Vittore Carpaccio - Leone di San Marco (1516)

“Venice and the Mediterranean” by Giuseppe Gullino

[Tempo di Lettura: 6 minuti]

“But ships are just fragile boards, and sailors are just men,” Shylock snarls. The sea hides many a danger. And yet history teaches us that endless waters and maritime deserts can be traversed (consider how Columbus crossed the Atlantic in three wooden buckets), but sand deserts cannot. That is why the Arabs’ endeavour was so heroic when, in the course of hardly a century, they rode on horseback from their home peninsula through the African coast of the Mediterranean, across Gibraltar, and then straight to the heart of France (Charles Martel defeats them at Poitiers in 732, exactly a century after Mohammed’s death). If the Sahara had not stopped them, they would have taken over the entire African continent.

And yet the sea – as we know – is the foundation of Venice’s fortune, where political expansionism and economic wealth coincide. A clarification is in order here: Venice was born rich. Now, different from other cities such as Troy, Athens, Rome, even Padua, Venice has no founding father or eponymous hero. As the legend goes, the community on the lagoon came into existence as a result of successive waves of refugees from the mainland. They fled from the barbarians, from the Lombardic tribes who owned the plains but recoiled from water. Thus, the local population found a shelter in water – not a salubrious one perhaps, but at least it was safe. Who were those who fled to the salty waters? Surely the wealthiest, the descendants of Roman senators and landowners. They hid among the lagoon strips with their jewels, artworks, and certificates of possession that lay claim to the land they would later have to share with the invaders. The farmers, on the contrary, needed not to worry. If the invaders had killed them, who would get the harvest in the following year? They were barbarians, not idiots. The harvest was indispensable – in descending order of importance – to the barbarian himself, to his sons, his horse, and his wife. Considering that the first lagoon settlers were far from being poor derelicts, it is not surprising that the community evolved so rapidly. Moreover, geographical and political factors proved highly beneficial in this respect.

Unlike Genoa, Venice had access to great rivers (the Po, the Adige, and the Brenta) that could be navigated all-year- round; this facilitated its relationships with the mainland.
In addition, we just have to turn the map of Europe by 180° and we realize that the Adriatic reaches further into the continent than any other water basin.

Vittore Carpaccio - Leone di San Marco (1516)
Vittore Carpaccio – Leone di San Marco (1516)

With the Pax Nicephori – concluded between Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus and Charlemagne in 814 – Venice was assigned to the Eastern Roman Empire. The lagoon ended up as the remotest outpost of Byzantium, a far and ever weaker political entity. This spared the Venetian population the never-ending sequence of conflicts that marked the ominous Italian Middle Ages.

In these circumstances, Venice gained considerable autonomy and consolidated it after the relocation of Saint Mark’s body from Egypt to the lagoon in 828. The Basilica became home to a Saint, and not just any Saint, an Evangelist: one of the first-hand interpreters of Jesus’ words. Finally, having emerged victorious after the bloody fourth crusade in 1204, Venice conquered its former master, who handed over its regal symbols and yellow and gold imperial insignias to the Republic and its Doge. In the meanwhile, the Venetian colony in the Bosphorus was so wealthy and prosperous that the Senate took into consideration moving the capital to Constantinople. The small lagoon community which survived by exporting salt to the mainland had risen to the status of uncontested power.

The foundation of so much prosperity was, as I mentioned earlier, commerce. Merchants are the strength of the city, the origin of its vigor, prestige, and fame in the eyes of other Mediterranean countries. The government, too, played a crucial role in establishing an umbilical cord that linked the imperial metropolis to the Syrian producers of spices. Venetian galleys crossed the borders of the lagoon directed to Istria and Dalmatia, down to the Ionian islands, Crete, and, between 1400 and 1500, even Cyprus – which is practically on the border with Asia. Venetian ships could regularly stop and gather supplies in ports that flew the flag of Saint Mark.

The Fourth Crusade had handed Venice the monopoly of the commerce with the Orient: the most profitable exchange the Medieval world had known. Perfumes and spices came from the East, they were used to preserve food and considered luxurious goods, a marker of social status for their owners.

