Founded in the 5th century AD, at the heart of a lagoon, on the Adriatic Sea, in North East Italy, it became a prominent city state and a great maritime power starting in the 9th century till the 16th century. Thanks to strong leaders and intelligent policies, its navy grew and its shipbuilding industry flourished, all in the interest of commerce and trading rights which it got along the Adriatic coast granted by the Byzantine Empire. Its control over maritime routes allowed it to become a key player in East West relations. Military missions were sent along the Adriatic coast to remove pirates on the Dalmatian coast who threatened the trade in the 11th century. Ports were improved and famous cities such as Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik, a jewel of Venitian architecture) and Split to name only 2. Places of strategic interest were manned and commercial outposts were linked, so as to gather good intelligence and to safeguard the trade routes from pirates and competitors. The area gained in stability, and the Republic of Venice (“La Serenissima”) was at the heart of the Mediterranean trade.
Venice’s power really grew after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, and this crusade was instigated by Venice, now independent of the Empire. Constantinople had immense wealth, and vast amounts of booty were brought back to Venice, at great expense to Constantinople, not only in financial terms, but also in cultural terms. The bronze horses in St. Mark’s cathedral were taken during the sack, and marked Venice as the most important trading centre in the West, through which all goods had to pass to reach Europe. There were cases of riparian statelets along the Italian side of the Adriatic that didn’t want to pay the taxes that Venice collected before sending the merchandise South again to said cities. The response would be immediate and powerful. Such examples had to be quashed forcefully if Venice wanted to keep its place and authority. Thanks to the partition of the Byzantine Empire, Venice acquired the islands of Crete and Euboea, which consolidated its power along these routes.
Venetian merchants had established links as far as the Mongol Empire and Persia, Armenia, the Caucasus and Asia Minor, spanning many of the Silk Roads. Interestingly, a trade agreement was made between the Venetian Republic and the Mongol Empire in 1221. All sorts of goods, luxury and basic necessities were exchanged in the markets of Venice and also transported further into Europe.
The famous Venetian traveller, Marco Polo set off from Venice on his long journey to the East in 1271. He returned 24 years later, with stories, about numerous mysterious people of the East, traditions that were so strange to the locals when he returned that he was not believed. However, it did wet the appetite for further travel, as he had demonstrated that it was possible to go very far, and by his stories he had put these remote regions on the map. His book, “The travels of Marco Polo” was a meticulous record of his encounters and experiences. Even though he was considered eccentric and for some even who thought he had invented the stories, it has been proven that his travels did take place, and his somewhat staid notations of what he observed were the result of his training in accounting. He was not a novelist! Thus India, China and other distant places became even more attractive.
The Venetian Republic was one of the most powerful states in Europe, and its territories were spread far and wide. The whole Mediterranean basin was its base, and extended further to the Ionian and Marmara Seas. It was among the most prosperous states in Europe. The relation to the sea is well exemplified in the tradition of the Sposalizio del Mare (Marriage to the Sea) established in the Middle Ages. In this ceremony, the Venetian Doge (the city’s ruler) sailed out into the Adriatic, surrounded by a procession of boats and offered prayers. After the 12th century, the Doge would throw a ring into the water, symbolising the marriage of the city to the sea.
The plague which happened in the 14th century (around 1346 * check) decimated the population, as about 30% of the inhabitants were taken by the disease, completely destroying the socio-economic foundation of the city. Up to that time, free men were the sailors who rowed the large trading ships, as it was part of Venetian tradition (the 3 classes lived together in good harmony: sailors, priests and the aristocracy. The merchants were apart). To compensate for the loss of all sorts of people, Venetians from the hinterland of Venice were invited in, but their traditions were not maritime, and they had no desire to become sailors… they were little shopkeepers, and wanted to continue as such. This had an enormous impact and slowly but surely changed and weakened the city, on top of pirates attacking ships, rival trading nations wanted to take over the lucrative markets, etc.
The Venetian navy was exceptionally well organised, and the trips were very well regulated, be it for goods or transporting passengers (mostly Crusaders to the Holy land). The Piazza San Marco would be filled with booths catering to various nationalities to organise a passage. Hotels also catered to various nationalities, as far as Northern Europeans who wanted to partake in the Crusades. Last but not least, the Venetian ducat was accepted all over the Mediterranean coast, it was like today’s American dollar.
In 1803 Napoleon invaded Venice, plucking it like a ripe fruit. In fact, it had been a few centuries where the glamour of Venice had slowly been washed away. The rigid social stratification, to the opposite of the earlier times made it incapable of adapting to the new situation. The glamour was preserved in the annual Carnival, which still survives today, but not in 2020 due to the Covid 19 virus.
Salt, grain, porcelain, pearl, gems, mineral dyes, peacock feathers, spices, silks, cottons, brocades from Egypt, Syria, the Far East.
A VERY SHORT READING LIST FOR THE SILK ROAD (AND BOOKS USED FOR THE WEBSITE) 11/12/2020
- “Lords of the Horizons – A History of the Ottoman Empire”, by Jason Goodwin. Vintage. 1998
- “The Silk Road – A New History”, by Valerie Hansen. OUP 2012
- “Introduction to Byzantium, 602 -1453”, by Jonathan Harris. Routledge. 2020
- “The Silk Road – A very short Introduction”, by James A. Millward. OUP. 2013
- SERKIS, Christiane. Des Fondateurs de Religions; de certaines langues antiques. Lausanne 2020 Article inédit.
- “Life Along the Silk Road”, by Susan Whitfield. UCal Press 2015
- “Silk Roads – Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes”, Edited by Susan Whitfield. Thames and Hudson. 2019