What was the contribution of Venice to the Italian Renaissance

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The Renaissance in Italy was a great cultural and intellectual flourishing that changed Europe and it is widely seen as heralding the end of the Middle Ages and ushering in the Modern World. Many Italian city-states and the Papacy made important contributions to the revival of art and intellectual pursuits during the period from 1400 to 1600. The contribution of Venice to this period has long been recognized by historians for many years. This city-state was unique in Italy at the time and made a singular contribution to the Renaissance. Venice was very important in this remarkable period as its trade networks helped to create the wealth that laid the foundations for the cultural flourishing. Moreover, the city was pivotal in the development of the printing press and print culture in Italy. Finally, the Republic of Venice developed its own schools of painters, architects, and sculptures who were among the finest produced in Italy during the High Renaissance (1490-1550).

Gentile Bellini painting of a civic procession in Venice

The rise of Venice

During the various cataclysms that engulfed northern Italy in the centuries after the fall of Rome, many refugees fled to a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, sometime in the 5th century AD [1]. Over time, several settlements developed, on a number of islands and they merged to become a single city, which came to be known as Venice. It became a dependency of Byzantium in the 6th century AD [2]. The relationship with the successor state of the Roman Empire allowed Venice to become a great trading and maritime power by the 11th. century AD. The city which was a Republic benefitted enormously from its role in the Crusades and after several wars with other Italian maritime powers such as Genoa, it came to dominate the trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The ‘Serene Republic’ as it was known was governed by a Doge who was elected by the citizen body [3]. Venice was able to become the richest city in Europe and had the largest navy in the Mediterranean by 1200. It was very democratic for the time and its institutions and laws were by contemporary standards very equitable. Relations between Venice and Byzantium deteriorated in the 12th century. The ‘Massacre of the Latins’, when the Emperor Andronicus incited the populace of Byzantium to kill Italians in the city, embittered relations between the Italian maritime republic and the Greek Orthodox Empire [4]. The Fourth Crusade was another expedition by Christians to reclaim the Holy City of Jerusalem that was occupied by the Muslims. Venice was contracted by the Crusaders to ferry them to the Near East. However, they could not afford to pay for their passage. The Doge at the time reached an agreement with the Crusaders to attack Byzantium to pay for their transport to the Holy Land. In 1204 the Venetians and the Crusaders attacked and seized the city and partitioned the Byzantium Empire, among themselves. This greatly increased the power of the Republic. The Venetians by 1400 had established a maritime Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Adriatic. The emergence of the Ottoman Turks prevented their further expansion in the Levant. The city-state abandoned its long-established policy and began to expand on mainland Italy [5]. This involved it in wars against an alliance of Italian principalities and city-states. Venice was able to secure much of the rich lands of north-east Italy. However, in 1453 Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks and this changed the geopolitical situation in the Mediterranean. Venetians were constantly on the defensive after 1453 and they became embroiled in many brutal wars with the Ottomans. This is commonly seen as the start of the decline of the city-state. From the late fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century the Hapsburgs and the French monarchs battled for control of the Italian peninsula. Venice allied with France and the city paid dearly for this alliance. It was attacked by an alliance of Italian cities and was considerably weakened as a result. The 16th century was the Age of Exploration and European kingdoms such as Portugal create trans-Oceanic trade routes [6]. This meant that the trade routes that were controlled by the Italian city-state were not as lucrative. The best example of this was the spice trade, the Portuguese excluded the Venetians from this trade by the mid-sixteenth century. Then there were several disastrous outbreaks of plague that dramatically reduced the population. However, Venice remained an important power in the region and it continued to fight many wars against the Ottomans and was even central to the Christian victory at Lepanto (1571). Moreover, while the city went into economic decline it remained a wealthy state. The Venetians, natural entrepreneurs began to find other markets and the city became a major exporter of agricultural products and they also developed new industries such as the glass industry. By 1600, the city was past its zenith, but it was still wealthy and great maritime power.

Painting of the Battle of Lepanto

Venice and the Renaissance

The city-state was always somewhat different from the rest of Italy. Its culture was more deeply influenced by the Byzantines than elsewhere. For many centuries, successive Doges had avoided becoming entangled in the mainland. The Venetians somewhat isolated from the rest of Italy did not really participate in the Renaissance until later than other parts of the peninsula. Moreover, the city straddled important Alpine trade routes and was deeply influenced by ideas and technologies from Northern Europe. This meant that the ‘Serene Republic’ had a distinctive culture. Another important aspect of the city-state was its relative independence from the Papacy. The Venetians were very independent- minded and often resisted Papal policies, even during the Counter-Reformation [7]. As a result, the city provided a climate that allowed thinkers and artists a level of freedom that was not available elsewhere after the Counter-Reformation began in the early sixteenth century. This is most evident in the fact that the Inquisition was forbidden from operating in Venetian territories. As a result, while the culture of the Renaissance declined elsewhere it continued in Venice. While other cities began to culturally stagnate by the end of the 16th century, the city in the Adriatic was enjoying a period of artistic and intellectual brilliance.

