Venice as the Ancient Source of Europe’s Commercial Roots


Venice: A View of the Molo, by Luca Carlevarijs / Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons

In the tumultuous aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, the newly founded Republic of Venice boasted its maritime and commercial eastward mission.


By Dr. Vera Costantini
Lecturer in Turkish Language, Ottoman History, and Paleography 
Ca’Foscari University of Venice
University of Palermo


In one of his articles, Carlo Dionisotti analyzed the literary topos of war in the East during the Renaissance. The eminent historian of Italian literature argued that limiting analysis to Venice would lead the interpretation to the core of the question, since the majority of literary examples on the topic were written and published in early-modern Venice. Understandably, its geographic location and its economic interests eastward led the Republic of Saint Mark, more than any other Italian or European state of the time to being deeply concerned by the perspective of a military confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Should we shift the analysis from this Renaissance literary topos to the topic of the session I have the honour to open (European commercial roots), Venice may still legitimately retain a central role.

In the tumultuous aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, when the areas in Europe excluded by the monetary economy were expanding, the newly founded Republic of Venice boasted its maritime and commercial eastward mission, displaying an attachment to the Byzantine world and eventual affinities with any other political entity on the eastern Mediterranean. In 1082, commercial privileges were granted by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to the Venetian merchants in return for naval aid against the Normans. When possible, and in open opposition to the pontifical directives to fight “infidels” and “heretics”, the Venetian leading class did not refrain from establishing intense economic partnerships with the Byzantine and Muslim Orients. As stated by Fernand Braudel in “Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme”, exchange must be mutual: in the case of early Venetians, wood and slaves, coming from not-yet-Christianised populations such as the Slavs and Anglo-Saxon tribes, were the essential means of getting gold and silver from the Muslims, with which to buy from Constantinople the luxury wares in demand in the West. “Their ready access to supplies of timber stimulated Venetian shipbuilding”, writes Frederick Lane. “Then,having their own ships and having acquired, through the sale of slaves to the Muslims, precious metal to use as capital, the Venetians took into their own hands more and more of the trade between their lagoons and the imperial capital,Constantinople”.

Cansiglio Forest / Creative Commons

According to economic historians, the model of pre-modern Europe was characterised by a constant struggle between dominant stagnation, depending on the structural limits of the agricultural sector, and marginal dynamism, represented by forces of growth, which might be structured in what Emmanuel Wallerstein called “feudal business economies”. The economic model of the Republic of Venice developed according to an integration between agricultural and timber supplies, industrial specialisation, investment and foreign trade. Since the premodern economic system is also defined as the “wood civilisation”, due to the importance of wood as fuel and as a raw material for construction industries,the relative availability of timber from the Cansiglio and Cadore forests largely contributed to turning the Venetian model of development into a success story.Frederick Lane, again, writes that “[i]t was Venice’s superior supplies of timber which initially formed the basis for a division of labour between the people of the lagoons and distant Mediterranean shores more productive of wine, oil, and wheat”.

Therefore, the first argument I would like to shed light upon is the fact that, as we learn from the Venetian case study, international maritime trade started in the middle ages not as a separate entity from mainstream rural economies, but as an attempt to integrate capital formation and mutual exchange in a coherent development model in which the availability and redistribution of energy resources(slaves, food and timber) played a relevant role.

Since limited demographical growth occurred and slavery was generally confined to domestic services or highly specialized industrial production, as in the Mameluk sultanates, up to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the migration of energy-saving technologies from China and Central Asia to Europe led to an incomparable plus-value to the trade routes developed by the Venetians, among others. Active both in the south-eastern Mediterranean and on the Black Sea,the Venetians traded in partnership with Syrian and Egyptian merchants and in close contact with the Turkic peoples who preceded and accompanied the emergence of Ottoman power. The Ponto-Caspian region, which Fernand Braudel indicates as one of the frontiers of the Mediterranean, was an area of intense cultural and technological mediation. Up until the end of the fourteenth century,the Genoese owned Caffa, in Crimea, whereas the Venetians were in Tana, at the outlet of the Don River, turning the Black Sea into a region of intense commercial investment. Constantinople itself had become less important, though remaining crucial as a way station to the ports of the Black Sea. These, in turn,led to the Caspian region and from there, through the steppes, eastward to China,or southward to Tabriz, Persia and the spice bank India. Hence, the centuries-long relationship between Ottomans and Venetians had been preceded by two centuries of acquaintance with “other Turks”, a wide spectrum of Turkic groups such as the Uzbeks and Çagatays, who by then had turned Muslim, though opposedto qızılbaş Safavid Persia. The Codex Cumanicus, a thirteenth-century trilingual glossary with words and idiomatic expressions in vernacular, Kipçak and Persian is still conserved in Venice’s Marciana library. The Republic of Venice experienced its Golden Age and established the main structures of its trade with the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean from the year 1000 up to the end of the thirteenth century, in a period when European civilisation was finally ready and more importantly eager to acquire technological knowledge from the Far East.

