Political Empire through Trade

Political Empire through Trade. Venice played a major role in reopening the Mediterranean economy to West European commerce and to the development of links with Northern Europe.

It created institutions that formed the basis for commercial capitalism and made major progress in shipping technology. Also, it helped transfer Asian and Egyptian technology to the West, in the area of cane sugar production and processing, silk textiles, glassblowing and jewellery.



Above: Classic view of San Marco waterfront, taken from the Campanile of San Giorgio di Maggiore


Political Empire through Trade – Introduction.

Venice played a major role in reopening the Mediterranean economy to West European commerce and to the development of links with Northern Europe. It created institutions that formed the basis for commercial capitalism and made major progress in shipping technology. Also, it helped transfer Asian and Egyptian technology to the West, in the area of cane sugar production and processing, silk textiles, glassblowing and jewellery.

Of all the North Italian city states, Venice was the most successful in creating and maintaining a republic dominated by a merchant capitalist elite. Due to its geographic position in a lagoon and the ability to defend itself; it was able to secure its autonomy and freedom from hostile marauders, feudal landlords and monarchs.

Political and legal institutions were created, which guaranteed property rights and the enforceability of contracts. It was a pioneer in developing foreign exchange and credit markets, banking and accountancy. It created what was effectively a government bond market, starting with compulsory loans on which interest was paid regularly. Its fiscal system was efficient and favourable to merchant profits and the accumulation of capital. The revenues came from excise levies and property taxes, based on surveys showing the extent, value and ownership of land.

The governing class and religious leadership, worked to produce a tolerant environment, where foreign merchants (Armenians, Slavs, Greeks and Jews) could operate with relative freedom. Although it was theoretically part of the catholic world, it enjoyed privileged relations with the Byzantine empire. By acquiring the relics of St. Mark from Alexandria in 828, it effectively declared itself independent of both Pope and Patriarch.


Relationships with Byzantium and the Levant.

Venetian diplomacy was highly professional, pragmatic, opportunistic and dedicated to the pursuit of its commercial interests. It also, adjusted surprisingly well to political change.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, its main commerce was to provide Constantinople with grain and wine from Italy, wood and slaves from Dalmatia and salt from its lagoons; in return taking silk and spices.

Towards the end of the 11th century, Byzantium was under pressure from the Seljuk Turks, who seized Anatolia and by Frankish incursions into its Southern Italian territories. Venice secured commercial privileges, including exemption from excise taxes from Byzantium in 1082; in return for help in bolstering its naval defences.

Note: The Great Seljuk or Seljuq Empire was a high medieval Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire, originating from the Qiniq branch of Oghuz Turks. Their advance marked the beginning of Turkish power in the Middle East. At its greatest extent, the Seljuk Empire controlled a vast area stretching from western Anatolia and the Levant to the Hindu Kush in the east and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf in the south.

L: Image symbolising the relationship between the Church and the State, both working for the common good. (The Winged Lion of St Mark with the open book indicating Venice at peace).



By contrast in 1204, it played a major role in persuading the leaders of the fourth crusade, to target Constantinople instead of Islam. As a result, Venice acquired bases in Dalmatia and an empire in the Aegean. It took the southern half of the Peloponnese, Corfu and Crete. It occupied nearly half of Constantinople and gained access to trade in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

In 1261, the Byzantine Emperor recaptured Constantinople and gave trade preferences and a territorial base to Venice’s rival, Genoa. However, Venice retained its Greek colonies and Venetian shipping was soon able to re-enter the Black Sea; where trade was booming due to the Mongol reopening of the silk route through Central Asia.

West European crusaders successfully attacked the Syrian and Palestinian coast and established small Christian states in Antioch, Acre and Jerusalem between 1099 and 1291. They gave commercial privileges to Pisan and Genoese traders, who had helped finance their conquest. The Venetians were not involved, but nevertheless managed to establish a trading base in Tyre.

The Turkish Mamluk regime recaptured Syria and Palestine in 1291 and ruled Egypt until 1517. Here too, Venice managed to establish a privileged trading relationship, buying a large part of the Asian spices, which the Karimi merchants of Alexandria brought to Egypt from Asia via the Red Sea. In return the Venetians sold metals, armour, woollens and slaves. The slaves came from the Balkans and Russia: males were destined for service in the Mamluk army, females for their harems.

Note: The most enduring Mamluk realm was the knightly military caste in Egypt in the Middle Ages, which developed from the ranks of slave soldiers. These were mostly enslaved Turkic peoples, Egyptian Copts, Circassians, Abkhazians, and Georgians. Many Mamluks were also of Balkan origin (Albanians, Greeks, and Southern Slavs).

The principal achievements of the Turkish Mamluks lay in their expulsion of the remaining crusaders from the Levant and their rout of the Mongols in Palestine and Syria; they thereby earned the thanks of all Muslims, for saving Arabic-Islamic civilization from destruction.


