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Book II
Ch. 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has not yet been proofread.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book III
Ch. 1

Vol. II
On the Date of the Foundation of Venice

The assertion in the text, that the story of Venice having been founded by fugitives at the time of Attila's invasion rests on mere tradition, may surprise some readers. Others, with the popular histories of Venice in their hands, may think that an early date ought to have been assigned to that event. Daru (Histoire de Venise, I.27), after asserting that the invasions of Alaric sent some fugitives across the Lagunes (a very probable hypothesis, though one entirely unsupported by proof), goes on to state that twenty-four houses on the Rialto having been destroyed by fire, a church to St. any was dedicated there in the year 421. 'La ville de Padoue y envoya des magistrats annuels, avec le titre de Consuls. On trouve dans unVieux manuscrit le plus ancien monument de l'historie de Venise ; c'est un décret du sénat de Padoue, sous la date de 421, qui ordonne la construction d'une ville à Rialte, pour y rassembler, en une seule communauté, les habitants répandus sur les îles environnantes, afin qu'ils puissent y tenir une flotte armée, parcourir la mer avec plus de sûreté, et se défendre avec plus d'avantage dans leur asyle. Tels furent les commencements de la superbe Venise.'

This seems circumstantial enough, and has been copied in good faith by the writers of popular manuals who have to deal with the early history of Venice, though they are evidently puzzled by finding the foundation of the city thus assigned to the year 421, thirty‑one years, as they well know, before the invasion of Attila, which they have also to represent to their readers as the main cause of the settlement of Venice.

The fact is, and it cannot be stated too clearly in order to relieve this useful class of writers from an unnecessary dilemma, that the whole story of the foundation of the city or the building of the Church of St. James in 421, is a mere fable (the result of influence rather than of dishonesty), and that the alleged  p183 'Decree of the Senate of Padua,' is as valuable a contribution to history as the forgeries of Ireland or Chatterton, but no more so.

I. The earliest history of Venice is Andrea Dandolo, who was born in 1307, was Doge from 1343 to 1354, and was the immediate predecessor of Marino Faliero. His history (Chronicon Venetum, in the twelfth volume of Muratori) is very uncritical, but in his account of the events of the fifth century he builds a good deal on Jordanes and the Historia Miscella, though also to some extent on the Hungarian romancers (historians they cannot be called) who wrote about Attila. He appears to be under the impression that Attila began to reign over the Huns about 415, since he places his accession before the election of Pope Zosimus in 417; and he describes1 a battle which took place between him and Macrinus, 'Tetrarch of Pannonia, Dalmatia, Macedonia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia,' in which 40,000 Huns were slain, but Macrinus also fell, and the Roman army was routed. The title attributed to Macrinus is sufficient to show that Dandolo is here working with absolutely unhistorical materials.

He then proceeds in the next part to relate how the chiefs and people of the cities of Venetia, exhausted by the incursions of the Barbarians, decided to construct certain maritime cities of refuge. 'First of all, Gallianus de Fontana, Simeon de Glauconibus, and Antonius Calvus de Limianis, Consuls of Patavium (Padua), not unmindful of the past invasion, went to the maritime regions, and there near the mouth of the river Realtis, having found an island suitable for their purposes, laid the foundations of the city of Rivoaltus on the 25th March in the year of our Lord 421.' The fire (issuing from the house of a Greek shipmaster named Eutinopus), by which twenty-four mansions were consumed, and the building of a church dedicated to St. James are then recorded. This is the first and best authority for the statement quoted above from Daru, and it is hardly necessary to say that it has not the slightest claim to be regarded as authentic history. The three Consuls of Padua, with such names as 'De Fontana,' 'de Glauconbius,' and 'de Limianis,' in the early part of the fifth century, are alone quite enough to condemn it.

