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Venice Piazza
The Palazzo Ducale was built and rebuilt from the 9th to the 16th centuries. It faces the Venice lagoon, the pathway to the Adriatic Sea.
The Palazzo Ducale was built and rebuilt from the 9th to the 16th centuries. It faces the Venice lagoon, the pathway to the Adriatic Sea.
Photo by Marjorie Hunt, Smithsonian Institution

"We wed thee, O Sea, in token of true and lasting dominion."

These words are spoken each year as Venice (Venezia) celebrates its marriage with the sea at the Feast of the Ascension (Asensa). Starting in 1000 C.E. with Doge Peitro Orseolo, the reigning doge (head of the Venetian Republic) would sail into the Adriatic Sea on his gilded state barge and throw a ring into the water. It was the sea that allowed Venice, after Rome, to command the longest lived of European overseas empires. Even today a local dignitary continues the "wedding" tradition.

For most of its history, Venice was approached by boat. Travelers who make their way from the Adriatic across the Venetian lagoon find themselves in a harbor surrounded by islands on which buildings of many sizes, colors, and styles rise directly from the water. They soon see two large columns which frame the entrance to the most impressive concentration of beautiful buildings in all of Venice, the Basilica of St. Mark (Basilica di San Marco) and the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale), for centuries the seat of the Venetian government.

The Basilica of St. Mark, which was replicated for The Silk Road Program, and the Doge's Palace help define the boundaries of St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco), the heart of Venice. Venice was built as a stage for impressing diplomats and merchants with its power, and against which resplendent ceremonies were held. The square has welcomed visiting monarchs from Henry III of France in 1374 to Queen Elizabeth II in 1961 and has been the scene of religious festivals, pageants, and processions. The square also has been bordered by shops, souvenir stalls, and traveler's rest houses, as it is today. The Byzantine architecture of the Basilica and the Gothic architecture of the Doge's Palace, as well as other architecture, art, and crafts that Venice has been famous for throughout its history, attest to the intermingling of the cultures and aesthetics of the East and West.

Venice's power and prosperity rested on its role as a naval and commercial power. Covering routes to the Aegean and Black seas allowed Venetians to meet the traders who came overland from Central Asia and around the Caspian Sea and so link up with the Silk Road. Venice remained a dominant maritime power into the 16th century. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, it drove Venice from the eastern Mediterranean, thus depriving the Venetian Republic of its ports for trade from Asia. In addition, in the late 15th century the Portuguese found their way around Africa to the Indian Ocean, opening a new sea route to Asia and marking the start of European efforts to bypass the overland trade routes.

While the glories of its past may have faded, Venice has always held a romantic allure, attracting visitors with the beauty of its palaces and churches and the shimmering canals that serve as its thoroughfares.

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