Venice is a unique artistic achievement. The city is built on 118 small islands and seems to float on the waters of the lagoon. The influence of Venice on the development of architecture and monumental arts has been considerable. Venice possesses an incomparable series of architectural ensembles illustrating the age of its splendour. It presents a complete typology whose exemplary value goes hand-in-hand with the outstanding character of an urban setting which had to adapt to the special requirements of the site.
In this lagoon covering 50,000 km2, nature and history have been so closely linked since the 5th century AD when Venetian populations, to escape barbarian raids, found refuge on the sandy islands of Torcello, Iesolo and Malamocco. These temporary settlements gradually became permanent and the initial refuge of the land-dwelling peasants and fishermen became a maritime power. The small island of Rialto was chosen as the headquarters of the new city.
In AD 1000, Venice controlled the Dalmatian coast and in 1112 a trading market was founded in the Levantine port of Sidon. The year 1204 saw Venice allied with the Crusaders to capture Constantinople. The abundant booty brought back on that occasion, including the bronzes horses of St Mark's, is only the more spectacular part of the loot from Byzantium that the Doge Enrico Dàndolo shared with his allies.
Under the Doge, a maritime empire of unequalled power extended over the entire length of the shores around the eastern Mediterranean, to the islands of the Ionian Sea and to Crete. During the entire period of the expansion of Venice, over the centuries when it was obliged to defend its trading markets against the commercial undertakings of the Arabs, the Genoese and the Ottoman Turks,as well as those of the European monarchs who were envious of its power, Venice never ceased, in the literal sense of the term, to consolidate its position in the lagoon. The marriage with the sea, that sposalizio that since 1172 was symbolized by the ring of the Doge, who had replaced the Dux (elected for the first time in 697 by an assembly of the people), was never called into question.
In this inland sea that has continuously been under threat, rises amid a tiny archipelago at the very edge of the waves one of the most extraordinary built-up areas of the Middle Ages. From Torcello to the north to Chioggia to the south, almost every small island had its own settlement, town, fishing village and artisan village (Murano). However, at the heart of the lagoon, Venice itself stood as one of the greatest capitals in the medieval world. When a group of tiny islands were consolidated and merged into one, nothing remained of the primitive topography but what became canals, such as the Giudecca Canal, St Mark's Canal and the Great Canal, and a network of small rii that are the veritable arteries of a city on water. In this unreal space, where there is no notion of the concept of terra firma, masterpieces of one of the most extraordinary architectural museums on Earth have been accumulated for over 1,000 years.