REFUGEES ON THE LAGOON:
THE ORIGINS OF VENICE
No one forgets a first glimpse of Venice. Whether arriving by plane, boat, train, or car, there is that startling moment when one looks across the waves and finds what should not be there—stone towers, rich churches, and packed buildings rising up out of the sea. The extraordinary beauty of Venice only adds to its improbability. How does such a city exist? Who were the people who built it and why did they think it worth such unyielding efforts?
Of course, no one with options would willingly build a city on a group of marshy islands set in the middle of a brackish lagoon. Venice was a child of necessity, built by the survivors of an ancient world that was quickly passing away. They did not choose to construct a shimmering jewel in the sea and they could not have imagined that their refuge would one day serve as a tourist playground. They chose merely to live free, and found that to do so they had to make a home in the water. In those early years important elements of the Venetian character were being forged. The Venetians were a determined people: determined to resist the changes that swept Europe, determined to remain loyal to their state and to one another, determined to remain Catholics in communion with the pope in Rome, and determined to fight the sea itself to achieve those goals.
The earliest Venetians were Romans, citizens of an empire that had long ago brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to the Western world. Unfortunately for them, by the fifth century AD the peace was sporadic and the prosperity rapidly disappearing. The Roman economy had experienced a steep decline since the third century, when the empire was plagued by political corruption and civil war. The path to imperial power in those days was the military. Every Roman general entertained the idea that the next emperor might be found in his own shaving mirror. Emperors in the third century held on to power only so long as they kept their troops happy and watched their rivals closely.
As the empire crumbled from within, it was attacked from without. Waves of barbarian invasions swept across the western half of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, leaving devastation and suffering in their wake. Particularly hard hit were the Italian lands at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea (what is today the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions of Italy). The main thoroughfare between the eastern and western empire was a Roman road known as the Via Postumia, which crossed directly through this region. The cities along this Roman road were prosperous trading centers. Some, like Patavium and Aquileia, were among the wealthiest in the empire. But Rome could no longer defend them. It could not even defend itself. Where once carts laden with merchandise and legions of Roman soldiers had traveled, in the fifth century barbarian warriors rushed from prey to prey.
In happier days the Venetian lagoon just off the coast had been a haunt of fishermen and wharf workers, as well as an occasional vacation home of the well-to-do. It was one of a string of lagoons that stretched from Ravenna to Aquileia, each connected by Roman navigational channels. The lagoons were the offspring of the Alps. Each winter when the Alpine snow melts, the rivers of northern Italy swell with rushing waters bearing the rock and silt of their mountain passage. This debris makes its way down the mountains and across the plains until at last it empties into the Adriatic. Yet not all of it is swept away. Currents and tides in the Adriatic cause some of the sediment to form banks of sand and dirt parallel to the shore, called lidi. Water trapped behind these long, sandy islands forms shallow lagoons, where the water is naturally less agitated than the sea, making it an ideal harbor for vessels. Since water flows out at low tide through breaks in the lidi, there is more time for sediment to deposit in the lagoon, resulting in islands, bars, and canals through which the water drains. Left to its own devices, a lagoon like this eventually silts up completely, becoming part of the mainland. Indeed, this is what happened to most of the lagoons from the Roman era. The city of Ravenna, for example, where the western Roman fleet once docked, is now several miles from the sea. The largest of the region’s rivers, the Po, once had a delta that stretched from Ravenna to Altinum (Altino). Along that delta Romans navigated through canal-linked lagoons strung together like pearls.
In those days the few people who lived in the lagoons of the Adriatic were mostly fishermen, who kept temporary houses on a few islands. Since water depth in the lagoons was so variable, navigation was often by means of flat-bottomed boats that could glide over almost any submerged obstacle. On mainland Veneto, prosperous cities established wharves in the nearby lagoon where large vessels could anchor and unload their goods. But conditions did not encourage permanent residence. While the fish were plentiful, the water was brackish, the soil poor, and the mosquitoes ferocious.
