Venice – most improbable of cities. As we walk its streets, catching our breaths at one too-perfect vista after another, the question is always there. How could it happen? How could a collection of tiny islands in a vast marsh go from a hiding place for a straggle of refugees fleeing for their lives from the waves of Huns, Lombards and Goths that flooded the remains the Roman Empire, to the richest city in Europe, (and without a doubt, the most beautiful) in a period of 400 years or so? This is, of course, way too big a topic for Foreignwrites to take on, but why let that stop me? So here, reduced to a ridiculous few, are my thoughts –
-Salt – The Venetians made lemonade from their lemons. They trapped the shallow waters of their vast lagoon, made salt, and and marketed it up and down the coast, bringing back the essentials they needed for survival. And their shallow sea protected them from invasion – only Venetian sailors knew the locations of the deep channels they had dredged for their own use.
-Ships – With more capacity, these early entrepreneurs could bring back goods, in excess of their needs, to trade with the mainland. Venice sat in the ideal position between east and west. Russian and Balkan slaves, furs, woolen goods, wine, metal, and silver from the north filled Venetian ships bound for Alexandria and Constantinople. Spices and silks filled their holds on the return voyage. Eventually, the Arsenale, Venice’s ship yard, employed over 3,000 workers.
-Self-interest – These fiercely independent early businessmen had no interest in being ruled by Pope, king, or one another. They came together in the world’s first Chamber of Commerce (known as the Grand Council) for the primary purpose of promoting business. They elected a non-hereditary CEO (The Doge) to preside over Venice Incorporated. It worked. And lasted for 1,000 years.
Venice’s superb navy made the Eastern Med and the Adriatic a Venetian lake for hundreds of years, but there was another way they used wealth to enhance security. Venice drew visitors from both East and West, and what a show the Venetians put on. Is it spiritual glamour that impresses you? Venice has 50 sumptuous churches – AND the remains of St. Mark. Do you prefer another type of glamour? Venice was renowned for its beautiful blondes. And its 9,000 prostitutes, the most famous of which received visiting kings and held literary salons. Is it art that impresses? Have a look at the work of the Belini brothers, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, et.al. The pomp of Venetian ceremony was unrivaled. The Doge led flotillas of gilt-clad boats, velvet flags snapping, down the Grand Canal past the glittering mosaic-encrusted walls of sumptuous ‘palazzi’ floating miraculously on the water. And the message the visitors took home was “Don’t mess with Venice.”
With a little imagination, exploring the churches, the Doge’s palace, and the many other remains of this golden time, you are as over-awed as were those visitors. Just look up. Ceilings – hundreds of them, so gorgeous they make your jaw drop – just as they were designed to do