Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
To make an annual report in September upon the Commercial Transactions of the port, was an official duty to which I looked forward at Venice with a vague feeling of injury during a year of almost uninterrupted tranquillity. It was not because the preparation of the report was an affair of so great labor that I shrank from it; but because the material was wanting with which to make a respectable show among my consular peers in the large and handsomely misprinted volume of Commercial Relations annually issued by the enterprising Congressional publishers. It grieved me that upstart ports like Marseilles, Liverpool, and Bremen, should occupy so much larger space in this important volume than my beloved Venice; and it was with a feeling of profound mortification that I used to post my meagre account of a commerce that once was greater than all the rest of the world’s together. I sometimes desperately eked out the material furnished me in the statistics of the Venetian Chamber of Commerce by an agricultural essay on the disease of the grapes and its cure, or by a few wretched figures representative of a very slender mining interest in the province. But at last I determined to end these displeasures, and to make such researches into the history of her Commerce as should furnish me forth material for a report worthy of the high place Venice held in my reverence.
Indeed, it seemed to be by a sort of anachronism that I had ever mentioned contemporary Venetian Commerce; and I turned with exultation from the phantom transactions of the present to that solid and magnificent prosperity of the past, of which the long-enduring foundations were laid in the earliest Christian times. For the new cities formed by the fugitives from barbarian invasion of the main-land, during the fifth century, had hardly settled around a common democratic government on the islands of the lagoons, when they began to develop maritime energies and resources; and long before this government was finally established at Rialto, (the ancient sea-port of Padua,) or Venice had become the capital of the young Republic, the Veneti had thriftily begun to turn the wild invaders of the main-land to account, to traffic with them, and to make treaties of commerce with their rulers. Theodoric, the king of the Goths, had fixed his capital at Ravenna, in the sixth century, and would have been glad to introduce Italian civilization among his people; but this warlike race were not prepared to practice the useful arts, and although they inhabited one of the most fruitful parts of Italy, with ample borders of sea, they were neither sailors nor tillers of the ground. The Venetians supplied them (at a fine profit, no doubt,) with the salt made in the lagoons, and with wines brought from Istria. The Goths viewed with especial amazement their skill in the management of their river-craft, by means of which the dauntless traders ascended the shallowest streams to penetrate the main-land, “running on the grass of the meadows, and between the stalks of the harvest field,”—just as in this day our own western steamers are known to run in a heavy dew.
The Venetians continued to extend and confirm their commerce with those helpless and hungry warriors, and were ready also to open a lucrative trade with the Longobards when they descended into Italy about the year 570. They had, in fact, abetted the Longobards in their war with the Greek Emperor Justinian, (who had opposed their incursion,) and in return the barbarians gave them the right to hold great free marts or fairs on the shores of the lagoons, whither the people resorted from every part of the Longobard kingdom to buy the salt of the lagoons, grain from Istria and Dalmatia, and slaves from every country.
The slave-trade, indeed, formed then one of the most lucrative branches of Venetian commerce, as now it forms the greatest stain upon the annals of that commerce. The islanders, however, were not alone guilty of this infamous trade in men; other Italian states made profit of it, and it may be said to have been all but universal. But the Venetians were the most deeply involved in it, they pursued it the most unscrupulously, and they relinquished it the last. The pope forbade and execrated their commerce, and they sailed from the papal ports with cargoes of slaves for the infidels in Africa. In spite of the prohibitions of their own government, they bought Christians of kidnappers throughout Europe, and purchased the captives of the pirates on the seas, to sell them again to the Saracens. Nay, being an ingenious people, they turned their honest penny over and over again: they sold the Christians to the Saracens, and then for certain sums ransomed them and restored them to their countries; they sold Saracens to the Christians, and plundered the infidels in similar transactions of ransom and restoration. It is not easy to fix the dates of the rise or fall of this slave-trade; but slavery continued in Venice as late as the fifteenth century, and in earlier ages was so common that every prosperous person had two or three slaves1. The corruption of the citizens at this time is properly attributed in part to the existence of slavery among them; and Mutinelli goes so far as to declare that the institution impressed permanent traits on the populace, rendering them idle and indisposed to honest labor, by degrading labor and making it the office of bondmen.