The lagoon of Venice, which stretched from Chioggia to Grado, was well known to the inhabitants of the ancient Veneto region, and it was ultimately this familiarity that would lead to the city’s foundation. The Veneto people were industrious, and their main cities, such as Patavium, Altinum, Concordia, Tarvisium (Treviso), and the provincial capital, Aquileia, were crisscrossed by Roman roads bearing merchandise to the region’s markets and factories. Culturally, the Veneto was a melting pot, with a healthy mixture of native Veneti and Roman colonial cultures, seasoned liberally with Greek and Levantine elements. As a people between Constantinople in the East and Rome in the West, they were not only at home in a far-reaching cosmopolitan empire, they depended on it. That dependence was soon to be shattered. In AD 402 the first of the major barbarian invaders, the Goths, descended on the region. Full of fear and with no hope of resistance, the people of the cities along the Veneto’s roads fled to the safety of the nearby lagoon. Taking what they could carry and hiding the rest, they boarded their small vessels and rowed out to the inhospitable islands dotting the waterscape. From there they watched the smoke of their burning homes and prayed that the crisis would pass. It did not. The Goths under their chieftain Alaric pressed on to Rome itself, which they conquered and sacked in 410. The empire was not yet fallen, but the old world was dying—that much was plain. The Roman Empire that the barbarians joyfully dismembered was a Christian state, so it was natural for many Romans to see in the fall of the Eternal City the passing away of all earthly things.
When the Goths finally departed, the lagoon refugees returned to their ruined cities and began rebuilding. And yet, some must have remained on the islands. After all, during the months of exile, they had put considerable effort into building wooden houses on stilts, digging fishing holes, and learning the natural channels. For those with little to return to on the mainland, the lagoon offered some consolation. Most importantly, it offered safety. Although the Goths had gone for the moment, they remained a potent force in the western empire. Instability and invasion meant that armies, both Roman and barbarian, continued to march along the Roman roads, bringing more carnage and more flames. The citizens of Padua, Altino, and the other nearby towns therefore found themselves running for the shelter of the lagoons with some regularity in the first half of the fifth century. We can imagine that with each such flight more and more of them chose the safety of the water to the ever-present danger at home. These lagoon people—for so they had become—were experts on the channels, islands, and the flat-bottomed boats used to navigate through them. No Gothic commander would venture into that forbidding domain.
Because Venice would one day become the opulent capital of a maritime empire, it is not surprising that its citizens later developed a constellation of foundation stories. The earliest held that the Roman government in Padua sent three “consuls” to an island group known as Rivoalto, or “high bank.” It was here that a natural channel made its serpentine way through an archipelago of marshy islands, some of which were submerged during high tide. The high bank was probably an island at a bend in the channel that withstood the tides. Rivoalto is today’s Rialto, and the winding channel, the Grand Canal. The consuls were sent, we are told, to establish a trading post, which suggests that some settlers could be found in the area. It is said that the three officials founded the city of Venice there at Rialto on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 421.
Like many origin stories, this one offers dubious particulars. The earliest surviving versions of it are from the fourteenth century, and different medieval chronicles provide different names for the three consuls. Still, the tale may preserve a germ of truth. Based on subsequent events, it appears that the Rialtine islands located in the center of the lagoon were not much favored as places to settle. Instead, the first refugees preferred the higher, wooded islands on the lagoon’s periphery. But the combination of a deep channel and a high bank would lend itself to shipping, so there may well have been a trading post and a scattered village of sorts at Rialto in the fifth century. It would, in any case, have been quite small. One can still today get a feel for this embryonic Venice by taking the vaporetto (Venice’s water bus) on the short ride from Burano to Torcello. There, from the deck of the churning vessel, one can see the low, marshy islands of the lagoon, covered in grasses and populated by birds. It is a stunning reminder of just how improbable the city of Venice really is.
In 452 Attila the Hun, known to Roman Christians as the Scourge of God, besieged the once-proud city of Aquileia. Set at a major crossroads, Aquileia was a cosmopolitan and influential urban center. It boasted one of the oldest Christian communities in western Europe, second only to Rome. Indeed, its bishop bore the title Patriarch, something no other bishop in the West save the pope could claim. Though battered by the storms of previous invasions, Aquileia still managed to hold out against Attila and his powerful armies. According to the historian Jordanes, writing a century later, Attila launched his final attack when he noticed the storks that nested in the city picking up their young and flying away. Aquileia fell that day, and those citizens who could not escape were sold into slavery or put to the sword. The rest fled to the nearby island of Grado. Like Alaric before him, Attila was headed for Rome, but along the way the Scourge of God met the successor of St. Peter, Pope Leo I, who persuaded him to abandon his plan. Within the year Attila was dead—probably at the hand of his new, young wife—and the threat of the Huns died with him. Yet Aquileia had already been reduced to rubble, and though many of its citizens likely returned, the city would never again be more than a village. Even today it remains a sleepy town set in a broad landscape of ancient ruins. For most tourists it is simply one more quaint hamlet on the way to the beach resorts of Grado. Yet in the magnificent cathedral of Aquileia one can still experience the opulent sophistication of that lost city by simply looking downward to the stunning fourth-century mosaic floor.
