The 24th International Congress of Byzantine Studies recently took place in Venice and Padua in August 2022. Its theme was “Byzantium – Bridge between Worlds,” which, like much of the program, was developed by the Turkish Committee for the congress originally planned to be held in Istanbul in August 2021. As Paul Magdalino said in his inaugural lecture of the congress, this bridge will not be crossed until reaching the other bridgehead Istanbul, where he emphatically encouraged a future congress to be held.
Inaugural addresses of the congress mentioned Bessarion calling Venice a “Second Byzantium” (alterum Byzantium). This claim to be another Byzantium, of course, has numerous parallels, although Rome is more commonly referenced. Famously, Moscow began claiming to be the “Third Rome” shortly after Bessarion made the comparison. This assertion makes more sense when we note that the Byzantines were simply Romans who survived the loss of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.
Even though it was not officially included in the program, the congress’s location made it convenient to visit Ravenna, another city central to Byzantine studies. During my own visit there, I saw many familiar faces, and I know many others went there as well. Ravenna, in its own way, confidently highlights its Byzantine heritage. This could be considered rather odd as it was actually the last capital of the Western Roman Empire, and only later became the center of Eastern Roman authority in Italy. Perhaps the term “Byzantine” is more readily understood by the public than some arcane detail that the Western Roman Empire had another capital than the city of Rome.
Ravenna’s Roman inheritance was certainly noted by Charlemagne when reviving imperial pretensions in Western Europe. Even Venice began its existence in the shadow of Ravenna, though Venice grew autonomous as Ravenna was slowly sinking into obscurity. Today, Ravenna is perhaps best known for its Late Roman and Byzantine monuments, eight of which comprise its UNESCO world heritage site. The term “Byzantium” is quite ubiquitous there—at least as a touristic catchword; even depictions of Justinian and Theodora can frequently be spotted around the city.
While Ravenna can be considered a rather straightforward case of “another Byzantium,” Venice is altogether another story. It has a long, storied history filled with multilayered legends and myths that constantly shifted over the long course of its history. However, for most people, it is now simply a romantic city in the most contemporary sense of the term. I am sure many attending the congress heard how lucky we were to have the chance to visit the city, mostly for that precise reason. However, this is far from its humble beginnings when it was just a marshy lagoon—certainly no one’s first choice of a home.
Venice likely began when refugees fleeing Attila’s sack of Aquileia in 452 made their home in the marshy lagoons nearby. Uniquely, it is an important Italian city that was not a Roman city, but rather came into existence as Rome was falling. Its citizens clung to their own way of life, relying on their strong links to Byzantium. In its refusal to accept the “barbarians” claiming to be the revived Rome, Venice in its early days could almost be seen as an “unfallen” Rome, or like Bessarion would suggest centuries later, as a second Byzantium. Its highly defensive location in the lagoons made it largely autonomous—and soon it was uniquely positioned between the newly established Western “Holy Roman” Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. Staking its own claims to be Roman was undoubtedly crucial for Venice during this period.
When Ravenna was conquered by the Lombards in 751, Venice remained under the jurisdiction of Byzantium. Venice continued to have strong links to Constantinople even after gaining its independence by the 9th century. In fact, as the trading power of Venice grew, so did its relationship with Byzantium. The Venetians were allowed to establish their own quarters in Constantinople (in Eminönü) after being granted special privileges by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in the late 11th century. Although war broke out after the Venetians were expelled in 1171, the Byzantines and Venetians quickly reconciled. However, their relationship, long based on close ties, was radically altered after the Fourth Crusade and the Venetians sacked Constantinople in 1204.
Time and centuries of achievements (as can be seen with famous Renaissance Venetians such as Palladio and Titian) allowed Venice to move far beyond its Byzantine past. The city continues to have a strong sense of local identity, even though its local population has significantly declined due to the huge number of tourists. Its close ties with Constantinople, once important to its own autonomy and economy, have largely been forgotten. Nevertheless, the legacy of Byzantium can still be found around the city, especially if one knows where to hunt for it. This is particularly true in terms of its material culture—most notably seen in and around St. Mark’s. Indeed, the Treasury of St. Mark’s, which unfortunately was closed for restoration during the congress, can be regarded as one of the leading Byzantine museums.
During the medieval era, the fairly standard masonry structure of St. Mark’s was dramatically transformed when numerous marble revetments, capitals, columns, and reliefs, much of which are spolia, were added to its façade. Spolia, in academic terms, generally means reused material, rather than “spoils of war,” as its etymological roots imply. Indeed, at first glance, the façade of St. Mark’s seems to ostentatiously display loot from Constantinople. However, it has also been argued that the seemingly haphazard display of its spoils of war is better understood as Venice emphasizing its Roman/Byzantine identity. This argument becomes stronger when observing that the decorations of St. Mark’s and other buildings in Venice are actually imitation spolia made in Venice, rather than pieces brought from elsewhere.
While claiming links to Rome (or in Venice’s case, Byzantium) was a common strategy for medieval and even early modern cultures to establish their legitimacy or claim authority, it is markedly different for us today, especially when we visit places that are not our own home. For a typical tourist, Venice’s Byzantine heritage can easily be missed, while in Ravenna it is markedly the opposite. Simply put, there are very few signs pointing to traces of Byzantium in Venice. Indeed, referring to Venice as a “Second Byzantium” is mainly a scholarly narrative. However, there is another way one could compare Venice and Byzantium, as yet another example of an Orientalist trope of imperial decay, decadence, and excess—in other words, a romantic place to visit.
David Hendrix, The Byzantine Legacy.