The story of Venice, guarded in the State Archive, opens to the public with a virtual exhibition

16 December 2021

Venice, December 3rd, 2021 – Testaments from which the fear of dying without having settled their belongings can be perceived. Ancient documents of the Serenissima protecting the arts. A document – signed by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – sent to the Venetian Senate in 1784 by Daniele Dolfin, where a friendship treaty between the Serenissima and the United States was wished for. Drawings that date back to the 1500s representing the lagoon between the Sile’s mouth and the San Felice canal. And again, the first document reporting the name Arsenale, the purchase agreement of a 16-year-old slave for 25 golden ducat, the register with which the venetian Ghetto was established and the proposal – written by Baldassarre Longhena – to build the Basilica della Salute, a peculiar church recalling the shape of a rosary. With its 80 kilometres of shelves, the Venice State Archive, next to the Basilica dei Frari, is an invaluable treasure trove of secrets, documents and stories that has shaped Venice for 1600 years. The whole life of Venice is stored in these shelves. To pay an homage to the city, in the year in which it celebrates its 1600 years from its foundation, the Archive has selected about a hundred documents that prove some of the most important moments of the city: from the age of the Serenissima, to the foreign domains until the present days. A virtual exhibition titled “I secoli di Venezia. Dai documenti dell’Archivio di Stato”, curated by the archive expert Andrea Pelizza together with the Archive employees.

“We made a document selection, and we divided the documents on the basis of different thematic areas – explains Pelizza – we chose the ones that could convey the message of how wide and rich the venetian archive through centuries was. Something that could show how the political and social life was, as well as which were the artistic activities carried out and the health and welfare arrangements, according to the pandemic times we are living in”. A virtual exhibition will be available on a specific website (designed by Salvatore Toscano) due to the restoration works that the Archive has been undergoing and to the covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

“We have realised more than 100 cards, covering a period that reaches the 1960s. Basically, we provide an historical overview of documents that stretched over a thousand years – continues Pelizza -. We have ancient registers referring to the most important bodies of the Serenissima Republic, such as a register in which the Doges’ oaths are reported”. These documents reported the limits within which the Doge could act. As we know, the Doge wasn’t a prince or an absolute sovereign as in other parts of Europe: he used to be elected by other venetian nobles and was limited by the oath; he had to embody the Republic. Several are the oaths contained in this register which date back to the 13th and 14th century. Every Doge was joined by advisors who also had to swear to respect State laws. In this virtual exhibition we can find a document in which the oaths written texts according to which every advisor claimed to act to safeguard the city of Venice are contained.

Although the Doge was the main and most powerful figure in Venice, the Republic was a deeply organised body with specific departments aimed at managing specific fields. And so, on the website of the Archive we can observe how a specific body of the Serenissima concerning healthcare faced severe situations concerning health, from plagues to the daily healthcare life in the city of Venice and in any other city under the Serenissima’s domain. And again, the first authorization given to Giovanni di Spira in 1469 to print documents in the city.

“In the exhibition we wanted to provide documents proving the countless activities that took place in Venice and that were carried out by venetians or foreigners – explains the archive expert -. This register proves the existence of two brothers, Giovanni and Vindelino da Spira, German printers, who were authorised to carry out their activity; they were the first ones to obtain this privilege in 1469. In Venice the art of printing has always been important and, this city, became one of the most important and flourishing press centres at a European level, at least until the 1700s.” The exhibition will also provide the public with an important document written by architect Baldassarre Longhena and addressed to the Doge and the senators to propose a change. Basically, the idea was to establish a circular-based building recalling the rosary, after the plague of 1630. There is also a session entirely dedicated to coins, where documents that date back to the X century state the seats in which coins were forged. Moreover, there are documents proving the construction of the mint by Jacopo Sansovino. And again, people’s testaments as well as artists' ones such as Antonio Canova, Rosalba Carriera, and the poet Giorgio Baffo. These are curious documents that list people’s belongings and prove a person’s social status as well as who were his or her loved ones and how he or she had lived.

It is Italy’s biggest State Archive and was established in Venice in 1815. It was first used with the aim of guarding important documents related to Venetian provinces as well as Lombard ones. The main concern was related to the will to store and preserve documents produced by the Serenissima in a bigger seat. So, between 1815 and 1821, the government decided to move documents that until that time were stored within the Doge’s Palace, Rialto, the Scuole Grandi and in other archives, in a huge space that so far had been given to monks. The exhibition can be visited until February 28th at this website: