Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Italy | Venice | Origins of the Dandolo Family

For centuries the Goths, a Germanic people possibly originating in Sweden, had been fighting their way south towards the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to the beginning of the Christian era they had crossed the Baltic Sea into what is now Germany and by the second century the tall, light-skinned, largely blonde-haired marauders, notoriously for their ferocity, were causing havoc all along the northern borders of the Roman Empire. They eventually broke into two groups, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. In the 390s the first Visigoth ruler, Alaric I, even dared advance on Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine, or East Roman, Empire. His attack on the capital having been thwarted by the Byzantines, he turned his army to the southwest, into Greece, where he sacked Corinth, Sparta, Piraeus (the port of Athens), and other cities. He then set his sights on the western half of the Roman empire and the city of Rome. Utilizing the superb Roman-built roads he and his army soon founded themselves in the ancient region of Veneto, positioned on the broad strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites and other mountains of the Alps to the north. Blessed with numerous rivers, plentiful rainfall, fertile soil, and bountiful forests, its famously industrious people had made this was one of the richest regions in the Roman Empire, dotted with prosperous cities like, Vicenza, Asolo, Patavium (modern-day Padau), Concordia, Altinum (Altino), and Montagnana. The largest city of the region, Aquileia, with a population of 100,000 (200,000 by some estimates), was deemed by the fourth-century Roman poet and scholar Ausonius (c. 310—c. 395) to be one of the nine great cities in the world, mentioned in the same breath as Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and other storied metropolises.
Click on photos for enlargement
Ancient Veneto
In 401 Alaric and his rampaging Goths pillaged Aquileia, but the next year they were defeated by Roman armies and forced to retreat eastward to the Balkans. In 408 they returned and again plundered Aquileia, sending shockwaves of panic throughout Veneto and beyond. Those with the means to do so fled in advance of the Goth onslaughts. Some sought refuge on the islands of the Laguna Veneta, the Venetian Lagoon, where it was hoped the Goths had neither the desire nor means to pursue them. Alaric was indeed focused on Rome, which he finally ransacked in 410. He moved south to Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula, planning from there to cross the Mediterranean and invade Africa, but he died the same year, 410, before this plan could be carried out. Meanwhile, some of the people who had fled to the islands of the Venetian Lagoon decided to stay there, perhaps surmising, correctly as it turned out, that Alaric would not be the last barbarian to rampage through their former abodes on the mainland to the north.

The citizens of Veneto at the time of the Goth incursions were a mixed lot. The belt of land between the Adriatic Sea and the mountains to the north served as a bridge between western Europe and the land to the east—the Balkan Peninsula, Greece, Asia Minor, and beyond, and for centuries people from both the Occident and Orient had been traveling through the region. Excellent roads, including the ancient Via Pustumia (built c. 148 b.c. by Roman consul consul Spurius Postumius Albinus Magnus), which began in Aquileia, the capital of Veneto, and continued the whole way across the top of the boot of Italy to Genoa on the western coast of the peninsula, facilitated travel and the relatively easy movement of trade goods. The ports of Veneto at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea attracted travelers and trade from the entire Mediterranean, linking the province with the ports of western Europe, northern Africa, and the Levant. With all the people passing through Veneto it was inevitable that some, attracted by its fertile countryside and rich cities, would decide to stay. Over the centuries this immigration resulted in a rich bouillabaisse of cultures. In addition to the ancient local stock, there were Romans and others from the Italian Peninsula, other Europeans from further west, Greeks, Levantines, north Africans, Arabs, and probably even Mesopotamians and Persians, backwash from the Roman Empires’s many wars in the Mid-East. These were the people who fled Veneto for the relative safely of the islands in the Venetian Lagoon. 