 p184  But Dandolo, though he was quite at fault as to the date of the commencement of Attila's reign, knew, with something like accuracy, the date of the fall of Aquileia, which he puts about 454. He knew very little however as to the circumstances of that disaster. We have the story of the storks, of course, and of the matron Digna, who threw herself headlong into the Natiso. But he says that after 8000 of Attila's men and 2000 of the citizens of Aquileia had been slain, the latter, 'but no longer able to resist so great a multitude, put statues as sentinels on the walls, and thus, by distracting Attila's attention, almost all escaped to Grado.' Soon after, however, Attila let fly his hawk, which settled on the hand of one of the statues. The boldness of the bird and the immobility of the man revealed the trick to Attila, and in his anger he rased the city to the ground (Book V, chap. 5). Attila then presses on to Concordia, whose inhabitants flu to Caprulae (Caorle), to Altino (whose inhabitants colonise Torcello and the five neighbouring islands, and name them after the six gates of their city), and lastly to Padua (which Dandolo here calls by its modern name and not Patavium). 'The king of the city of Padua sent his queen with his sons, their wives and little ones, and all his treasure to Rialto and Malamocco. Attila attacked the city, was first defeated, then he gained a victory and destroyed Padua.' Again we have here a narrative which is absolutely unhistorical, and which, even as an invention, must have belonged to a period long subsequent to the fifth century.

II. Andrea Nogier, a Venetian noble, who lived about 1500, is the reputed author of a History of Venice, which is printed in the twenty-third volume of Muratori. It would be an insult to Dandolo to put Nogier's work for a moment in comparison with his. Muratori says that it is full of fables and anachronisms in the early part, and that the man who can read it through must have plenty of spare time on his hands. It is only worth noticing here as showing the growth of the legend about the foundation in 421 and its utter historic worthlessness.

Attila, according to this account, was the grandson of a King of Hungary named Osdrubald. His invasion of Italy is placed in the years 420‑428. His sieges of Aquileia, Concordia, Altino, and Pafagonia (Padua) are described at great length, and with no regard to truth. The name of the King of Padua is Janus,  p185 his Queen is 'Andriana ovvero Vitaliana.' The siege of Padua is said to have lasted seven years. In the second year of Attila's invasion, i.e. 421, 'on the 15th of March, which was a Saturday, it was determined by the Nobles and Tribunes of the kingdom of Padua, to build a city on the island of Rivoalto. And three Consuls were set over this work whose names were Julius Falier, Thomas Candianus, and Cosmas Paulus.' But some mistake the author represents the design to build the city as formed on the 15th of March, though the first stone is laid three days earlier, on the 12th of March 421, 'in which year,2 month, and day the arrangement of the heavens was by the Divine will and ordering of such favourable aspect as verily to promise that the aforesaid city should be noble and powerful, as is seen at this day.'3

Then follows a good deal more atrociously disjointed history, in which for instance Totila the Ostrogoth4 (who really reigned from 541 to 552) is represented as invading Italy and persecuting the Christians in 440. Soon after, the mendacious scribe, who must surely be laughing at his readers, says, 'From 442 to 648 the History of Venice is lost, and none of it can be written.' there need not have been any blank spaces in a history written on such principles.

III. Marino Sanuto (in the twenty-second volume of Muratori), who flourished towards the end of the fifteenth century, and was still alive in the year 1522, admits that there are various opinions about the time of the principio of Venice, one author putting 'it in the year 456 [453], so indicating the time in which, at the death of Attila, reigned Pope Leo I, Marcian, Gaiseric, Meroveus, and Valentinian Junior.'

'But the truth is that in the year 421, as I have said, on the 25th of March, Friday, "e ascendendo, come nell' Astrologica figura appare, gradi 25 di Cancro," was laid the first stone, as many writers tell, of the Church of S. Jacopo di Rivoalto. On which day, as Holy Scripture testifies, our first father Adam was formed at the beginning of the Creation of the World.  p186 On the same day was the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin Mary, and the Son of God was conceived in her womb. And on the same day, according to some theologians, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, was crucified by the Hebrews on Mount Calvary. So this day is a very memorable one. "Sicchè è giorno molto memorabile." '5 An astrological diagram is appended, to shew the aspect of the heavens at that day and hour. It is of course a great matter, from this point of view, to get for the foundation of the city a day which corresponds according to the days of the week as well as according to those of the year with the supposed day of the crucifixion. (Not however an ecclesiastical Good Friday which, according to 'L'Art de vérifier les dates,' fell in 421 a week later, on the 1st April.)