While this hateful and enormous traffic in man was growing up, the Venetians enriched themselves by many other more blameless and legitimate forms of commerce, and gradually gathered into their grasp that whole trade of the East with Europe which passed through their hands for so many ages. After the dominion of the Franks was established in Italy in the eighth century, they began to supply that people, more luxurious than the Lombards, with the costly stuffs, the rich jewelry, and the perfumes of Byzantium; and held a great annual fair at the imperial city of Pavia, where they sold the Franks the manufactures of the polished and effeminate Greeks, and whence in return they carried back to the East the grain, wine, wool, iron, lumber, and excellent armor of Lombardy.
From the time when they had assisted the Longobards against the Greeks, the Venetians found it to their interest to cultivate the friendship of the latter, until, in the twelfth century, they mastered the people so long caressed, and took their capital, under Enrico Dandolo. The privileges conceded to the wily and thrifty republican traders by the Greek Emperors, were extraordinary in their extent and value. Otho, the western Caesar, having succeeded the Franks in the dominion of Italy, had already absolved the Venetians from the annual tribute paid the Italian kings for the liberty of traffic, and had declared their commerce free throughout the Peninsula. In the mean time they had attacked and beaten the pirates of Dalmatia, and the Greeks now recognized their rule all over Dalmatia, thus securing to the Republic every port on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. Then, as they aided the Greeks to repel the aggressions of the Saracens and Normans, their commerce was declared free in all the ports of the empire, and they were allowed to trade without restriction in all the cities, and to build warehouses and dépôts throughout the dominions of the Greeks, wherever they chose. The harvest they reaped from the vast field thus opened to their enterprise, must have more than compensated them for their losses in the barbarization of the Italian continent by the incessant civil wars which followed the disruption of the Lombard League, when trade and industry languished throughout Italy. When the Crusaders had taken the Holy Land, the king of Jerusalem bestowed upon the Venetians, in return for important services against the infidel, the same privileges conceded them by the Greek Emperor; and when, finally, Constantinople fell into the hands of the Crusaders, (whom they had skillfully diverted from the reconquest of Palestine to the siege of the Greek metropolis,) nearly all the Greek islands fell to the share of Venice; and the Latin emperors, who succeeded the Greeks in dominion, gave her such privileges as made her complete mistress of the commerce of the Levant.
From this opulent traffic the insatiable enterprise of the Republic turned, without relinquishing the old, to new gains in the farthest Orient. Against her trade the exasperated infidel had closed the Egyptian ports, but she did not scruple to coax the barbarous prince of the Scythian Tartars, newly descended upon the shores of the Black Sea; and having secured his friendship, she proceeded, without imparting her design to her Latin allies at Constantinople, to plant a commercial colony at the mouth of the Don, where the city of Azof stands. Through this entrepôt, thenceforward, Venetian energy, with Tartar favor, directed the entire commerce of Asia with Europe, and incredibly enriched the Republic. The vastness and importance of such a trade, even at that day, when the wants of men were far simpler and fewer than now, could hardly be over-stated; and one nation then monopolized the traffic which is now free to the whole world. The Venetians bought their wares at the great marts of Samarcand, and crossed the country of Tartary in caravans to the shores of the Caspian Sea, where they set sail and voyaged to the River Volga, which they ascended to the point of its closest proximity to the Don. Their goods were then transported overland to the Don, and were again carried by water down to their mercantile colony at its mouth. Their ships, having free access to the Black Sea, could, after receiving their cargoes, return direct to Venice. The products of every country of Asia were carried into Europe by these dauntless traffickers, who, enlightened and animated by the travels and discoveries of Matteo, Nicolò, and Marco Polo, penetrated the remotest regions, and brought away the treasures which the prevalent fears and superstitions of other nations would have deterred them from seeking, even if they had possessed the means of access to them.