By the mid-fifth century Veneto was threatened once again by invaders. Around 445 Attila became the sole ruler of a confederation of tribes known as the Huns. Like Alaric, he set his sights on Constantinople, but he and his assembled army were unable to breach the formidable Theodosian Land Walls that protected the city. 
Theodosian Land Walls of Constantinople
They did plunder and burn hundreds of cities and towns in Thrace, the region west of Constantinople, before advancing further westward into what is now Germany and France. By the early 450s Attila had turned eastward and crossed the Alps in Veneto. Padua, Altinum, Aquileia, and many other cities and towns were sacked and burned. Aquileia, the capital of Veneto, offered the strongest resistance. According to one tale, Attila was about to abandon his siege when he noticed that the storks that nested in the city had picked up their young in their beaks and flown away to the south. Interpreting this as a portent that the city was doomed, Attila launched another attack. The city was plundered and completely leveled. The residents who had not fled in advance to the safely of the islands in the Lagoon were either slaughtered or enslaved. It was said that for decades later it was hard to find even traces of the once flourished trade center. 
Restored Roman-era columns. The city was completely leveled by Attila the Hun.
Remains of stone wharfs from ancient Aquileia. Canals connected it to the Adriatic Sea,  now 6.5 miles away. 
The Mosaic Floor of the current-day Cathedral of Aquileia dates to the third and fourth century. The original church was destroyed by the Goths and Huns and the floor was apparently buried beneath rubble. It was not rediscovered until the early twentieth century.
The current Cathedral of Aquileia, which dates to the eleventh century, was built on the site of the church destroyed by the Goths and Huns. 
Roman-era mosaics that survived the attacks of Attila and others and have now been restored.
Roman-era mosaics that survived the attacks of Attila and others and have now been restored. 
According to legend, the city of Venice was founded at the stroke of noon on Friday, March 25, a.d. 421. According to the Catholic calendar, it was the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the day when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The story goes that around this time three Roman consuls from the city of Padua on the mainland came to a group of islands three miles from the coast known as the Rivoalto, or “high bank”. On slighter higher ground on both sides of a deep channel running through the area a small community had taken root. There were probably some long-time residents, including fishermen, hunters, salt gatherers, and other who eked out a living from the water and marshes of the Lagoon. Some may have been criminals, hiding out from the authorities on the mainland. Most, however, were refugees. In 421 they would have been those who fled from the deprecations of Alaric and the Goths. The area where they settled eventually became known as the Rialto, a corruption of rivoalto. The three consuls had supposedly come to the Rivoalto to set up a trading post and found a church dedicated to St. Giacomo (James), thus sanctioning the small settlement. The church was built just west of the narrowest part of the deep channel separating the islands. The channel became known as the Grand Canal, and eventually the Rialto Bridge was built here. 

Apparently nothing remains of this early church, according to most accounts the first ever in what is now Venice. The current church of St. Giacomo di Rialto, which supposedly stands on the site of the original church founded in 421, was built in the early 1170s and consecrated in 1177. This church was damaged in a fire which ravaged the area in 1514 and was remodeled in 1531 and again in 1599. Perhaps the most notable figure of the church now is the huge clock on the bell tower, supposedly dating to the fifteen century. If you visit the small square in front of the church, however, you can be reasonably sure you are standing in one of the very oldest parts of what eventually became the city of Venice. This early settlement on the Rivoalto islands was not the only community in the Venetian Lagoon, however, and in the years that followed it was nowhere near the most important. Not until 400 years later would it become the Venice that we know today.
The current church of St. Giacomo di Rialto
Later, when they were one of the most prominent families in Venice, the Dandolos would promote the notion that their ancestors were among the leaders of these refugees who had fled the deprecations of the Goths and the Huns in the fifth century and that thus they were one of the founding families of Venice. This was a common claim among the families of Venice who wanted to assert that they did indeed belong to the aristocracy, much like Americans who place great stock in the claim that their ancestors come to the New World on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock. According to the legend favored by the Dandolos themselves, they were prominent Roman residents of Padua, a city on the mainland twenty-two miles east of the Rivoalto islands, before moving to the islands in the Venetian Lagoon, where they took their rightful place among the elite. This assertion would have put them in the same league with the recognized founders of the first Venetian Lagoon communities, including families like the Contarinis, who by tradition traced their lineage back to Gaius Aurelius Cotta, consul, or chief magistrate of the Roman Republic from 252 b.c and 248 b.c.

