentary erosion, transport and deposition. AMS dates now make it possible to estimate the rates of channel meandering and inlet migration or stepwise relocation. These primary processes by which channel scouring reworks prior deposits, to a depth of 5 to 20 meters, can create complex age relationships for deposits containing archaeological material. Simple patterns of increasing age with depth into the sediments holds true only for those sections of the lagoon which have not been reworked by migrating channels. In addition to these prevailing coastal patterns, human intervention has created numerous modifications to the sedimentary environment. Soil erosion resulting from agricultural activities in the adjacent drainage basins has brought increased supplies of carbonate rich sediments to the lagoon, so much so that river diversions were constructed to redirect the flow of water and excess sediment load around the lagoon and directly into the Adriatic Sea. Jetties at the tidal inlets, channel dredging, dredge spoil dumping, and port facilities development have each had impacts on the circulation, ecology, hydraulics and sedimentation within the lagoon. The long history of unintended consequences of these designed improvements demonstrates both the complexity and danger of manipulating such coastal regions. Knowledge of these natural processes and human interventions can help researchers understand the environmental context of the nearly two-millennia long archaeological record in the lagoon as well as the increasing amplitude, frequency and destruction caused by floods experienced during acqua alta events.


Juergen Schulz

A Historian of Architecture Looks at Venice

Modern Venice stands on an archipelago of low-lying islands that is mostly man-made. Namely, its many straight shore lines cannot have been created by nature. At least one scholar has hence argued that the city is a reflection of a system of centuriated fields laid down by the Romans. However, modern probing of the subsoil and archaeology shows that the site of Venice already had a lagoonal setting in the days of the Greeks and Romans. The straight lines must have been made either by digging drainage ditches or by filling. These are techniques for creating buildable soil in fluvial, lacustrine or lagoonal environments that are age-old; they were invented many times over by various civilizations in the past (from China to Miami Beach). Moreover, they are techniques that had been in use for centuries in the the lagoons and river deltas at the head of the Adriatic, as demonstrated by Etruscan Spina and Venetic Este. Venice was but the youngest member of this family. Techniques one encounters there for founding buildings on such improvised land — namely on piles and boards — are age-old too. Yet, the early island towns on the Adriatic are gone, whereas Venice still survives. One after another, the pre-Roman and Roman settlements were overcome by geomorphological changes that severed them from ready access to the life-giving sea, whereas the Venetians learned to move the beds of the rivers that emptied into their own lagoon and so to prevent the silting that had sealed the viability of older towns. In the end, not only was the historical city man-made, but also its survival.


Michela Sediari

Rereading the Ancient Sources on Venice

The paper reviews what the literary sources dating from classical times through the 8th century A.D. have to say about the situation in the Venetian Lagoon. To begin with, the ancient sources pertaining to the area near Venice are limited in number. While most of the passages were already known in the 18th century and have been the subject of frequent discussion since that time, they have not been gathered together as a corpus before in a convenient form for the student of Venice. It is time to do so. Thus, the aim of the paper is to bring the sources together and reread them as a group in light of the new evidence from archaeology. Particular attention is paid to what the sources tell us about topography. In this regard, it is fair to say that the passages seldom go beyond the first or more general level of description. With only a few exceptions, they refer simply to a wide area, the whole system of lagoons at the head of the Adriatic, and not to any one specific place. The classical sources that are most informative are those by Strabo, Livy, Vitruvius and Pliny. In addition, there are two itineraries from the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. that outline the distances between Roman towns. What Vergil and Martial have to offer are visions that are poetic and metaphorical in character. It is striking how few place names — other than the cities and the major rivers on the mainland of the large imperial province known as Venetia et Histria (Regio X of Italy as reorganized by Augustus) — are mentioned in the sources. There is only the city of Altinum, two local rivers (Meduacus Maior and Minor), two places that functioned as ports (Brundulum and Portus Edronis), the Septem Maria and a few artificial canals in the region. The only toponym that is regularly mentioned over the course of four centuries is Septem Maria, the internal waterway of "seven seas," which posed a challenge to navigation in Roman times. Even in the 6th century, the two sources that are available, Cassiodorus and Procopius, do not provide more in the way of topographical detail. The first time that Venice is mentioned specifically as a town is by Paul the Deacon at the end of the 8th century.