As rich and populous as Venice might have been at the beginning of the 13th century (its population ranged between 60.000 and 70.000 souls), a problem remained. Venice was still a city. How could it possibly handle the military and bureaucratic load that derived from the administration of a territory that stretched as far as the Asian borders? The solution lay in fully exploiting the maritime option, in other words, to transform the Rialto market into an emporium which would be active throughout the year thanks to the diversified supplies flowing in from Syria as well as from the heart of Europe, through the Alps. This way, the large income generated by custom duties would pay for the high administrative costs of a vast domain. Yet, for this plan to succeed, it was necessary that all Venetians made their strengths, skills, intelligence, and resources available to such a major cause. A cooperative effort was absolutely essential. This operation – the first of its kind in the Mediterranean – notoriously succeeded and, for the centuries to come, marked not only the economy, but also the distinguishing anthropological features of Venetian society: namely, patriotism, meritocracy, and social cohesion. This successful endeavor was due to the awareness of a common destiny that was closely dependent on the sea. Some went to sea, some stayed, but the bond between these two components of society was strong and it wrapped the entire city in a web of shared interests and emotional values.

But let us return to commerce. Since safe routes to Spain, Portugal, and France were controlled by Pisa and Genoa and thus precluded to Venice (the only exceptions were Alvise da Mosto, who discovered the Cape Verde islands in 1456 and, later, the Cabotos), the Venetians turned to the Flanders, where they exported alum rocks, cotton, sugar, pepper, and drugs. They brought back textiles, leather, amber, tin, and iron they later sold to the Arabs practically in a regime of monopoly, as Venice’s commercial superiority on the Eastern Mediterranean remained unchallenged.

And yet this virtuous economic circle was jeopardized by its leading actors. Merchants, in fact, exhibited everything but their own culture. First of all, they traded with highly advanced civilizations; second, a merchant’s mindset was strongly shaped by his profession, his chances of success depended on experience and on practices he had learned at the age of twelve or thirteen (the notion of infancy did not exist in the Middle Ages, do you recall seeing children in the Decameron?). His main concern was making money and, to that end, he had to establish cordial relationship with his foreign partners, be they Christians or Muslims. Provoking religious confrontations was unadvisable and claiming cultural superiority even more so.

Interesting evidence for this comes from what may be referred to as religious tourism. This is what happened: Venetian ships carried not only goods, but also pilgrims heading to the Holy Sepulcher. After stopping in Cyprus, the ship continued its journey towards Palestine. The pilgrims got off at Acre and reached Jerusalem, while the merchants sailed on towards Alexandria, Egypt, where they waited for or were expected by their Arab colleagues, who had followed the opposite itinerary. Their journey started in Ormuz, Persia, they stopped by Aden and then sailed up the Red Sea, getting as close as possible to Mecca, left their own pilgrims, and then sailed on to Suez. Here goods were unloaded and, in Alexandria, devotion turned into the loud swearing that consecrated successful transactions. After that, everyone sailed home their own way, picking up their pilgrims and taking them back to the homeland. Probably some Christian took this as a chance to reach Persia or even India, where traces of Venetian presence were found. During the 14th century, Western infiltration in Asia was twofold. On the one hand, Prester John’s much debated letter attracted Dominican and Franciscan missionaries. Prester John was the Negus of Ethiopia, the sovereign of the legendary Copt country in the heart of Africa. On the other hand, some merchants also travelled further into the Orient, most famously, the Polo family. 

Andrea Vicentino - Battaglia di Lepanto (1603, Palazzo Ducale di Venezia)
Andrea Vicentino – Battaglia di Lepanto (1603, Palazzo Ducale di Venezia)

They are in fact a most eloquent example. Once abroad, Polo attempted to go native, adopting language, attire, and habits of the host country, picking a local partner and forming an out-of-wedlock family (which he regularly abandoned at the moment of his departure). After his journeys to the Near East or Mediterranean Africa, Polo even used to wear exotic garb and a turban in his own shop, as if to vouch for the quality of the items on sale. After the Crusades, Venice obtained the right to establish its own fondachi in almost all coastal towns in Syria and Egypt. These settlements were mostly colonies of merchants, planted in the heart of florid, populous cities whose ethnic and economic structure the Venetian settlers never attempted to alter.

Much to the contrary, Eastern influences on the Venetian idiom and culture are easier to find, but this would be a different article.