The truth is less clear. There is no mention of the Dandolos in the earliest histories of Venice, written in the first half of the eleventh century. A history known as the Venetiarum Historia, dating to the 1360s, does aver that the Dandolos were among a later wave of immigrants who had fled the town of Altinum, on the mainland, in advance of an invasion of yet another band of marauders from the North, the Lombards. Altinum, now the tiny village of Altino, about five miles east of Marco Polo Airport, was once one of the major cities of Veneto. It was linked with the nearby Adriatic Sea by a canal that ran through the center of the city and with the important Veneto city of Aquileia by the Roman road known as the Via Anna. It was also the southern terminus of the Via Claudia Augusta, which ran northeast past Lake Constance in what is now Switzerland to the Danube River, a distance of some 300 miles. Thus Altinum became an important entrepôt for trade between the interior of Europe and the cities of Byzantium, including Constantinople. In the 450s Attila the Hun, following in the wake of the Visigoths, rampaged through Veneto. He razed Aquileia, completing the destruction of began by Alaric, and in 452 sacked the city of Altinum. Many residents fled to the safety of the nearby islands in the Lagoon before the arrival of Attila, but some stayed behind and resumed their lives as best and they could after the Huns had moved on. Some who had fled apparently returned to Altinum once the Hunnish threat had subsided. 

In the wake of the Huns, however, came another people seeking to plunder the rich land of Veneto—the Lombards. Originally from southern Scandinavia, by the first century a.d. they had settled in northern Germany. In the following centuries they drifted southward and by the fifth century occupied the Danube Valley. In the 568 the Lombards crossed the Alps into northern Italy, and for next five decades they would battle the Byzantines for control of Veneto. The Lombard king Rotari, who assumed the throne in 636, completed the conquest of the region by sacking Altinum in 638. 

Watching as the Lombards rampaged through the rest of the region, the residents must have realized that their city was doomed. A legend relates that upon learning of the approach of the Lombards the residents of Altinum held a prayer meeting in the city’s central square. While praying for guidance on how to deal with the threat of the Lombards they saw a flock of birds carrying newborn chicks in their beaks take off and fly south, towards the Lagoon. This was interpreted as a portent. Two leaders of the city, Ario and Aratore, along with several priests, followed the birds to an island about three miles offshore, and the rest of the residents of Altinum soon followed. The legend also relates that when they arrived on the island God appeared in a cloud and told them to build a church where the flock of birds had landed. One of the city gates of Altinum, the city they had just abandoned, was called Turicellum, so they decided to rename the island Torcello. 

There may have been a Roman colony on the island of Torcello—then apparently known by a different name—in the pre-Christian era. The residents were probably fisherman, duck hunters, and others who eked out a living from the sea and the nearby marches. The settlement was probably quite small and may not even been inhabited year-round. Recently uncovered remnants of a Roman pathway dating to the second century a.d. indicate that by then a more substantial settlement may have existed. As we have seen, some refugees from Altinum and other cities of Veneto had fled here during the earlier invasion of the Huns. The latest wave of immigrants fleeing the Lombards included the Dandolo family, ancestors of Enrico Dandolo, at least if we are to believe the Venetiarum Historia. 

The Bishop of Altinum, among the new arrivals on the island, transferred the headquarters of the bishopric from Altinum to Torcello and a year later, in 639, the new church, which according to legend, God had ordered the refugees to build, was dedicated. It was named the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Before leaving Altinum the residents had stripped the city of building materials that might come in handy in their new home, including Roman columns from churches and pagan fanes and other stonework, including even paving stones from the Roman roads that passed by the city. Some of these columns and other stonework may have been included in the new church. The immigrants from Altinum had also brought the relics of their local saint, St Eliodoro, and these were placed in Santa Maria Assunta.

