Venice looks and feels different because its heritage is different. Until the 9th Century, it was part of the Byzantine Empire. In 909-1171 or so, Europe was recovering from the invasions that destroyed the Roman Empire, and trade was on the rise. Venice was in an optimal location, and developed its own sense of value: money. The rest of Europe focused on land as indicative of riches. Not so Venice. Gold, money, convoys of ships known as "mude" brought back goods from the East, and in 1204, it was Venice that led the Crusade against fellow-Christian Constantinople. Meanwhile, turning salt, grain and cloth into gold was its ongoing alchemy, see Saudi Aramco World magazine July-August 2005, http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200504/monsoons.i.mude.i.and.gold.htm
Maritime Venice even sought to break the Muslim monopoly in the Indian Ocean, rather than remain satisfied with goods arriving at Alexandria. Its shipbuilding assembly line, the arsenal, was impressive.
With neither king nor lands, Venice ran on gold: to them, it ushered in fear and respect. This was a travesty to the Muslims, who saw gold as a tool, but only the deity commanded fear and respect, see article.
The heritage is in danger. The Adriatic Lagoon is expected to rise by 20 feet by the end of the century. That gives time to visit, and there are flood defenses in progress: The Experimental Electromechanical Module, or Mose project, is a conglomeration of huge steel barriers designed to rise out of the sea bed as needed to preserve the city from the sea. See Mose Project Aims to Part Venice Floods, at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17855145. It should be operating by 2014. Meanwhile, says the Financial Times, invest wisely. Purchase your vacation pied au mer above sea level. See High Tides, Receding Prices.
The empire of Venice has qualities unique from the rest of EuropeTo visit Croatia, for example, is to find Venice, and Rome. The view of Venice is not flattering: see Senj, the City; and the Uskoks, who defended against the Ottomans on behalf of the Venetians, who then reneged on obligations to pay the Uskoks, see http://croatiaroadways.blogspot.com/#!/2006/06/senj-and-uskoks-unknown-people.html. Venetian culture was not common good as to any population but its own, not other-directed, but an unbridled Renaissance capitalism that looked out for its own. Profits, sought and opportunities enforced with vengeance.
Now read City of Fortune, How Venice Ruled the Sea, by Robert Crowley, review at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/city-of-fortune-how-venice-ruled-the-seas-by-roger-crowley-book-review.html?scp=1&sq=book%20review%20City%20of%20Fortune&st=cse. He sees the focus of the Venetians as establishing a monopoly at any cost, over their sea trade routes.
Of particular interest is Venice's response when the Papacy did not deliver 33,000 crusaders as contracted, for ferrying to the Holy Land. Only 12,000 showed up, so Venice took them not to the Holy Land, but dumped them at Constantinople where the pillaging began. "Fair weather Christians," says the reviewer, Nigel Cliff, as they commandeered Byzantine sea ports. I have the book on a wait list from the library, just the review read so far, but I hope Mr. Cliff and Mr. Crowley remember the Uskoks. Veer to them at http://www.balkanhistory.com/uskoks_of_senj.htm. No accounts of any peoples are unambiguous, and untainted by the interests of the teller, and this one slides over the betrayal theme that the castle at Senj focuses upon. But that was Venice. The only aim was commercial, not moral.