Old Venice: before “city of lovers”

What does the name of Venice conjure up in your mind? Gondolas, gliding softly in the mist; enigmatic ladies in crinolines and masks; the gayety and frivolity of Carnival. Passionate affairs. Glorious decadence. Dark mysteries of dagger and cloak. In short, all the images, that captivated European travellers for centuries. But, in fact, these images came into being only during the soft decline of Venetian Republic. Before it lie centuries of strict and powerful state, which was as majestic (although not as extensive) as British Empire of the later era.

 

Rialto bridge of today

Rialto Bridge of today.

In its heyday, the Republic was the centre of technological development and commercial bustle, “a gateway to the Orient”. Thanks to the development of the nautical compass, an Arab construction that replaced the needle-and-bowl, already by the 1290s convoys of Venetian ships traversed the globe. These trade routes reached Cyprus and Syria, stretched to Alexandria and lands of Chinese potentates. Shrewd mercantile families, constituting Venetian aristocracy, would have been very surprised to hear the “Nobility shouldn’t engage in commerce” maxim of later centuries. Their sea caravans, a legend of the day, carried furs from Black Sea, sweet wines from Greek Islands, silk from Constantinople and practical woollens and metals from Northern Europe. They glided through rivers of Iran and Iraq, passing through the Khanate of Persia, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean and bringing home the spices of India. This cornucopia of goods moved like lifeblood of the Republic through arteries which were her trade routes, and eventually made its way to the heart: the grandest emporium in Europe, the Rialto Bridge.
Nowadays, this lacy stone wonder serves as a major tourist attraction and a popular photo spot. But in its zenith, it was a mercantile heaven, the giant warehouse of Europe, as famous as the Royal Exchange in London became later. The location was precious and carefully chosen – it was linked by watercraft via the Grand Canal to Venice’s port district. We should remember here, that for centuries famous Venetian canals (as well as other rivers) were not picturesque decorations, but vital routes. Making your way overland, especially with valuable cargo, would have been extremely slow, expensive and dangerous on the verge of being suicidal.

Le grand canal (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

“Grand Canal”, famous painting of Canaletto.

On Rialto, everything was bought and sold: exotic spices for the tables of nobles, Oriental silk for gowns of famous Venetian beauties, Byzantine gems and vibrant dyes. On the other end of the scale, local salt and Carpathian metal was exchanged for timber, rare and vital in the lagoon city. Nowadays it’s unlikely to come by such merchandise there. However, you can still experience the reminder of bustling days gone by, if you visit the Rialto Bridge on any morning from Monday to Saturday. There, in the precious hours before the invasion of tourists, market stalls are set up and fresh produce is sold. Fruits and vegetables come, as they have done for centuries before, from the lagoon island of Sant’Erasmo, and other goods are either local or hail from elsewhere in Italy. (It should be noted, that fish stalls are closed on Monday). It’s curious to see, how local produce had replaced luxuries from far-flung corners of the globe in the definition of chic and popular.

Rialto Market, Venice

Rialto Market, Venice

You can still catch a faint glimpse of colourful past in the street names nearby. Sweet wines from Aegean were once sold on Fondamenta del Vin, on the southern side of the bridge adjacent to San Silvestro. Riva del Vin, a walkway intersecting the Grand Canal, was where it was unloaded, and sometimes delivered straight to the local taverns (bacari). Given Italian climate, no doubt this swift refreshment was very much welcomed. The goldsmiths occupied an alley called Ruga degli Oresi (which in curious Venetian dialect means, unsurprisingly, goldsmiths). On Riva del Olio casks of golden olive oil were unloaded, and Campo della Pescaria, where fishermen brought their daily catch, was particularly renowned. After all, fish was a daily staple in the diet of any lagoon dweller – fresh fish adorning the tables of wealthy merchants, and salty fish being an accessible food for… pretty much everyone else. Meat was out of question for most inhabitants of Most Serene Republic, and even for powerful families with considerable fortune it was a luxury. For example, historian Evelyn Welch examined the account books of patrician Bernardo Morosini for 1343 and learned, that his noble family consumed meat no more often, than twice a week (although they also bought wine every three days, and that might have sweetened the situation).
The centuries of flourishing and growth have left considerable legacy to Venice, which much outlived the days of independent Republic. To describe it all in one post would have been impossible; however, I intend to return to its gripping history in the future. So, if you want to discover, how did Venetian power-holders use visual propaganda before it became mainstream, what is the bloody history behind horses of St. Mark and which profession in Venice promised wine allotment of six times a day – bear with me!

Sources:
Venice: History of the Floating City, Joanne Ferraro.
Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire, Garry Wills.

 

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