Venetians long remembered the part that Attila the Hun played in the birth of their city. For the destruction of the provincial capital had driven refugees not only to Grado but also to islands and towns across the length of the Venetian lagoon. And although many people did return home, the population of the lagoon continued to rise with each new attack. Later Venetian chroniclers recorded that in 466 the people of the lagoon elected three tribunes to act as their government. In those days a tribune was a Roman official with primary responsibility over the local military, but also with governing authority answerable to the emperor in Rome. In truth, though, Rome was by then so unsafe that the emperors ruled from Ravenna, when they ruled at all. Precisely how this early Venetian government functioned is unclear. Because the lagoon dwellers were grouped into small island communities scattered across the region, there was a fair amount of discord and violence between them. Theoretically, the tribunes would have dealt with this problem. In practice, they appear to have participated in it. These were lawless, chaotic times with little for a Roman to cling to in the way of legitimate authority.
But cling the Venetians did. They were a tenacious people who refused to cooperate with the times. In the late third century the Roman Empire had been divided into two halves by the emperor Diocletian. The Veneto was situated in the western half, and thereby subject to the emperors in Rome. In 330 the first Christian emperor, Constantine I, founded a new capital for the eastern half of the empire, which came to be called Constantinople (modern Istanbul). In 476 the Gothic warlord Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor in the West. No one, Odoacer least of all, thought that this constituted the end of the Roman Empire. Instead, the Gothic leader claimed to rule Italy in the name of the emperor in Constantinople. Rather than start a fight, Emperor Zeno in the East obligingly appointed Odoacer to rule the West as his governor. This was, however, merely a pleasant fiction. Odoacer ruled because he commanded his Gothic forces, not because Zeno sent him a richly decorated parchment. Nevertheless, the gesture was important. Civilization is a difficult habit to break. Although they had been battered by invasions and civil wars for decades, the Romans in the West could only conceive of legitimate authority as deriving from the Roman government. The Germanic barbarians, who spoke the Roman tongue and worshipped the Roman God (Jesus Christ), felt much the same way—even as they dismembered the Roman empire.
As for the early Venetians, they accepted the authority of Odoacer in Italy, but only insofar as it was derived from the emperor in Constantinople. Although this probably had little practical effect in the fifth century, it did help to forge an enduring element in Venetian identity. The Venetians were a people suspended between two worlds. Loyal to the government at Constantinople, they nonetheless lived in the West and were beholden to western authorities—whether imperial appointments over their government or Roman popes over their Church. From its very beginning, then, Venice was shaped by the twin poles of power that lay east and west.
In 488 a new Gothic leader, Theodoric, marched into Italy with his armies under the orders of Emperor Zeno, who wished to overthrow Odoacer. In part he was responding to Odoacer’s treatment of native Romans, but he also hoped to remove the troublesome Goths from the eastern half of the empire. Theodoric captured Ravenna in 493 and subsequently signed a treaty with Odoacer that the two would rule jointly. At the dinner party to celebrate the peace, Theodoric assassinated Odoacer with his own hands. Despite the poor table manners, Theodoric considered himself to be a cultured barbarian. Raised in the imperial court at Constantinople, he had a good idea how to govern a Roman state. Although, like most Germanic invaders, Theodoric was an Arian Christian who believed that Christ was less than God, he nonetheless practiced toleration of the native Catholics in Italy. By all accounts, the years of his reign (493–526) were a golden age in Italy, a time when the city of Rome was rebuilt and order restored.
