In Venetian history

Who founded Venice is a challenging question. You will need patience, some scepticism and, believe it or not, some sense of humour, too.

The foundation of Venice in the year 421

The legendary foundation date of March 25th in the year 421 has revealed to be medieval fake news. Such date has no historical proof. And yet, legends matter. The City Council of Venice for instance has decided to celebrate it with a series of events under the #Venezia1600 for the whole year. The important issue would be not to forget it is a legend.

April Fool Day in Venice in the year 2021

That is why, in order to emphasise the need to be rigorous in historical research, the world-wide acclaimed institutions of the State Archive of Venice and the Marciana National Library have arranged a great April Fool. Pretending to have discovered two documents supporting the theory of the year 421, they even announced a breaking-news conference on the implications of this extraordinary discovery. Forgotten documents, covered in the dust. It sounded so exciting, so Indiana Jones’ style! And they went further, announcing they “discovered” a poem in Provencal language mentioning the legendary date, especially in the following lines:

Fondà Vineghia
nel quatrozent vinti (…)

Who composed the poem? A certain Aloysius de Bhrukny… The ones familiar with the current political life of Venice will have already recognised how the poet’s name terribly echoes the name of the current Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, who strongly supports the #Venezia1600 events.

Who founded Venice according to history books

Most of the Venetian history books quote ancient chronicles written in the 10th and the 15th century that postpone the date. Some mention the end of the 5th century, some the 7th century. But they all agree that it was after the fall of the Western Roman Empire under the pressure of the barbaric invasions, that the inhabitants of the Roman city of Altino abandoned their homes to move to the lagoon. There, they founded a new city on the island of Torcello, feeling protected by the shallow water of the lagoon. The first inhabitants of the Venetian lagoon were therefore refugees.

The Basilica Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello

There is an apparent inconsistency regarding the date and which barbaric invasions ancient chronicles talk about –the Huns or the Lombards? The main problem however is that in the last twenty years archeological investigations have proved that life in the lagoon was present long before the barbaric invasions and even before the legendary date of 421.

The obsession regarding the origins of Venice

There is a sort of an obsession when it comes to the origins of any city. As if defining the origins of a city, you could tell who you are. Personally I abhor any use of the word “identity”. Nationalism, ethnic purity, shaping historical memory are far from historians’ goal.

Let’s be honest: if you read Venice was founded by refugees, it is not necessarily true, but it’s very true that someone for centuries has repeatedly told so, because they wanted you to believe this.

In the legends Venice appears as a city originated from the sea. A free city. Freedom which is self determined, neither under the Pope’s jurisdiction, nor the Emperor’s. A city of refugees is a city with no pure origins, which would sound promising and helpful for an international trading capital. Moreover, those refugees were heroic Romans escaping from Barbarians, isn’t that a nice story? Venice is therefore the heir of the Roman empire, strongly connected to the Byzantine world.

Is there anything else we can do, but being skeptical and taking with a grain of salt whatever ancient documents say?

Do not feel frustrated. The answer lies in that interesting link between history and archeology.

Who founded Venice: an archeological answer

Actually, you would never guess where some archeological remains are stored in Venice that could explain a lot about the first Doges that moved to Venice. Not just, they seem to reveal a part of the history that has been concealed and forgotten as it was not the story you would like to hear.

A courtyard at the National Archeological Museum in Venice

In the courtyards of the Procuratie Nuove, in St. Mark’s square, by the premises of the Archeological museum, there is a collection of ancient remains, quite heterogeneous, no labels, no chronological display. There, I spent some great time with Diego Calaon, associate professor of Ancient Topography at the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari. Prof. Calaon is continuing with passion and contagious enthusiasm the archeological research started by Ernesto Canal in the late 1960s in the lagoon, which prof. Wladimiro Dorigo strongly supported and contributed to with more insightful studies.

Sant’Ilario monastery at Dogaletto di Mira

The several remains look forgotten and lie covered in the dust. Some are really interesting for our research of the origins of Venice. Some come from an archeological site on the mainland facing the lagoon called Dogaletto di Mira and regard Sant’Ilario Benedictine monastery. This extraordinary collection features some elements presenting the history of Venice in those early years in a different light.

The first Doges of Venice

Prof. Calaon explained the monastery was founded in the year 819 and the church of this monastery was chosen by the Doges Agnello and Giustiniano Participazio as their burial place. Just to understand better who we talk about, these are the doges that moved the Doge’s residence in the year 810 to St. Mark’s square and founded St. Mark’s Basilica in the year 829. Shall we call them the founders of Venice?