Venice and trade

The city was the most important commercial center in Italy, although it had competitors such as Amalfi and later Genoa. The city after the Crusades and the capture of Byzantium were the major commercial power in the region. The trade of Venice helped to create the prosperity that was essential for the Renaissance. The ‘Serene Republic’ and its fleet of trading ships allowed Italian states to export their wares and products. This meant that it not only did the city grow wealthy, but it greatly boosted the economy of other Italian Republics and for example, allowed Florentine clothiers to export their cloth to Northern Europe and the Levant. The wealth that was produced by Venice and its trade routes was essential in the fostering of the urban milieu that was so important for the development of Civic Humanism [8]. More importantly, the profits generated by Venice traders for Italian merchants and rulers, allowed them to become patrons of the arts. Without this great artists’ such as Michelangelo and others would not have been able to create their masterpieces. Venice commercial links were crucial in the development of the Renaissance. Moreover, the demands of long-distance trade meant that the Venetians had to develop sophisticated financial instruments and progressive business regulations. This was immensely beneficial to the city and its merchants’, but they were also imitated by other Italian Republics. This helped to foster the economic conditions that promoted the cultural and artistic flourishing of the Renaissance.

Self-portrait of Titian

Venice and Print

The printing press was developed in Germany in the late 15th century. It seems that the technology was quickly adopted by the Venetian. By the early 16th century the city had developed an indigenous printing industry. Indeed, it was to become one of the major centres of the early print industry in Europe. This was not only important economically but also culturally. The Republic’s printers produced many important volumes of Latin and Greek authors and this was very important for the study of the classical past. Printed peoples encouraged more to study the ancient past, which was very important in the spread of Humanism and ideas such as the superiority of reason and the individual [9]. Venetians printers unlike elsewhere did not have to contend with Church censorship and especially the threat of the fearsome Inquisition. This meant that many texts that could not be printed elsewhere were published in the city-state. Moreover, the Republic’s publishing industry attracted many writers to the city, such as the great satirist Aretino who were able to earn a living with their pen and did not require a patron[10].

Venice and the arts

The Republic has a long tradition of workshops who produced works influenced by Byzantine icons. The city’s artists who formed associations came under the influence of those from nearby Padua. They introduced oil painting into the city and the works of Leonardo were also influential The Venetians absorbed the new ideas and techniques and developed a new style of painting. Jacopo Bellini (1400–1470) is considered to be the founder of the Venetian School which was characterized by the use of color and a love of light to create works which have remarkable environments. His sons Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and his son-in-law Andrea Mantegna, also produced masterpieces. Bellini’s workshop trained many great artists. These included Titian (1498-1575) and Giorgione (c. 1477/8–1510). They are considered to have increased the portrayal of landscapes in painting and they achieved great effects by organizing colors in evocative ways. Titian who lived to a great age was noted for his daring compositions. The Venetian School because of the city’s liberal atmosphere were able to paint nudes and also erotic paintings. A good example of this is Titian’s Venus from 1538. Titian became court painter of the Hapsburg Court of Charles V and he helped to spread the ideas and techniques of the Venetian School across Europe. Among the other great painters that lived and worked in the Republic were Tintoretto (1518–1594),and he helped to develop the Mannerist School which prefigured Baroque Art. Venice had a great architectural tradition as seen in the magnificent St Mark’s Cathedral and piazza. Many great architects worked in the city in the sixteenth century such as the great Palladio who is one of the most important domestic architects of all time. There also emerged a school of sculpture in the city that interpreted the classical tradition in a poetic and sensitive style. Venice made a great contribution to art, architecture and sculpture especially in the 16th century and it is regarded as one of the great centres of the Renaissance, the equal of Rome and Florence. Moreover, the city was to become one of the centres of European art until the 18th century [11].

Tintoretto painting of the bringing the body of St Mark to Venice (1548)


Venice was a great commercial center and maritime power. It was instrumental in the economic expansion of Italy that was so important for the artistic and intellectual flourishing, that was the Renaissance. The Venetians enabled city-states to become wealthy and allowed rich merchants and rulers to patronize the humanists’ scholars and artists. The city was much more receptive to new ideas and technologies than the rest of Italy because it was a great trading power. This is best seen in the development of printing in the city-state and the emergence of print culture. Venice because of its print industry and its liberal atmosphere meant that many intellectuals worked in the city. Then there was the emergence of the Venetian School of Painting. The ‘Serene Republic’ produced many of the greatest painters of the 16th century such as Titian and these decisively changed the history of art. It also produced a great many accomplished sculptures and architects, who still inspire admiration to this day.

Further Reading

Howard, Deborah, Sarah Quill, and Laura Moretti. The architectural history of Venice (Yale, Yale University Press, 2002).

Martin, John Jeffries, and Dennis Romano, eds. Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297–1797 ( Oxford, JHU Press, 2003).

Bernstein, Jane A. Print culture and music in sixteenth-century Venice (Oxford, Oxford University Press on Demand, 2001).

Ruskin, J. St. Mark's Rest: The History of Venice (London, Lupton, 1902)


  1. Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1982), p 13
  2. Norwich, p 14
  3. Norwich, p 17
  4. Ferraro, Joanne M. Venice: History of the Floating City (Cambridge University Press; 2012), p 145
  5. Herne, Judith. The History of Byzantium (London, Knopf, 1995), p 101-110
  6. Norwich, p 134
  7. Ferraro, p. 117
  8. Norwich, p 114
  9. Ackroyd, Peter. Venice: Pure City (London, Chatto & Windus. 2009), p 113
  10. Norwich, p 113
  11. Brown, Patricia Fortini. Painting and history in Renaissance Venice (London, Blackwell, 1984), p 113