No such rebuilding occurred in the lagoon, of course. Yet the restoration of order in Rome and Ravenna did mean closer communications and, therefore, more requests from the mainland for aid to support the central government. One of those requests was sent by Cassiodorus, Theodoric’s prefect of Ravenna. The letter was addressed to the “maritime tribunes” of “Venetia.” It survives purely by accident—simply because it was copied into Cassiodorus’s Variae, a collection of documents meant to serve as models for government officials. By modern standards it is a grossly overwritten letter, so filled with puffery and tortured prose that it almost forgets to get to the point—a simple request for help transporting oil and wine across the lagoon from Istria to Ravenna. Nevertheless, Cassiodorus’s wordiness is a boon for historians. In the thickets of his verbiage he provides a rich description of life among the small Venetian communities of 523. Describing their homes, he says:
Venetia, the praiseworthy, once full of the dwellings of the nobility, stretches from Ravenna and the Po on the south, while on the east it enjoys the delightful Ionian shore, where the alternating tide reveals and then conceals the face of the fields by its ebb and flow. Here, like the water birds, you have made your home. He, who was previously on the mainland, finds himself on an island, so that you might imagine yourself in the Cyclades from the sudden alterations in the appearance of the shore. Amid the wide expanse of the waters can be seen your scattered homes, not the product of nature, but built by the care of man into a firm foundation. For by a twisted and knotted osier-work the earth there collected is turned into a solid mass, and without fear you use so fragile a bulwark to oppose the waves of the sea, since the waters are unable to sweep away the shallow shore, because the water is not deep enough to give them power.
In these rustic quarters, the first Venetians lived simply. According to Cassiodorus:
The inhabitants have only one concept of plenty: that of filling their bellies with fish. Poverty and wealth, therefore, are on equal terms. One kind of food sustains everyone. The same kind of dwelling shelters all. No one can envy his neighbor’s home; and living in this moderate style they escape that vice [of envy] to which the rest of the world is susceptible.
Unless the laws of human nature were somehow suspended in the lagoon, we can assume that Cassiodorus is exercising poetic license when describing the equality and amity among its residents. And since he was asking the Venetians to transport commodities for the provincial government without cost, a little flattery of their generous nature would certainly not go amiss. Nonetheless, Cassiodorus’s description makes it plain that, compared with Ravenna, the people of Venice did not have much.
If fish provided the food for the early Venetians, it was salt that provided their income. Cassiodorus writes:
All of your attention is focused on your salt-works. Instead of driving the plow or wielding the sickle, you roll your cylinders. From there comes your whole crop. You find there a product that you did not manufacture. And there is your money coined. Every wave is the servant of your art. One might tire of searching for gold. But salt is something that everyone hopes to find. And rightly so, since every kind of meat owes its flavor to it.
It is often said that Venice grew rich on the “spice trade.” This is true—yet that spice was not exotic cloves or cardamom, but simple salt. Aside from fish, the lagoon does not offer much in the way of foodstuffs. Throughout its long history, Venice has always had to import its food, which requires money. The earliest Venetians built saltworks that allowed lagoon water to flow during high tide into wide basins, where it was trapped and left to evaporate in the sun. They then used heavy cylinders to roll over the salt, breaking it up into pieces that could be loaded aboard boats for export. It fetched a tidy sum—crucial for the tiny, but growing, economy of early Venice, and indeed for many centuries to come. It is often said that Venetians left salt production behind when international trade and commerce became their path to riches. That is simply untrue. Medieval and Renaissance commercial documents bear strong witness to the continued importance of the salt trade. Indeed, the Venetian government established its own Salt Office, which would grow to become one of the most powerful organs of the state.
Whether or not life in the lagoon was as sublime as Cassiodorus suggests, it was at least stable and reasonably safe. That was about to change. After Theodoric’s death in 526, relations between the native Catholic Romans and their Arian barbarian masters degenerated rapidly. The golden age had expired. In 533 the emperor in Constantinople, Justinian I, decided to roll back the Germanic invasions and restore the Roman Empire in the West. His general, Belisarius, sailed to North Africa, where he ejected the Vandals and reclaimed the entire region. Two years later, Belisarius landed in Italy, thus beginning the long and bitter Gothic War (535–54). For almost two decades the Romans and the Goths clashed, bringing yet more destruction and chaos to an already battered peninsula. For the early Venetians, there was never any doubt about which side they would support. Requests for aid came from Constantinople, and the men of the lagoon dutifully armed themselves, boarded their war vessels, and assisted Belisarius with the conquest of Ravenna in 539. According to one medieval chronicle, the Chronicon Altinate, in gratitude for their assistance the emperor granted Venetian sailors the right to trade in ports across the Roman Empire.