The partial civilization of the age of chivalry had now reached its climax, and the class which had felt its refining effects was that best able to gratify the tastes still unknown to the great mass of the ignorant and impoverished people. It was a splendid time, and the robber counts and barons of the continent, newly tamed and Christianized into knights, spent splendidly, as became magnificent cavaliers serving noble ladies. The Venetians, who seldom did merely heroic things, who turned the Crusades to their own account and made money out of the Holy Land, and whom one always fancies as having a half scorn of the noisy grandeur of chivalry, were very glad to supply the knights and ladies with the gorgeous stuffs, precious stones, and costly perfumes of the East; and they now also began to establish manufactories, and to practice the industrial arts at home. Their jewelers and workers in precious metals soon became famous throughout Europe; the glass-works of Murano rose into celebrity and importance which they have never since lost (for they still supply the world with beads); and they began to weave stuffs of gold tissue at Venice, and silks so exquisitely dyed that no cavalier or dame of perfect fashion was content with any other. Besides this they gilded leather for lining walls, wove carpets, and wrought miracles of ornament in wax,—a material that modern taste is apt to disdain,—while Venetian candles in chandeliers of Venetian glass lighted up the palaces of the whole civilized world.
The private enterprise of citizens was in every way protected and encouraged by the State, which did not, however, fail to make due and just profit out of it. The ships of the merchants always sailed to and from Venice in fleets, at stated seasons, seven fleets departing annually,—one for the Greek dominions, a second for Azof, a third for Trebizond, a fourth for Cyprus, a fifth for Armenia, a sixth for Spain, France, the Low Countries, and England, and a seventh for Africa. Each squadron of traders was accompanied and guarded from attacks of corsairs and other enemies, by a certain number of the state galleys, let severally to the highest bidders for the voyage, at a price never less than about five hundred dollars of our money. The galleys were all manned and armed by the State, and the crew of each amounted to three hundred persons; including a captain, four supercargoes, eight pilots, two carpenters, two calkers, a master of the oars, fifty cross-bowmen, three drummers, and two hundred rowers. The State also appointed a commandant of the whole squadron, with absolute authority to hear complaints, decide controversies, and punish offences.
While the Republic was thus careful in the protection and discipline of its citizens in their commerce upon the seas, it was no less zealous for their security and its own dignity in their traffic with the continent of Europe. In that rude day, neither the life nor the property of the merchant who visited the ultramontane countries was safe; for the sorry device which he practiced, of taking with him a train of apes, buffoons, dancers, and singers, in order to divert his ferocious patrons from robbery and murder, was not always successful. The Venetians, therefore, were forbidden by the State to trade in those parts; and the Bohemians, Germans, and Hungarians, who wished to buy their wares, were obliged to come to the lagoons and buy them at the great marts which were held in different parts of the city, and on the neighboring main-land. A triple purpose was thus served,—the Venetian merchants were protected in their lives and goods, the national honor was saved from insult, and many an honest zecchino was turned by the innkeepers and others who lodged and entertained the customers of the merchants.
Five of these great fairs were held every week, the chief market being at Rialto; and the transactions in trade were carefully supervised by the servants of the State. Among the magistracies especially appointed for the orderly conduct of the foreign and domestic commerce were the so-called Mercantile Consuls (Ufficio dei Consoli dei Mercanti), whose special duty it was to see that the traffic of the nation received no hurt from the schemes of any citizen or foreigner, and to punish offenses of this kind with banishment and even graver penalties. They measured every ship about to depart, to learn if her cargo exceeded the lawful amount; they guarded creditors against debtors and protected poor debtors against the rapacity of creditors, and they punished thefts sustained by the merchants. It is curious to find contemporary with this beneficent magistracy, a charge of equal dignity exercised by the College of Reprisals. A citizen offended in his person or property abroad, demanded justice of the government of the country in which the offense was committed. If the demand was refused, it was repeated by the Republic; if still refused, then the Republic, although at peace with the nation from which the offense came, seized any citizen of that country whom it could find, and, through its College of Reprisals, spoiled him of sufficient property to pay the damage done to its citizen. Finally, besides several other magistracies resident in Venice, the Republic appointed Consuls in its colonies and some foreign ports, to superintend the traffic of its citizens, and to compose their controversies. The Consuls were paid out of duties levied on the merchandise; they were usually nobles, and acted with the advice and consent of twelve other Venetian nobles or merchants.
