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The floating city in northern Italy was once a bleak swampland that protected 5th-century settlers from rampaging Huns.

Venice Italy, image
Photo caption
The late writer Luigi Barzini described Venice “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.”

Few who have been there would dispute the writer Luigi Barzini’s fond description of Venice as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” It was not always so. Scholars say its settlers chose the place in the 5th century for its swampy bleakness as they sought to escape the reach of rampaging Huns. (Who, after all, wants to pillage a bog?) Later generations built on logs pounded into the mud, and Venice has been sinking even as its fortunes have risen. A century ago, high tides flooded the iconic plaza of St. Mark’s Basilica about nine times a year; today, the figure is closer to 100 times a year. The beauty of the city’s neighborhoods and grand structures gathers ever greater poignancy as Venice is threatened by the very waters that once protected it.

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Photography courtesy Krzysztof Melech/Alamy

This article was first published in January 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.