By 555 the Romans had finally won the war in Italy—but at great cost. The city of Rome, having changed hands several times, was in ruins. There was much talk of restoring the city to its former glory, but until it could be rebuilt, it was hardly a fit place for an emperor. Justinian simply made Italy a province, placing Rome under the authority of an “exarch,” or governor, based in Ravenna. Exarch is a Greek title, which reveals much about the changing nature of the Roman Empire. Cut off from Rome itself, the government in Constantinople had increasingly adopted the Greek language, which dominated high culture in the East. Indeed, Justinian was the last emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue. The passing away of Latin in the East and the increasingly Oriental character of the imperial court in Constantinople have led modern historians to refer to the empire from this period forward as the Byzantine Empire. We shall do so here as well. However, it is important to remember that the term is a modern one. Although he might speak Greek, every citizen in the eastern empire called himself a Roman. For Venetians, therefore, the emperor in Constantinople was not Byzantine, but Roman. And so were they—at least in those early days. Throughout their histories, the underlying foundation that bound Venice and Constantinople together was that shared Roman heritage.
The new exarch of Ravenna had jurisdiction over the Venetian lagoon, and thereby over the tribunes there. Once again the Roman Empire spanned the Mediterranean world. On his deathbed in 565 Justinian could realistically conclude that the tide of history had turned—that the empire was on its way back. But it was not to be. Already a devastating plague had swept across the empire, killing millions. Worse, a new Germanic barbarian tribe, the Longobards (Long Beards), or Lombards, were on the move and headed for Italy. Like the Goths before them, they were warlike Arian Christians who needed a home. Italy, where Byzantine forces were weakened, seemed perfect.
It would take nearly two centuries for the Lombards to expel the Byzantines from their provincial capital at Ravenna, but they had conquered much of Italy long before that. The Lombard invasions so devastated the Veneto region that they are literally responsible for a second founding of Venice. Beginning in 568 Lombard armies systematically captured all the main cities in the Veneto and extended their conquests westward to Milan. Unlike the Goths and Huns, though, the Lombards had come to stay. They took over the cities, claimed the countryside, and even established a new capital at Pavia. Theirs was a kingdom that would endure. Even today the region is known as Lombardy. For the citizens of the cities in the Veneto, this was a story that they had lived before, but now with a very different ending. It was no longer possible to flee to the lagoon, wait out the conquest, and return home when the barbarians had left for greener pastures. The Lombards, with their own laws, customs, and form of Christianity, were not leaving. This time, the flight to the lagoon would be permanent.
The collapse of the Roman government in western Europe left a profound power vacuum in the rapidly shrinking cities there. Simple tasks like repairing walls, clearing the streets, caring for the poor, and mustering troops were increasingly left to local initiative. The only institution that still had the organization to undertake such activities was the Catholic Church, and since virtually all Romans were Catholics, it is not surprising that they looked to their spiritual leaders when political leaders failed them. As a result, bishops and archbishops in the West began to assume more and more authority during the fifth and sixth centuries. The pope in Rome or the archbishop in Milan often found himself saddled with a host of responsibilities that had nothing at all to do with the shepherding of souls.
When the people of the Veneto heard of the Lombard invasion, they, too, naturally looked to their religious leaders. Membership in the Church defined these communities. If they were to transplant themselves, they must also transplant their church, its holy relics, its clergy, and its ecclesiastical leader. The bishops would be the ones to lead their people to new homes in the Venetian lagoon. City by city, the mainlanders took up their journey into the lagoon. The people of Aquileia fled to Grado. Those in Concordia settled at Caorle. The Paduans moved to Malamocco, on the end of the island known today as the Lido, while the citizens of Treviso made their new home at Chioggia. These were the last of the exiles. In each case, the people brought all that was dear to them in order to build new lives in a new world.