IV. It is scarcely necessary to quote the passage in which Marco Antonio Sabellico, another great Venetian historian (who died in 1504), gives his opinion concerning 'la vera origine Veneta.' He is slightly heterodox about the year, which according to him is 422, but he is quite certain about the day. 'Almost all agree in this that on the 25th of March began the origin of this city.' And then he proceeds, like Sanuto (who perhaps copied from him), to enumerate the wonderful events which according to Scripture and tradition happened on this most auspicious day.

For all the statements which have been quoted from these four historians, it is abundantly clear that there is not the slightest true historical foundation. They are mere fancies of mediaeval Venetian patriotism, which may be revered or smiled at according to the mood of the reader, but which, having no relation to fact, should be carted away out of the domain of History with the least possible delay.

Whether the mistake under which the early Venetian historians evidently laboured as to the accession of Attila, and which led them to antedate his operations against Italy by nearly thirty years, or the astrological and ecclesiastical back-reckonings which led them up to the 25th of March, 421, as a very choice day on which their city should have been built, were the original cause of the error, it is not likely that we can now ascertain. Perhaps the historical error and the chronological conceit grew together and each strengthened the other.

 p187  The student however will expect, before the subject is dismissed, to hear something of that which Daru calls 'the most ancient monument of the history of Venice, the decree of the Senate of Padua under the date of 421, which orders the construction of a city at Rialto.' Daru quotes this document. It begins, 'Anno a nativitate Christi CCCCXXI in ultimo anno papae Innocentii primi . . . Aponencis, regno Pataviencium feliciter et copiose florenti, regentibus rempublicam Galiano de Fontana, Simeone de Glausonibus,º et Antonio Calvo dominis consulibus . . . decretum est . . . sedificari urbem circa Rivoaltum,' &c.; and he concludes, 'Nam Gothorum multitudinem et instantiam verebantur et recordabantur quod anno Christi CCCCXIII [sic] ipsi Gothi cum rege eorum Alarico venerant in Italiam, et ipsam provinciam igne et ferro vastatam reliquerant et ad urbem processerunt eam spoliantes.'

According to Daru 'Le bibliographe ajoute "Reliquum legere non potui." ' It was really not worth while his reading so far. Every scholar must at once perceive that this document, the so‑called 'most ancient monument of the history of Venice,' is an absurd and clumsy fabrication. The misdating of Alaric's invasion by at least three years is a comparatively trifling error. The use of the date 'Anno Christi,' in the year 421, a century before Dionysius Exiguus, and the ridiculously unclassical names of the three consuls of Padua, at once stamp the document as a forgery, and give one a very low idea of the attainments of the historian who could be imposed upon by it.6

The real 'most ancient monument of the history of Venice' is the celebrated letter of Cassiodorus to the Venetians in the early part of the sixth century. This letter proves that already among the Venetian islands, though very likely not precisely at the Rialto, there was collected such a population of fishermen, salt-manufacturers, and hardy mariners as those whom we find thriving there when in 697 the first Doge is elected and the continuous history of Venice commences.

The Author's Notes:

1 Book V, chap. 1, part 9.

2 Millesimo (?).

3 Muratori, XXIII, 925‑932.

4 Totila and Attila seem to have been generally confounded by the Italians of the Middle Ages. Dante (Inferno, XIII.149) makes Attila instead of Totila the destroyer of Florence. And the Ottimo Commento, in its note on that passage, says, 'Some say that Attila and Totila were two different persons, and others that they were the same.'

5 Muratori, XXII.405‑408.

6 Endeavouring to follow up at Venice the reference which Daru gives as to this MS., I was unable to discover where it is at present. The Camaldulensian convent in whose library it was placed is, as I understood, dispersed. But I was informed that the Tomaselli collection, of which this MS. formed part, consisted chiefly of 'copie di copie di copie,' and was of extremely slight archaeological value.

Page updated: 4 Mar 12