At this time, and, indeed, throughout its existence, the great lucrative monopoly of the Republic was the salt manufactured in the lagoons, and forced into every market, at rates that no other salt could compete with. Wherever alien enterprise attempted rivalry, it was instantly discouraged by Venice. There were troublesome salt mines, for example, in Croatia; and in 1381 the Republic caused them to be closed by paying the King of Hungary an annual pension of seven thousand crowns of gold. The exact income of the State, however, from the monopoly of salt, or from the various imposts and duties levied upon merchandise, it is now difficult to know, and it is impossible to compute accurately the value or extent of Venetian commerce at any one time. It reached the acme of its prosperity under Tommaso Mocenigo, who was Doge from 1414 to 1423. There were then three thousand and three hundred vessels of the mercantile marine, giving employment to thirty-three thousand seamen, and netting to their owners a profit of forty per cent, on the capital invested. How great has been the decline of this trade may be understood from the fact that in 1863 it amounted, according to the careful statistics of the Chamber of Commerce, to only $60,229,740, and that the number of vessels now owned in Venice is one hundred and fifty. As the total tonnage of these is but 26,000, it may be inferred that they are small craft, and in fact they are nearly all coasting vessels. They no longer bring to Venice the drugs and spices and silks of Samarcand, or carry her own rare manufactures to the ports of western Europe; but they sail to and from her canals with humble freights of grain, lumber, and hemp. Almost as many Greek as Venetian ships now visit the old queen, who once levied a tax upon every foreign vessel in her Adriatic; and the shipping from the cities of the kingdom of Italy exceeds hers by ninety sail, while the tonnage of Great Britain is vastly greater. Her commerce has not only wasted to the shadow of its former magnitude, but it has also almost entirely lost its distinctive character. Glass of Murano is still exported to a value of about two millions of dollars annually; but in this industry, as in nearly all others of the lagoons, there is an annual decline. The trade of the port falls off from one to three millions of dollars yearly, and the manufacturing interests of the province have dwindled in the same proportion. So far as silk is concerned, there has been an immediate cause for the decrease in the disease which has afflicted the cocoons for several years past. Wine and oil are at present articles of import solely,—the former because of a malady of the grape, the latter because of negligent cultivation of the olive.
A considerable number of persons are still employed in the manufacture of objects of taste and ornament; and in the Ruga Vecchia at Rialto they yet make the famous Venetian gold chain, which few visitors to the city can have failed to notice hanging in strands and wound upon spools, in the shop windows of the Old Procuratie and the Bridge of Rialto. It is wrought of all degrees of fineness, and is always so flexile that it may be folded and wound in any shape. It is now no longer made in great quantity, and is chiefly worn by contadine (as a safe investment of their ready money)2, and old-fashioned people of the city, who display the finer sort in skeins or strands. At Chioggia, I remember to have seen a babe at its christening in church literally manacled and shackled with Venetian chain; and the little girl who came to us one day, to show us the splendors in which she had appeared at a disputa (examination of children in doctrine), was loaded with it. Formerly, in the luxurious days of the Republic, it is said the chain was made as fine as sewing-silk, and worn embroidered on Genoa velvet by the patrician dames. It had then a cruel interest from the fact that its manufacture, after a time, cost the artisans their eyesight, so nice and subtle was the work. I could not help noticing that the workmen at the shops in the Ruga Vecchia still suffer in their eyes, even though the work is much coarser. I do not hope to describe the chain, except by saying that the links are horseshoe and oval shaped, and are connected by twos,—an oval being welded crosswise into a horseshoe, and so on, each two being linked loosely into the next.
An infinitely more important art, in which Venice was distinguished a thousand years ago, has recently been revived there by Signor Salviati, an enthusiast in mosaic painting. His establishment is on the Grand Canal, not far from the Academy, and you might go by the old palace quite unsuspicious of the ancient art stirring with new life in its breast. “A. Salviati, Avvocato,” is the legend of the bell-pull, and you do not by any means take this legal style for that of the restorer of a neglected art, and a possessor of forgotten secrets in gilded glass and “smalts,” as they term the small delicate rods of vitreous substance, with which the wonders of the art are achieved. But inside of the palace are some two hundred artisans at work,—cutting the smalts and glass into the minute fragments of which the mosaics are made, grinding and smoothing these fragments, polishing the completed works, and reproducing, with incredible patience and skill, the lights and shadows of the pictures to be copied.
