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The Venetian Lagoon and the Birth of Venice

Venice, Italy

After Rome fell, people settled on islands in the lagoon to evade barbarians, and Venice was born. We tour the islands of Torcello (with its seventh-century church), Murano (famous for glass blowing), and Burano (lace making).

Complete Video Script

Venice was born in mud like this. After the fall of Rome, farmers on the mainland — sick and tired of being overrun by barbarians — moved out into this lagoon, hoping the barbarians didn’t like water. From that humble beginning was born one of Europe’s great cities. And by the 13th century, Venice had become the economic and military superpower of Europe.

Today’s lagoon is filled with reminders of its first inhabitants, those farmers who became seafaring merchants, dredging canals, pounding in millions of timbers for foundations, and building communities that ultimately coalesced to become Venice.

But those first settlements were humble. Torcello — about a half hour by boat from the main island — was one of the first places where mainlanders settled. Once a thriving community, Torcello was decimated by malaria, and today, only its fine church remains. Dating from the 7th century, this is the oldest church in the lagoon.

The church feels ancient. Its wood frame and beam ceiling was flexible to accommodate the ever-shifting foundation underneath. Its mosaics illustrate the importance of the church to those first Venetians.

My friend Piero is picking me up for a tour of the lagoon. Venetians love their boats. For Piero, it’s his escape. He spends his favorite hours away from the crush of tourists, in what he calls his “parallel Venice.”

Rick: When did you have a boat, from the beginning?
Piero: My first boat? My first boat…uh, 6 years old.
Rick: Seriously?
Piero: Seriously. This boat mean the freedom, the freedom to escape from the stress life when the town is so crowded, there is a lot of people, when there is a lot of tourism, is a perfect thing to escape from.
Rick: You step in this boat, you have your parallel Venice.
Piero: Exactly.

The lagoon is protected from the open sea by a string of low-lying islands. Until modern times, the city was accessible only by boat. Then, in 1846, this causeway — with train tracks, and a highway added later by Mussolini — connected the city to the rest of Italy. Well-marked channels are dredged through the shallow lagoon. Boats of all kinds shuttle back and forth.

Our next stop is Murano.

Venice is famous for its glass, for centuries blown here on the island of Murano. A 13th-century law restricted the dangerous glass furnaces to Murano to prevent fires on the main island, and also to protect the secrets of Venetian glassmaking — historically vital to the local economy.

Today, glass is still big business, as tourists come here in droves. While savvy shoppers know the cheap knickknacks are most likely from China, the venerable art form is alive and well, as you’ll see in some of the elaborate showrooms. You can witness the traditional mastery of this craft in adjoining workshops, which welcome the public. These artisans are from families of glassblowers that go back many generations.

If you don’t have a Venetian friend with a boat, water taxis zip quickly from island to island, while regular ferryboats connect Venice with neighboring lagoon communities in a more relaxed and less-expensive way. Our next lagoon stop is Burano.

Burano, with its pastel facades gracing the lagoon, was first a fishing town. Later, it thrived as a lace-making center. Today, it’s popular with visitors for its gentle ambience…and lace shops. Once sleepy, its main center is now crowded with tourists. Locals say, “anything with a door is a shop.”

Burano’s lace-making heritage goes back 500 years. Shops proudly display these painstakingly produced works of art. Rather than using bobbins, women make Burano’s beautiful lace with only needles and thread. Meticulously following time-honored patterns, these traditions continue to be passed from older generations to the next.

As the day winds down, shops close and the crowds return to Venice. Stay, and wander Burano’s back lanes for a peaceful slice of the Venetian lagoon most visitors miss.