The most important group of refugees were those from the prosperous town of Altinum (Altino), which was very close to the Venetian lagoon—only a dozen or so miles northwest of modern Venice. Today the city is largely lost, although the ghostlike image of it can still be seen beneath the fields and farms by means of aerial photography. The medieval Chronicon Altinate tells a story with elements suspiciously similar to those surrounding the fall of Aquileia. It finds the citizens of Altino bravely preparing to defend their homes against the Lombards, only to notice nesting birds fleeing the city, and quickly choosing to follow their sage example. Some, we are told, left the region altogether, heading to Ravenna, Istria, or Rimini. But the majority of citizens agreed to follow Bishop Paul of Altino wherever he would lead them. According to the Chronicon, Paul and his flock heard a heavenly voice telling them to climb the city’s tower and seek the stars. When the bishop reached the top of the stone steps and looked across to the south, he saw the islands of the lagoon spread out before him like the stars of the sky.
With no plans to return, the refugees from Altino brought with them everything that could be carried. Even the stone lintels, pavement, and wall reliefs were pried from the buildings and piled into boats. These stray bits of ancient Rome would remain a powerful reminder for the exiles of just who they were and from whence they had come. Undoubtedly refugees from other Roman towns brought similar items, but all these preserved artifacts were classified by later generations as altinelle, small pieces of Altino. (In time this would come to mean any small bricks that resembled those used in the ancient city.) But the most important cargo—in some ways more important than the people themselves—was the church of Altino and the body of their heavenly patron, St. Heliodorus, their ancient bishop. His richly adorned body was carefully placed into a boat and rowed out to its new home on the island of Torcello. There Bishop Paul, with the financial assistance of Emperor Heraclius in Constantinople and Exarch Isaac in Ravenna, built a new cathedral: the church of Santa Maria Assunta, completed in 639. Much of that first church is lost, although the ruins of the baptistery are still visible. The church of Santa Maria Assunta that now stands in Torcello is a later construction, dating primarily from projects in 864 and 1004. But the original dedicatory inscription still survives and can be seen today in the sanctuary.
To visit Torcello is to step back into a Venice that has long since passed away. Although medieval Torcello would grow to become a bustling city of some fifty thousand people, by the thirteenth century it had been eclipsed by Venice proper and thereafter quickly declined. Today the buildings and wharves that once hummed with activity across Torcello are gone, replaced by orchards and wild grass. But Santa Maria Assunta survives. From its rich mosaics to its ancient stonework, it is a patchwork of materials fused together to create a thing of rare beauty. Beneath the high altar and behind an ancient grate one can even glimpse the casket of St. Heliodorus—still safe, just as his people hoped when they lovingly brought him here fourteen centuries ago.
Not all refugees from Altino settled at Torcello. Some began building on the nearby islands of Burano (now famous for its lace) and Mazzorbo. It is not surprising that these islands were quickly snapped up by the desperate citizens. On high ground, they are protected from the tides. They also have the advantage of being the first islands one comes upon when rowing south from Altino. With only five miles between Torcello and Altino, it is no wonder that after the Lombards had destroyed their city and settled in nearby Padua that the people frequently visited the old ruins to gather more building materials. Other refugees from Altino settled on islands a bit farther from home: Murano (now famous for its glass), Ammiana, and Constantiaca (now lost). It was said that these six islands were named for the six gates of Altino. According to various accounts, Torcello was named either for a gate that was near a tower in the old city or for the tower that Bishop Paul ascended or perhaps both.
Over on the northeastern edge of the lagoon, the refugees from Aquileia followed their own spiritual leader, Patriarch Paulinus, who relocated from his magnificent cathedral to the modest church of Sant’Eufemia on the nearby island of Grado. There they joined the descendants of those who had fled Aquileia after the sack of Attila two centuries before. The very fact of a patriarch at Aquileia gives insight into the proud character of the future Venetians. According to ancient traditions, St. Peter had sent his disciple, St. Mark the Evangelist, to Aquileia to spread Christianity in the region. After building a sizable community of Christian converts there, St. Mark assigned an “overseer” (episcopus) as its leader, a common practice in early Christian communities. The English word forepiscopus is “bishop,” but not all bishops were created equal. From the earliest decades of Christianity, bishops in major governmental centers, called metropolitans (or archbishops), exercised authority over other bishops in their region. It was said that St. Mark established Aquileia as a metropolitan “see” (the home city of a bishop) before sailing away to Alexandria and leaving behind his own disciple, St. Hermagoras, as the metropolitan bishop.
