Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 7: Venice, Part 2

May 1, 2021


History of Venice

Around the 5th century, the Veneti people fled from invading enemies such as the Huns and the Goths and took refuge in the tidal flats (lagoon) of the sea, where they built their city.

In other words, unlike many cities in Italy, Venice did not begin as a regional city of the ancient Roman Empire; rather, it was built from scratch on the empty sea.

First, they drove thousands or even tens of thousands of wooden stakes into the soft ground of the tidal flats.

Over time, the wood, submerged in water and untouched by air, turned into black pillars like concrete.

On top of these, they laid stones and bricks to create foundations for their houses.

They also created waterways (canals) through the shallow lagoon for ships to pass.

There were no roads for cars in Venice, only boats.

The people of Venice had to cooperate to protect the land in the lagoon against the forces of nature.

Since the appointment of the first Doge (duke) at the end of the 7th century, Venice has maintained a republican system governed by its citizens.

There were no dictatorial monarchs or power struggles between factions.

And because it was a city on the sea, Venice had an advantage in maritime trade from the beginning.

By traversing the Mediterranean, they could trade with various Greek city-states and with Constantinople (the capital of the Byzantine Empire, present-day Istanbul), the political and economic center of the time.

This marked the beginning of Venice's prosperity.

In the 11th century, the First Crusade set out to recapture the Holy Land of Jerusalem from the Muslims.

This presented a significant business opportunity for Venetian merchants.

They undertook the task of transporting crusaders by ship to the East and gained trading rights in the Orient.

Venice, along with other northern Italian cities, expanded their commercial sphere into the eastern Mediterranean, replacing rival Byzantine merchants.

So, Venice amassed immense wealth through spice trade.

On the other hand, the plague (Black Death) which struck Europe in the 14th century claimed the lives of 35 million people that was one-third of the entire European population.

There was a rumor circulating that blamed Jews as the cause of the epidemic, leading to mass killings and expulsions of Jews in various places.

Then, Thousands of Jews migrated to Italy, increasing the Jewish population in Venice as well.

At that time, many Jews, who were excluded from various professions, engaged in money lending.

This was because usury was prohibited among Christians on the grounds that it contradicted the teachings of God.

In Venice, a city where money flowed through trade, Jews made significant profits.

Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is a play from the late 16th century that revolves around the lending and borrowing of money among Jews.

Shakespeare likely wrote this story knowing that many Jews in Venice were involved in finance.

The prosperity of the Republic of Venice lasted for over 1,100 years until it was conquered by Napoleon at the end of the 18th century.

Napoleon, who occupied Italy, was infamous in Italy.

However, it can also be said that Napoleon's reign brought an end to the era of the city-states, paving the way for Italy to become a unified nation later on.

Four bronze horses adorn the Basilica of San Marco.

When Napoleon conquered Venice, he took these horses as spoils of war back to Paris. 

After Napoleon's downfall, they were returned to Venice and placed back in their original location.




















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