You first enter the rooms of those whose talent distinguishes them as artists, and in whose work all the wonderful neatness and finish and long-suffering toil of the Byzantines are visible, as well as original life and inspiration alike impossible and profane to the elder mosaicists. Each artist has at hand a great variety of the slender stems of smalts already mentioned, and breaking these into minute fragments as he proceeds, he inserts them in the bed of cement prepared to receive his picture, and thus counterfeits in enduring mineral the perishable work of the painter.
In other rooms artisans are at work upon various tasks of marqueterie,—table-tops, album-covers, paper-weights, brooches, pins and the like,—and in others they are sawing the smalts and glass into strips, and grinding the edges. Passing through yet another room, where the finished mosaic-works—of course not the pictorial mosaics—are polished by machinery, we enter the store-room, where the crowded shelves display blocks of smalts and glass of endless variety of color. By far the greater number of these colors are discoveries or improvements of the venerable mosaicist Lorenzo Radi, who has found again the Byzantine secrets of counterfeiting, in vitreous paste, aventurine (gold stone), onyx, chalcedony, malachite, and other natural stones, and who has been praised by the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice for producing mosaics even more durable in tint and workmanship than those of the Byzantine artists.
In an upper story of the palace a room is set apart for the exhibition of the many beautiful and costly things which the art of the establishment produces. Here, besides pictures in mosaic, there are cunningly inlaid tables and cabinets, caskets, rich vases of chalcedony mounted in silver, and delicately wrought jewelry, while the floor is covered with a mosaic pavement ordered for the Viceroy of Egypt. There are here, moreover, to be seen the designs furnished by the Crown Princess of Prussia for the mosaics of the Queen’s Chapel at Windsor. These, like all other pictures and decorations in mosaic, are completed in the establishment on the Grand Canal, and are afterward put up as wholes in the places intended for them.
In Venice nothing in decay is strange. But it is startling to find her in her old age nourishing into fresh life an art that, after feebly preserving the memory of painting for so many centuries, had decorated her prime only with the glories of its decline;—for Kugler ascribes the completion of the mosaics of the church of St. Cyprian in Murano to the year 882, and the earliest mosaics of St. Mark’s to the tenth or eleventh centuries, when the Greek Church had already laid her ascetic hand on Byzantine art, and fixed its conventional forms, paralyzed its motives, and forbidden its inspirations. I think, however, one would look about him in vain for other evidences of a returning prosperity in the lagoons. The old prosperity of Venice, was based upon her monopoly of the most lucrative traffic in the world, as we have already seen,—upon her exclusive privileges in foreign countries, upon the enlightened zeal of her government, and upon men’s imperfect knowledge of geography, and the barbarism of the rest of Europe, as well as upon the indefatigable industry and intelligent enterprise of her citizens. America was still undiscovered; the overland route to India was the only one known; the people of the continent outside of Italy were unthrifty serfs, ruled and ruined by unthrifty lords. The whole world’s ignorance, pride, and sloth were Venetian gain; and the religious superstitions of the day, which, gross as they were, embodied perhaps its noblest and most hopeful sentiment, were a source of incalculable profit to the sharp-witted mistress of the Adriatic. It was the age of penances, pilgrimages, and relic-hunting, and the wealth which she wrung from the devotion of others was exceedingly great. Her ships carried the pilgrims to and from the Holy Land; her adventurers ransacked Palestine and the whole Orient for the bones and memorials of the saints; and her merchants sold the precious relics throughout Europe at an immense advance upon first cost.