L: The Winged Lion of St Mark in bronze


When the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, Venice quickly negotiated the maintenance of its trading rights, but in 1479, the Ottomans closed their access to the Black Sea. In 1517, they took over Egypt and terminated most of the Venetian trade in spices


Trade with Northern Europe

Venice had important connections with Northern Europe. Trade with Flanders was carried out mainly at the Champagne fairs, where Italian merchants bought woollen goods and sold silk, spices, alum, sugar and lacquer. When the sea route was opened between the Western Mediterranean and the Atlantic; trade with Flanders was carried out directly by ship.

In building up its trade, Venice created a political empire. In 1171, the city had about 66,000 inhabitants and was one of the three biggest in Western Europe, until the sixteenth century when its population peaked around 170,000.

Venice experienced three demographic catastrophes. In 1347–48, nearly 40 per cent of the population died when a galley brought the plague from the Black Sea port of Caffa. Two other attacks occurred in 1575–77 and 1630; each killing about a third of the population of the city.

The Empire overseas (dominio da mar) included about half a million people. Between 1388 and 1499, Venice acquired territory on the Italian mainland (terraferma) which included Udine, Friuli, Vicenza, Padua, Verona, Bergamo, Rovigo and Cremona. In 1557 the population of these territories was about 1.5 million.


Shipbuilding and the Arsenal.

The Venetian state played a leading role in commercial activity, being the major shipbuilder, leasing state-owned galleys to private enterprise, arranging the organisation and timing of convoys. It developed types of ship suitable for Venetian commerce and the conditions of trade in the Mediterranean. This state activity reduced costs for private traders by making commerce more secure from both enemy and pirate attack. It also permitted smaller traders with limited capital, to participate in international trade.

The biggest enterprise in Venice was the Arsenal, a public shipyard created in 1104. It was markedly expanded and operative for many centuries; employing thousands of workers.  Essentially, it was the first example of “production line” assembly; with ships being passed along individual stages of assembly and finishing.

There were major changes in ship construction and navigation techniques between the 10th and 14th centuries. Roman ships had been constructed hull first, held together by careful watertight cabinetwork of mortice and tenon; the second stage was the insertion of ribs and braces.

In the 11th century there was a significant change in assembly technique, which made a major reduction in costs. The keel and ribs were made first and a hull of nailed planks was added, using fibre and pitch to make the ships watertight.

A later development was the stern-post rudder, which replaced trailing oars as a more effective means for steering ships. The power of the rudders operation, was strengthened by use of cranks and pulleys.

There were improvements in sails, notably the introduction of a triangular lateen rig; set at an angle to the mast, instead of a rectangular sail square to the mast.

Finally, there was a marked increase in the size of ships.

Soon after 1270, the compass came into use in the Mediterranean. This, together with improved charts, made it possible to sail all year round. Previously ships trading with Egypt had not ventured out between October and April; however, with the compass the same ship could make two return trips a year from Venice to Alexandria, instead of one.

There were two main kinds of Venetian ship. General purpose cargo ships (“cogs”) were built in private shipyards. Their length was about three times their breadth and they relied entirely on sails.

Galleys for passengers, high value cargo and naval duties were built in the Arsenal. These were longer, had a wide beam and a crew of 200 most of whom were oarsmen. Galleys were faster, more manoeuvrable for entering and leaving harbour and for times when there was no wind.

The general Venetian practice was to have 25 benches on each side of the galley, each bench having three oarsmen. The benches were set at an angle and the oars were of different lengths so that the rowers would not interfere with each other. On such a ship there would be 150 oarsmen and about 30 crossbow-men for defence and attack; who would also take turns at rowing. Galleys were owned by the state and rented out for each venture to the highest bidder in public auctions. Galleys also acted as public carriers, as those who leased the ships had to accept goods from other merchants, if they had spare capacity.

In 1291, the Genoese defeated a Moroccan fleet controlling the straits of Gibraltar and opened the way for European commerce from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thereafter, Venetian galleys used this route to trade with London and Bruges.


Although international trade, banking, shipbuilding and associated trades in timber, such as carpentry, rope and sail making, were the biggest sectors of the Venetian economy; there were also sizeable manufacturing activities producing goods for local use and export. One of the earliest was the glass industry which had already started in the 10th century. Venice was a pioneer in glassblowing technology in Europe and made glasses, goblets, pitchers, dishes, bottles, vases, mirrors, jewellery, candelabra and decorative products of very high quality. From the 13th, century Venetians produced delicate, carefully blown sand–glasses; as a time-keeping device for mariners.

L to R: Cristallo Stem Glass –  Filigrana Style Jar – Enamelled Lattimo Glass – Barovia Enamelled Jar – Bowl c 1970’s

From the 14th century onwards, they started making spectacles; an Italian invention which greatly increased the productivity of artisans and scholars. Angelo Barovier, the most famous glassblower of the 15th century, perfected the process for making crystal. By that time, polychrome, engraved, filigree, enamelled and gold-leafed glassware was available in a profuse variety of designs.

