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Founding refugees: 568

When the Lombards invade Italy, in 568, one of the first cities in their path is Aquileia - a Christian town of long-standing importance, traditionally held to have been founded by St Mark. Many of its inhabitants, alarmed at the prospects of life under the rule of Germanic tribesmen, opt for the uncertain status of refugees. Fleeing southwards, some seek safety on a low-lying offshore island - probably occupied at the time only by a fishing community.

The island is Torcello. And the refugees, seen with the hindsight of history, are the founders of Venice.

Less than twenty years later, in about 584, those parts of the east Italian coast still in Byzantine hands are grouped together as the exarchate of Ravenna - a defensive arrangement against the Lombards. The islanders of Torcello, who have perhaps already spread to neighbouring islands in the Venetian lagoon, are included in the exarchate. But with the northern mainland in Lombard hands, and with a considerable distance separating them from the centre of Byzantine government at Ravenna, their survival is largely in their own hands. They become increasingly independent.

In 726 the Venetians for the first time elect their own doge (the equivalent of 'duke', from the Latin dux meaning 'leader').

Doges and diplomacy: 726-814

Orso, the first Venetian doge, comes to power specifically as an opponent of Byzantine rule over the islands of the lagoon. This first bid for independence fails. Byzantine officials continue to govern the islands until the fall of the exarchate of Ravenna in 751. The Venetians, now of necessity on their own though still legally subject to the Byzantine empire, develop skills as middlemen which eventually bring them great wealth and power.

When Pepin, the son of Charlemagne, campaigns in northeast Italy in 809, the Venetian doge makes an alliance with him - a move involving considerable risk, in that it is unlikely to please the Byzantine emperor.

Others might be crushed between the new Carolingian empire to the west and the ancient Byzantine empire in the east. But Venice successfully plays the giants off against each other and thrives. A treaty in 814 between the Franks and the Byzantines establishes that Venice is to remain independent of the Carolingian empire; but no special emphasis is laid on the existing obligation to Constantinople.

As part of both worlds, east and west, perfectly placed between the Mediterranean and the mountain passes up through the Alps into northern Europe, Venice is now poised to make her fortune from trade.

Rialto and St Mark's: 9th - 11th century

Early in the 9th century the government of the lagoon is transferred to two adjacent islands where the land is a little higher above water level, though in Venice the distinction is a fine one. To either side of the intervening waterway is a rivo alto ('high bank'), from the which the name Rialto derives. The Rialto bridge subsequently joins these two banks.

The growing town needs status. In the Christian Middle Ages status requires a distinguished patron saint and, if possible, the possession of his relics. St Mark, the patron saint of Aquileia (in effect the parent city), is the obvious candidate. In about 828 Venice comes of age. The city acquires, from Alexandria, some relics of St Mark.

Legend rapidly provides exciting details of how the bones were secured. It is said that two Venetian merchants stole them from the saint's shrine in Alexandria and then smuggled them out of Egypt in a barrel of pork - an unclean meat to Muslims and therefore unlikely to be inspected.

Whatever the actual means (theft of relics is common in the Middle Ages, but purchase is equally possible), the arrival of the bones is the occasion for the building of the first St Mark's in Venice. The church, rebuilt in the 11th century and subsequently enlarged and altered, has been ever since the proud centrepiece of the city.

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