Torcello, now inhabited by industrious former citizens of Altinum, flourished. Although founded 217 years after the quasi-official date of the founding of Venice on, it soon began the largest commercial center in the Lagoon, far surpassing the settlements on the Rivoalto islands in size and importance. Indeed, some consider it “the cradle of Venice” which would help populace the later much larger city. By the the twelfth century the island was home to probably 20,000 to 30,000 people, even 50,000 according to some estimates. By the thirteenth century, however, silt from nearby rivers entering the Lagoon began building up around the island. Trading ships were unable to land and eventually commerce dwindled. Also, some of the silt banks turned into marshland that became infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Torcello became a very unhealthy place to live. By the beginning of the fifteen century many residents had fled to other, more salubrious islands in the Lagoon, including Burano, Murano, and Venice. In 1689 the Bishopric, after 1051 years in Torcello, was transferred to Murano. By the beginning of the nineteen century only some 300 people remained. Less than one hundred people (ten, according to one source) currently reside on the island full-time.

The island of Torcello is located 5.13 miles, as the tern flies, northeast of the water bus stops at the Fondamente Nuova, on the north side of Venice. Several water buses a day go directly to Torcello; more go to the nearby island of Burano, where other water buses can be taken for the short hop to Torcello. From the dock a pathway, most of it brick-paved, along side a canal to the right extends 2050 feet to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. On the left is deserted brush land. Closer to the church are a few restaurants and cafes, including the charmingly named “Throne of Attila” and the famous Locanda Cipriani, which also rents rooms. Just beyond the Locanda Cipriani soars the bulk of the Santa Maria Assunta. The original church that the Altinum refugees built was revised and enlarged in 864 and again around 1008. Apparently the basic outline of the church is unchanged since then. Several elements dating to time when the Dandolos lived here—assuming again that the Venetiarum Historia is correct about the origins for the family—remain, however, most notably the circular baptistery in front of later, larger church. A remnant of the original church, the baptistery is said to date from 639. Possibly members of the Dandolo family were baptized here. 
Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta as seen from Burano

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
Baptistery in front of later, larger church said to date from seventh century
The Locanda Cipriani. Queen Elizabeth II, Edward Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson, Queen Alexandria of Yugoslavia, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and a host of other Royals have visited here. Other notable guests included Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway (he stayed here when he came to Torcello on duck hunting expeditions; reportedly he himself drained six bottles of wine a night while in residence), John Dos Passos, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Somerset Maugham, Max Ernst, Nancy Mitford, Margaret Thatcher, and a host of others. 
Inside the church the roof is held up two rows of slender marble columns, nine to each row. Two of the columns, (the second and third on the south side) are said to date from the sixth century and were probably brought from Altinum by the original settlers on the island, perhaps including the Dandolos, along with numerous other smaller columns and capitals in the interior for the church. Behind the high altar is a Roman sarcophagus dating from the second or third century a.d said to contain the relics of St. Eliodoro, also brought from Altinum by the refugees. To the left of the altar, inset in the wall, is the stone tablet recording the consecration of the church in 639. This may be the oldest dated document of Venetian history. In the courtyard in front of the church can be seen the stone chair said to be the throne of Attila the Hun, although its provenance is almost certainly apocryphal. 

Throne of Attila the Hun?
Of course most visitors to Torcello today come not to ponder the historical remnants of Altinum but instead to gape at the magnificent mosaic entitled “The Last Judgement” that covers almost the entire west wall of the interior of the church. Although one of the crowning achievements of Byzantine art, it dates to the late eleventh century, long after the Dandolos would have left Torcello, and thus need not concern us here.