Would you like to find out what the lagoon of Venice looked like 2000 years ago, and which legend has been connected with it? 2000 years ago you would have come across wide stretches of sea lavender spanning the lagoon, and the notion of the “Seven Seas” would have been familiar to you: It was the Romans that referred to the lagoons lining the northern Adriatic sea as the “Septem maria” – Seven Seas, mainly covered by the mauve and purple-colored sea lavender species – limonium. In the lagoon today, these plants are ever present as they literally cover the barene, surviving the tides closing around them twice a day. Limonium grows by the mouths of the rivers discharging their waters into the lagoon, as well as in the outer parts of the lagoon as it likes the more saline spots too.
One of my books on Venetian legends describes the ancient lagoon landscape like this:
“At that time, the lagoon was a swarm of green islands, sandy shores, solitary water mirrors surrounded by reeds and ferns, where currents foamed and tides cut meanders and rivulets. One seemed to be in the heart of a plain, full of bird cries and breaths of wind”.
So you can see, there are stretches in the lagoon that really resemble the antique lagoonscapes with their flora and quiet places where sea birds can nest.
The salt marshes, barene and velme, these are islets only submerged during the high tides, are thickly covered with plants. Though inhospitable for many fresh water loving plants, they are the right environment for halophytic species requiring more salty soils. Rushes and reeds, on the other hand, love fresh water – you will rather find them next to the mouths of the rivers.
In Roman times, 2000 years ago, the Adriatic shoreline was further inland than now (in the meantime, the deltas and mouths of the rivers have grown and accumulated – marshes and sand banks, the area has become much more shallow).
Roman author Plinius the Elder (he lived from 23-79 AD) tells us about the aspect of these ancient lagoon landscape, separated from the open sea by sandbanks and sprinkled with tiny islets. A lagoon quite different from today’s as you will see. At those times, the expression “sailing the seven seas” was coined, meaning that special know how was required to cross the marshy landscape, the navigable network in the midst of the lagoons, a nautical skill ascribed to the Venetians long before they sailed the Mediterranean and beyond.
This ancient lagoon actually stretched from Ravenna in the South to Aquileia in the North. The Romans built a straight road across it in northern direction, the Via Popilia, towards the town of Altino. From Altino to Aquileia, the Via Aemilia (62 miles long) skirted the northern lagoons. But in parallel to these land routes, internal lagoon waterways following natural water courses in the midst of islands (barene) were available. Now and then salt was extracted from the salt marshes, fishermen lived there hidden behind thick reeds, in makeshift huts built from canes, reeds and straw, and the people living along the shores ventured across to hunt geese and other water birds on special flat wooden rafts and boats. So it was a well-known territory to the people living along the rivers and on the shores of the lagoons to find a safe haven when they were threatened by foreign invaders from the 5th century onwards.
Our Lagoon was ONE rich garden for these first soon-to-be-settlers: pine trees were lining the Cavallino and Equilium shores, with wild horses living there (equilium / cavallino means “horse”).
There is also a legend connected to the times of the Seven Seas: approx. in the year 50 AD, legends have it that Saint Mark traveling from Aquileia to Rome, on his way across the lagoons was surprised by a gale, had to stop and find refuge on an island that was to be part of the town of Venice later – the island where the monastery of San Francesco della Vigna is located, in the Venetian sestriere of Castello. Here St. Mark had a dream when an angel told him that he would return to a future city to be built right in that place in the midst of the lagoon, later on, as patron saint.
… behind these walls are the cloister gardens, and the Chiesetta di San Marco
So if you would like to witness this magical and enchanted atmosphere of times long past, I suggest that you take a few days to get to know the Laguna Nord – beyond Torcello, towards the villages and area of Lio Piccolo, le Mesole. Or you could also visit the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. It is a relaxing yet insightful trip back into the past …. helping us reconnect to the past and original aspect of the lagoon, and to its sensitive equilibrium to be preserved.