By the third century the three principal sees of the Catholic Church were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. The first two were founded by St. Peter, the last by St. Mark. Bishops in those cities, as successors to St. Peter, were generally afforded more authority than other bishops, since Peter was the apostle on whom Christ had bestowed the keys of the kingdom of God and the authority of binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19). These three were called the patriarchal sees—a distinction codified during the Council of Nicaea in 325. Aquileia, while a large city, was not in the same league as Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. While it was a metropolitan see with jurisdiction over other bishops in its province, it was not set apart by the fathers at Nicaea like the big three. This must have been a sore point for Aquileians, who were proud of a succession from St. Mark no different from that of Alexandria. Perhaps because of this, bishops of Aquileia began to use the patriarchal title anyway. Although it was not strictly official, over time it stuck. The ecclesiastical authority of the patriarch of Aquileia extended into Istria and across the upper Adriatic, including all the churches of the Venetian lagoon. He was no different canonically from any other metropolitan bishop, but he did have an impressive (if misleading) title.
Unlike the humble churchmen ministering to the simple fishermen of Venice, the patriarch of Aquileia was a player in the imperial and ecclesiastical politics of the Roman Empire. During the complex (and not overly important) Schism of the Three Chapters, which rocked much of the empire in the mid-sixth century, Patriarch Macedonius of Aquileia removed himself and his see from Roman obedience, thus earning him a papal excommunication in 554. The Church in Aquileia was still estranged from the pope in 568 when Patriarch Paulinus collected the relics, gathered his flock, and fled to Grado before the Lombard invasion. On that beautiful island, the bishop and people founded “New Aquileia,” a name that never quite caught on. And so, just as the episcopate of Altino had been transplanted to Torcello, so the metropolitan see of Aquileia was transferred to Grado. Ironically, although the Lombards who settled in ruined Aquileia possessed the great cathedral church, they nevertheless recognized the authority of the patriarchs just across the water in Grado, since they were the bishops of Aquileia in exile.
This unusual ecclesiastical relationship between Grado and Aquileia was about to become even more unusual. In 607 a newly elected patriarch of Aquileia in Grado formally ended the Schism of the Three Chapters there, and returned the entire congregation to obedience to the pope in Rome. No longer was the successor of St. Mark a schismatic. But the decision did not sit well with the Lombards in Aquileia, who were in a near constant war with the Roman and Byzantine authorities in Italy. As long as the patriarch in Grado was separated by schism from those authorities, they were willing to accept him. But they would not abide a patriarch who owed obedience to their enemy. So the Lombards elected their own patriarch of Aquileia, who was installed in the old cathedral church in the city. Thus, within a few miles of each other were two patriarchs of Aquileia, both claiming jurisdiction over the entire metropolitan see. Naturally, the pope in Rome and the emperor in Constantinople recognized only the patriarch in Grado. But that was of little interest to the Lombards, who kept their patriarch of Aquileia anyway. He ruled over the churches in the region that the Lombards controlled. As for the patriarch of Grado, he was left with the lagoon.
Almost a century passed before the Lombards finally relented and accepted full communion with the pope in Rome. Yet they were unwilling to give up their own patriarch in Aquileia, or to allow the patriarchs in Grado, many of whom were Venetians or Greeks, to govern churches in Lombard lands. To put an end to the problem, Pope Sergius I was willing to overlook the rather obvious problem that the Catholic Church had two patriarchs of Aquileia, each claiming the same jurisdiction, the same title, and the same succession from St. Mark. For the next five centuries these two bishops would square off against each other in the papal curia, the canon law courts, and even on the battlefield. The intricacies of these struggles are not important here. What is important is that the Church in Venice was locally governed by the patriarch of Grado, whose authority waxed and waned with that of the military might of Venice. In other words, Grado was the mother church of Venice and all she controlled. The patriarch of Aquileia, on the other hand, was the ecclesiastical authority on the terra firma, and thereby a creature of the powers there—first the Lombards and later the Franks. And the two patriarchs, each jealous of the other’s possessions and privileges, were forever at odds.
Although later Venetian authors tried to clean up the details, Venice was nonetheless a child of chaos, uncertainty, and fear. Yet it was also the product of courage, defiance, and resolve. The first Venetians were Romans, proudly refusing to cooperate with a world in collapse, and clinging to a glorious past that had no hope of return. That proud, conservative outlook tempered with a pious devotion to God and his Church was woven deeply into the Venetian character from its earliest years.