A group of comparative historians from Stanford University have argued that the “great divergence”, a concept introduced in 2004 by Kenneth Pomeranz to describe the gap between eighteenth-century industrial Britain and the rest of the world, should be applied retrospectively to a first, medieval phase, called“the first great divergence”, defining the technological gap between China and Europe. Here comes the second argument I would like to highlight: certainly, a commercial network is a closed chain where purchases are determined by salesand vice versa: “l’échange se boucle sur lui-même”, writes Fernand Braudel. Nevertheless, like all events, medieval Mediterranean trade also took place in a specific context; the latter was the still unsettled result of profound economic and social changes which had occurred at the end of the classical period. I believe that the peculiarly transitional pattern of the pre-modern era provided the Venetian economic action with a role of relevant cultural importance in the making of what would become modern European civilisation.

Chioggia / Creative Commons

Indeed, migration of technologies played, and somehow still plays, an important role in economic development and it is surely no coincidence that archaeological remains of one of the most ancient wheels in the Italian peninsula, a tide mill,were discovered in the lagoon of Chioggia. Evidence of tide-mills were also found in ninth-century Venetian monastic settlements, such as the Franciscan monastery currently housing the State Archives. Investing in sophisticated and expensive technologies such as mills remained a peculiar feature of Venetian economic expansion. In a wheat-producing region like sixteenth-century Ottoman Morea, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent bestowed timars, normally reserved as compensation for military service, to Venetian merchants, with the aim of co-financing the construction of mills. Similar events took place in Bosniain the same period. Since timars were often collected in kind, basically the Sultan ceded a share of the harvest to Venetian wheat merchants in exchange for free infrastructural machinery, to the benefit of both traders and local inhabitants. This example allows me to introduce a third argument: the construction of a trade network implied the knowledge of rural landscapes and structures,leading to a regional specialisation potentially improving local profits and therefore living conditions. “Il y a circuit”, writes Fernand Braudel, implying that allthe parties involved, although eventually unequal partners, found it convenient to come to terms with foreign investors.

In order to illustrate more clearly this third argument, let’s look at this picture.It was taken from the top of Lekuresit Fortress, in Southern Albania / Northern Epirus. This fortress was built by the Ottomans in the mid-sixteenth century with the aim of controlling the movements of the Venetians from the shores of Corfu, at the extreme right of the picture, to Butrinto, located southward on the Albanian coast. Today an amazing archaeological site, in the sixteenth century Butrinto, was still subject to Venetian rule: formed around a natural coastal lake,it was the perfect location for fishing enclosures, which were called talyani in Byzantine Greek (and mahi dalyan in Ottoman). The French historian Maurice Aymard states that the Adriatic Sea could be controlled from its north-western extremity to its south-eastern mouth. His interpretation is confirmed by the Venetian strategy to install colonies on the eastern rather than the western shore of the sea, in a long chain stretching from Istria to Southern Albania, occasionally interrupted by Ottoman dominions. This strategic concern worked in tandem with the economic interest in its regional resources: salt works and fish enclosures.The first, with the aim of developing international trade, the second, destined for regional sale and consumption. Ruling Corfu alone would have resulted in isolating the Venetians, who were more interested in establishing a regional system of exploitation, including other Ionian islands as well as a portion of the mainland, however small it might be. Somehow, the south-eastern Adriatic had to be a projection of the north-western model, represented by Venice,its lagoon rich in resources, and its hinterland. In other words, it had to reflect the same pattern of anthropisation of the environment, characterised by a resource-optimising interaction between humans and nature. As a consequence,Venetian rule contributed to shaping the landscapes of the Mediterranean.History is never a matter of origins, argues Marc Bloch, and I am not attributing to the Venetians the invention of fish enclosures, terrace farming, or salt works. Obviously, these had all been established techniques since the classical period. What I would like to state is that from the late middle ages up until the eve of modernity, when the Byzantine Empire had disappeared and the Genoese had retired from practising active trade, the Venetians and their counterpart,the Ottomans, became the two main Mediterranean institutional entities,and, since the main topic is commercial roots, in spite or maybe because of their profound differences, they were the two principal players on the Mediterranean trade stage. After all, as I mentioned earlier, it is the principle of reciprocity, not of identity, that counts between trade partners.