In 1291, all glassblowing was moved to the island of Murano, by decree of the “Maggior Consilio”. This enabled Venice to keep both tighter control of its trade and technological secrets.

Equally precocious were the skills and products of Venetian goldsmiths, mosaicists, woodcarvers and decorative artists who were in heavy demand; turning the inside of churches, civic monuments and private palaces, into works of art.

Venetian style was influenced by the work of previous generations of mosaicists and iconographers in Ravenna and the 13th century inflow of objects looted from Constantinople.


Silk products.

The trade with Asia in raw silk and silk products eventually led to import substitution in Europe. Silk production had already spread from China to India and Syria, and came to Italy in the 12th century; initially to Lucca, then to Venice, Florence, Genoa, Milan and Bologna, and later to Lyon in France. Within the Arab world, silk production came to Spain from Syria. Venetian silk production is documented as early as the 13th century.

The Venetian government regulated production to guarantee quality, keep out competitors and reduce the risk of industrial espionage. The silk, satin and velvet products of Venice were of the highest quality and designs were a distinctive mix of indigenous creativity and oriental influence. Multicoloured velvet brocades, often executed with gold and silver thread, were produced as items of ceremonial clothing for Venice’s governing elite, for furniture, wall hangings, table coverings, decorative items for gondolas. These products made a substantial contribution to Venetian exports.


Book production.

Another important field was book production. In the 9th and 10th centuries, scribes and illuminators were mainly active on sacred books in the scriptoria of monasteries. Later there were civic records, histories, translations of Aristotle and other Greek texts destined for the libraries of San Marco, ducal, civic and private collectors. This gave employment to professional scribes, bookbinders, specialists in ornamented calligraphy and illustration.

Less than 15 years after Gutenberg’s invention of printing, a German immigrant brought the technique to Venice in 1469. It led to an enormous improvement in the productivity of the industry, with print runs up to 4,500 copies. A very much larger proportion of output was destined for export than had been the case for manuscript books. Venice quickly became the principal Italian typographical centre and one of the biggest in Europe. By the middle of the 16th century, some 20,000 editions had been published.

Venetian publishing helped invigorate the cultural and intellectual life of Europe by providing music scores, maps, books on medical matters and translations of the Greek classics. The Aldine Press set up in 1494, edited and published original Greek texts and Venice became the major publisher of books for the Greek-speaking world.



was another major product. Venice created plantation agriculture and processing facilities with slave labour in Crete and Cyprus, using techniques borrowed from Syria. Venetian practice was copied later, by the Portuguese in Madeira and in Brazil.


Decline of spice industry.

The Venetian role in the spice trade was greatly reduced at the beginning of the 16th century, because of restrictions on trade with Syria and Egypt; imposed by the new Ottoman authorities and competition from direct Portuguese shipments from Asia. Venetian spice imports fell from around 1,600 tons a year towards the end of the 15th century, to less than 500 tons by the first decade of the 16th century.





Increasing competition.

Venetian shipping also faced increased competition on Western routes to England and Flanders and its sugar industry in Crete and Cyprus declined, because of competition from Portuguese production in Madeira and later in Brazil.


Shipbuilding technological developments.

There were also changes in shipbuilding technology in the Atlantic economies, which quickly rendered the oared Venetian galley obsolete.

The two main changes were in the rigging of round ships and the development of firearms during the 15th century. The one–masted cog was transformed into a full-rigged, three-masted ship possessed of spritsail, topsail and mizzen lateen by about the middle of the century. Equally important was the increase in the use of guns in naval warfare.

Above: The Battle of Lepanto from 7 October 1571, a naval engagement between allied Christian forces and the Ottoman Turks. Artist unknown, but near contemporary in date.


As a result, there was a sharp decline in the main product of the Arsenal. There was an increased purchase by Venetian merchants of ships from abroad, as problems of adapting to technological change were compounded by much poorer Venetian access to cheap timber; than shipbuilders in the Atlantic economies.

From 1500 onwards, a significant proportion of Venetian capital was reoriented to reclamation for farming and the development and creation of Palladian villas and country estates in the “terraferma”.

Over the 16th to 18th centuries, Venice did not expand much in either population or per capita income; but it remained one of the richest parts of Italy and Europe until overtaken by the Dutch in the 17th century.


Fall of the Republic.

Napoleon, campaigning against Austria in Italy in 1797, deposed the last doge. By the treaty of Campo Formio, later in the same year; Venice and the Veneto are handed over to Austria.

Venice remained under Austrian rule until 1866, when Austria was defeated in the Seven Weeks’ War. Venice and the Veneto (often collectively known as Venetia) are ceded to the newly independent kingdom of Italy. The ancient city becomes, as it remains today, the capital of the province of Venezia.



See my other related posts in the category of History of Venice


Political Empire through Trade    Political Empire through Trade    Political Empire through Trade

Political Empire through Trade    Political Empire through Trade    Political Empire through Trade


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