But the foundations of this prosperity were at last tapped by the tide of wealth which poured into Venice from every quarter of the world. Her citizens brought back the vices as well as the luxuries of the debauched Orient, and the city became that seat of splendid idleness and proud corruption which it continued till the Republic fell. It is needless here to rehearse the story of her magnificence and decay. At the time when the hardy, hungry people of other nations were opening paths to prosperity by land and sea, the Venetians, gorged with the spoils of ages, relinquished their old habits of daring enterprise, and dropped back into luxury and indolence. Their incessant wars with the Genoese began, and though they signally defeated the rival Republic in battle, Genoa finally excelled in commerce. A Greek prince had arisen to dispute the sovereignty of the Latin Emperors, whom the Venetians had helped to place upon the Byzantine throne; the Genoese, seeing the favorable fortunes of the Greek, threw the influence of their arms and intrigues in his favor, and the Latins were expelled from Constantinople in 1271. The new Greek Emperor had promised to give the sole navigation of the Black Sea to his allies, together with the church and palaces possessed by the Venetians in his capital, and he bestowed also upon the Genoese the city of Smyrna. It does not seem that he fulfilled literally all his promises, for the Venetians still continued to sail to and from their colony of Tana, at the head of the Sea of Azof, though it is certain that they had no longer the sovereignty of those waters; and the Genoese now planted on the shores of the Black Sea three large and important colonies to serve as entrepôts for the trade taken from their rivals. The oriental traffic of the latter was maintained through Tana, however, for nearly two centuries later, when, in 1410, the Mongol Tartars, under Tamerlane, fell upon the devoted colony, took, sacked, burnt, and utterly destroyed it. This was the first terrible blow to the most magnificent commerce which the world had ever seen, and which had endured for ages. No wonder that, on the day of Tana’s fall, terrible portents of woe were seen at Venice,—that meteors appeared, that demons rode the air, that the winds and waters rose and blew down houses and swallowed ships! A thousand persons are said to have perished in the calamities which commemorated a stroke so mortally disastrous to the national grandeur. After that the Venetians humbly divided with their ancient foes the possession and maintenance of the Genoese colony of Caffa, and continued, with greatly diminished glory, their traffic in the Black Sea; till the Turks having taken Constantinople, and the Greeks having acquired under their alien masters a zeal for commerce unknown to them during the times of their native princes, the Venetians were finally, on the first pretext of war, expelled from those waters in which they had latterly maintained themselves only by payment of heavy tribute to the Turks.
In the mean time the industrial arts, in which Venice had heretofore excelled, began to be practiced elsewhere, and the Florentines and the English took that lead in the manufactures of the world, which the latter still retain. The league of the Hanseatic cities was established and rose daily in importance. At London, at Bruges, at Bergen, and Novogorod banks were opened under the protection and special favor of the Hanseatic League; its ships were preferred to any other, and the tide of commerce setting northward, the cities of the League persecuted the foreigners who would have traded in their ports. On the west, Barcelona began to dispute the preëminence of Venice in the Mediterranean, and Spanish salt was brought to Italy itself and sold by the enterprising Catalonians. Their corsairs vexed Venetian commerce everywhere; and in that day, as in our own, private English enterprise was employed in piratical depredations on the traffic of a friendly power.
The Portuguese also began to extend their commerce, once so important, and catching the rage for discovery then prevalent, infested every sea in search of unknown land. One of their navigators, sailing by a chart which a monk named Fra Mauro, in his convent on the island of San Michele, had put together from the stories of travelers, and his own guesses at geography, discovered the Cape of Good Hope, and the trade of India with Europe was turned in that direction, and the old over-land traffic perished. The Venetian monopoly of this traffic had long been gone; had its recovery been possible, it would now have been useless to the declining prosperity of the Republic.
It remained for Christopher Columbus, born of that Genoese nation which had hated the Venetians so long and so bitterly, to make the discovery of America, and thus to give the death-blow to the supremacy of Venice. While all these discoveries were taking place, the old queen of the seas had been weighed down with many and unequal wars. Her naval power had been everywhere crippled; her revenues had been reduced; her possessions, one after one, had been lopped away; and at the time Columbus was on his way to America half Europe, united in the League of Cambray, was attempting to crush the Republic of Venice.
The whole world was now changed. Commerce sought new channels; fortune smiled on other nations. How Venice dragged onward from the end of her commercial greatness, and tottered with a delusive splendor to her political death, is surely one of the saddest of stories if not the sternest of lessons.
- Mutinelli, Del Costume Veneziano. The present sketch of the history of Venetian commerce is based upon facts chiefly drawn from Mutinelli’s delightful treatise, Del Commercio dei Veneziani.
- Certain foreigners living in Venice were one day astonished to find their maid-servant in possession of a mass of this chain, and thought it their business to reprove her extravagance. “Signori,” she explained paradoxically, “if I keep my money, I spend it; if I buy this chain, it is always money (è sempre soldi).”