Ottoman conquests in the Mediterranean paved the way for the establishment of imperial administration in areas formerly dominated by the Byzantines, Genoese, Mameluks, and Venetians. Generally, Ottoman rule did not result in structural changes in the management of rural landscapes. Moreover, former rulers were seldom the first foreign community to be accepted in the newly acquired territory. This had been the case of early Ottoman Cyprus, devastated by the recent war, where a community of Venetian traders from Aleppo settled soon after the peace treaty was signed in 1573. If structural changes occurred in the economic system, it was seldom in spite of and not due to Ottoman rule, as happened in Cyprus, where sugar quickly decayed due to the competition of the New World plantations and certainly not due to the direct intervention of the central government. Ottoman documents from the Topkapı kitchens witness the presence of Cypriot sugar in the imperial court as early as in the first half of the sixteenth century and there would have been no reason to stop the production once the island had become an Ottoman province. The end of Cypriot sugar production after the 1571 conquest was due to the fact that in the 1580s and early 1590s the Ottoman markets had officially opened to the English and Dutch traders, who soon radically modified the consumption patterns of eastern Mediterranean society. Sugar, in particular, whose production costs had dropped since the introduction of cane plantations in the Caribbean, rapidly became a commodity of mass consumption, whereas in the past it was strictly reserved to élites and certainly not wasted as a sweetener.

View of a traditional kitchen inside the palace kitchens of Topkapi Palace / Photo by Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons

As Ruggiero Romano remarked, it was not the Mediterranean space in itself that had lost centrality in the eyes of the new leading economies, on the contrary: up to the end of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman space adequately suited the needs of English, Dutch and later French economic expansion. The institution of free ports proved functional to the interests of nations wishing to have the easiest and evidently cheapest access to raw materials necessary to feed their growing industrialisation process. Livorno and Izmir, previously marginal realities in the respective institutional frameworks, in the seventeenth century underwent a stunning demographic growth, due to the strategic importance of their free ports for the Levant Company. The Mediterranean remained and still is of central importance for the world economy. It was rather the capacity of the Mediterranean actors to determine their own choices and destinies to be progressively undermined by the flow of foreign capital and by the political pressures exercised by foreign nations.

The seventeenth-century Mediterranean starts being a contradictory space: a high intensity of investments and an increased flow of capitals corresponded to Mediterranean States and Empires having increasing difficulty in coping with industrial competition, as well as administrative and military tasks. A century known for structural economic crisis, the 1600s were at the same time years of metamorphic transformation, conceived as philosophical argument and iconographic theme. After all, crises do incubate change. A specter was haunting Europe– the specter of newness. New food commodities were being introduced to the Europeans’ consumption basket; The New Science, though fiercely opposed by the Catholic Church, was demolishing the scholastic interpretation of the universe as well as its very perception of the social role of culture and intellectuals;new alliances were being promoted and new wars led to unprecedented scenarios in and beyond the Mediterranean.

The historiography of seventeenth-century Ottoman and Venetian relationships has focused on the twenty-year war of Candia, when the Republic, though ultimately losing the conflict, inaugurated a period of vigorous military actions,such as the block of the Dardanelles, and, later, the re-conquest of Morea. Dueto the war, trade under the Venetian flag had to be formally interrupted.

Certainly, the war of Candia was a traumatic event in the history of Venice. Nevertheless, I would like to step back to a few decades earlier: from the 1573 peace agreement until the actual conflict of Candia broke out, merchants from the Ottoman Empire and Venetian subjects experienced a particularly fruitful period of commercial and economic cooperation. In correlation to the Venetian attempt to internationalise the Adriatic space, Ottoman Bosnia became the scenario of an extraordinary season of exchange and investment. The project of the Scala di Spalato (the Split free-port project, also known as “the new port”),consisting in the duty-free passage to or from Venice, fulfilled the need to renew the Republic’s commercial policy though leaving untouched the traditionally mercantilist trait of the capital economy (basically, duties were paid only once,in Venice).

I would like to stress this last issue in particular, partly because it is my current research topic, and partly because it shows that even in difficult economic times a state can find a way to adapt to new circumstances coherently with its own development. Across the many centuries of its existence, the history of the Republic of Venice still reminds us Mediterraneans to be aware of the resources of our lands, to ensure that exchanges taking place in and among our countries are truly mutual, not to fall into identity traps or even more elusive clashes of civilisation.


From Europe and the Mediterranean: Talking, Learning, Working, and Living Together 4:2 (2017 11-20), published by Europa Bottom-Up (SSOAR Open Access Repository) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution – Non-commercial – No Derivative Works 3.0 Germany  license.

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