A sarcophagus at the National Archeological Museum in Venice from Sant’Ilario monastery

A sarcophagus at the National Archeological Museum in Venice from Sant’Ilario monastery

Malamocco and its port

It was through this monastery that the Participazio in the 9th century, with the help of a major fleet, controlled a major trading centre, called Metamauco, or Malamocco, placed by the point where the Brenta river (once called Medoacus) emptied out in the lagoon. Goods travelled through this port. They came from the Mediterranean Sea and Constantinople and found their way to Europe, across the Alps. Viceversa, goods from Europe reached this port and were shipped all over the Mediterranean Sea.

In Dogaletto di Mira very little is left of this powerful monastic presence as ploughing was constant throughout the years. You can spot the foundations of some religious buildings, a graveyard and presumably a fortification. All that was discovered there lies now in the courtyards of the National Archeological Museum in St. Mark’s square and dates back to the 6th up to the 11th century.

Who founded Venice? What about if they were “Barbarians”?

After the Aachen treaty in 812 sealed the peace between Franks and Byzantines for the control of the Adriatic Sea, the first Venetians would certainly intermediate between the two. The fun part however is that Venice has always been described as a city politically lying under the Eastern Roman Empire’s influence. When we look at these remains though, it is clear that the situation was much more dynamic and fluid. The first Venetians followed Western political habits that can be assimilated to the Carolingian world.

A well-head at the National Archeological Museum in Venice

A well-head at the National Archeological Museum in Venice

Carolingian and Byzantine heritage

Fragments in this collection reveal that their art was Carolingian, too. From the well-heads to the funerary inscriptions mentioning “Lantfrid” or “Constantia”.

The funeral inscription mentioning Lantfrid, a Carolingian name, National Archeological Museum in Venice

Remain of a sarcophagus at the National Archeological Museum in Venice from Sant’Ilario monastery mentioning Costantia

At the same time, the Participazios chose a mosaic floor decoration of their church on the mainland featuring elements which reveal a cultural contamination with islamic and byzantine civilisations, such as the presence of the mythical “senmurv”, a winged figure with a head like a dog, the legs like a lion and the tail as a peacock.

The “senmurv” on the mosaic floor of Sant’Ilario, National Archeological Museum in Venice

The sarcofagi instead bear Western Carolingian if not Lombard motifs. What about if they were the tombs of the Participazios?

If so, then we should start thinking the first Venetians were not the heirs of the Roman Empire, but “Barbarians” who felt the fascination of the Byzantine culture and eventually absorbed it. You will agree, prof. Calaon adds, this was a story which could not fit with the fake news spreading in the centuries later that wanted to represent the origins of Venice connected to the Roman heritage and to the classical world.

A museum of the history of Venice

While research goes on to find out who founded Venice (and why), my hope is that some energy will also be spent to arrange a museum that narrates the history of Venice. Preserving and promoting this collection is a duty after all this time it’s been instead neglected. Nothing like ancient remains can question myths and certainties and highlight the true fascination of historical research.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy


Diego Calaon, Margherita Ferri, Il monastero dei Dogi Santi Ilario e Benedetto ai margini della laguna veneziana, 2007
Stefano Riccioni, I mosaici altomedievali di Venezia e il monastero di S. Ilario. Orditi ‘venetico-carolingi’ di una koinè alto Adriatica, 2017

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Showing 8 comments
  • Domenico Cardone

    Ottimo articolo. Brava!

  • Mary Jane

    This presents the problems of “foundation myths” in an interesting light. I’m quite curious to learn about the archaeological evidence for previous occupation of the islands of the lagoon (prior to the 5th century). What sorts of discoveries have been made? Is it possible that the mediaeval “barbarians” in fact displaced or simply blended in with the earlier inhabitants of the lagoon?

    • Reply

      Dear Mary Jane, thank you! You can find a lot of articles on the subject. Check for Diego Calaon and I believe there are articles in English, too. You can also subscribe to the FB group called “Torcello abitata” to follow the work each year a group of archeologists lead in Torcello. There are coins, pipes, amphorae, remains of port buildings, ceramics, glassware, fireplaces, cisterns to collect and filter rainwater… As for other remains, I found the frescoes of the villa in Lio Piccolo extremely fascinating.

      • Mary Jane

        Grazie Luisella! I just found Calaon and Ferri’s article online, and I’ll look around for others as well. I feel almost embarrassed that I knew nothing about this before, but mostly it is quite exciting to discover something totally new to explore. Now for a tour of the very earliest remains of Venice…

        • Reply

          Very true! And the fun part is that we still don’t know much about who founded Venice … vs who founded Torcello 🙂

  • Jane Parker

    Fascinating research and purpose.

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