The birth of Venice

History and legend: the birth of Venice

Although her early days are obscure and no documents survive, Venice invented her own birth: 25th March 421. She also invented St. Mark’s arrival in Aquileia, in order to portray as already Christian the city that would later house his relics, after the translation in 828.
Thus both the city’s date of birth and the saint’s preference for it are legendary; the authenticity of the relics is equally doubtful. Legend, however, is simply what people wish had really happened in history. The truth is only that which we believe to be true by the official version, Venice via her legendary foundation, is convinced of her exceptional destiny. It is no coincidence that the date is in March, the month of procreation and, indeed, Venice (like many other European states) in her official documents, placed the beginning of the calendar year in March. While Rome was born soaked in fratricidal blood, Venice emerged Christian from the waters, a miracle within the miracle of creation. The virgin city became the city of the Virgin. It is impossible, when dealing with Venice, to distinguish clearly between fact and fiction, to put on one side all so-called reality and sweep away that which today appears unacceptable.

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On the other hand, solid reality can be born out of myth. The remains of St. Mark are mythical, yet the basilica named after him was founded on belief in their authenticity. Nobody nowadays would seriously propose a divine predestination of Venice, yet this particular claim was put forward continuously throughout her history. Venice projects herself heavenward, towards the City of God prophesied by St. Augustine, toward the Celestial Jerusalem. This presumption is explicit in the paintings commissioned by the government for the Palazzo Ducale. Venice emerges from the waters already whole, exemplary. Venice, an exceptional city with an exceptional destiny, invented for herself exceptional origins. Venice could not have been born in a void, given those traits of Venetiana Libertas (Venetian Liberty) which both history and chronicle would later exaggerate enormously. By affirming that she has been independent from birth, and subject to no-one, Venice was able to reject the insidious claims of both the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. It is one thing to be born, as the Venetians would have it, totally new; it is an altogether different thing to admit that one’s birth was conditioned by others and took place within a historical context. Venetian chroniclers and historians reiterated that Venice was born in an area over which nobody had previously exercised domination. Venice, according to them, was born in the mistress of previously free waters, born, already, a city-state.

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