City of the Lagoons: A History of Venice in a Six-Part Course with Dr. Thomas F. Madden

City of the Lagoons: A History of Venice in a Six-Part Course with Dr. Thomas F. Madden


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In 452 the world was ending.

The last remnants of the Roman Empire were crumbling under the relentless onslaught of waves of barbarian migrations. In Italian cities like Altinum and Aquileia, frightened refugees gathered their belongings and fled to the sandy, barren islands of the nearby lagoon. Although they could never have known it, these desperate men, women, and children were the founders of one of history’s most remarkable cities. From a marshy archipelago, they would bring forth the extraordinary beauty that is Venice – a city unlike any other in the world.

It did not happen all at once. For centuries the lagoon remained a collection of island communities. Even after settlements began to cluster around Rialto, Venice was still a place of wood and mud. But that too would change. By the thirteenth century, Venice was not simply a town built on the water, it was the second-largest city in western Europe with a maritime empire that stretched across the Mediterranean Sea. Venice and wealth would become kindred concepts. And with that wealth, the Venetians built a magnificent city – a stunning composition of stone and water that still evokes wonder today.

This course, offered by Dr. Thomas F. Madden, one of the world’s leading historians of Venice and author of 'Venice: A New History' and 'Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice', will tell the fascinating story of this remarkable place. Venice is a place of contradictions – a city without land, an empire without territory. Everyone knows what Venice is, but few know why it is or how it came to be. This course will guide participants to discover those answers. Venice is not simply a work of art. It is the birthplace of modern capitalism. While the rest of medieval Europe groaned under kings and landed magnates, the Venetians formed a free republic – one that would last for a thousand years.

Lecture 1: St. Mark’s Rest: The Birth of the City of Venice, 697-1094

The refugees that fled the mainland in the wake of the invasions were forced to carve out new lives amid the brackish waters of the lagoon. This lecture will describe their difficulties and extraordinary successes as they forged a new republic in defiance of an age of chaos.

Lecture 2: From Merchant Republic to Maritime Empire: The Rise of Venice in the Middle Ages

By 1250 Venice was the largest city in Europe with a commercial empire that stretches across the Eastern Mediterranean. In this lecture, participants will be introduced to Venetians like Enrico Dandolo, the blind old doge who helped conquer Constantinople and transformed the city of the lagoons.

Lecture 3: From Marco Polo to the Black Death: Prosperity, Power, and Plague on the Eve of Renaissance

Business was brisk in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and Venetian businessmen were eager for their share. This lecture will explore the fierce rivalries between Venice and Genoa that led to voyages like that of Marco Polo and the import of diseases like the Bubonic Plague.

Lecture 4: Splendid and Serene: Venice and the Renaissance

Although the Renaissance began in Florence, Venice with its extraordinary wealth was an early adopter. In this lecture, we will meet the greatest of Venice’s artists – men like Jacopo and Gentile Bellini, Titian, Vittore Carpaccio, Tintoretto, and Andrea Palladio – and the society that patronized them.

Lecture 5: Masks, Opera, and Love: Venice the Tourist Destination in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

With the rise of the Atlantic powers, Venice’s imperial reach declined rapidly. Yet, it remained the world’s most beloved destination for wealthy foreign tourists. This lecture will describe the sights and sounds of Baroque Venice, from the Carnevale costumes to the dimly lit casinos, to the music of Vivaldi.

Lecture 6: War, Water, and Tourists: Venice in the Modern Age

After Napoleon abolished the Republic of Venice, the city found itself in a period of decay and self-doubt. The advent of trains and jets, though, began to bring tourists to Venice from around the world. This lecture will describe the enormous changes that the city has undergone in the past century, leading to a future threatened by the rising levels of sea and tourism.

How does it work?

This is a six-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in Venetian history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $210 for 6 lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

Thomas F Madden is a Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and the author of the best selling book Venice: A New History. As an author and historical consultant, he has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, and The History Channel. He is a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Medieval Academy of America, and he is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar.

This course is suitable for all ages.

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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