Economic history of Venice
Venice, situated at the far end of the Adriatic Sea, gained large scale profit of the adjacent middle European markets. So did the fact that the town belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Along with increasing autonomy it gained far reaching privileges in both Empires. As a consequence of the Fourth Crusade, the venetian doge became - at least nominally - dominator of three-eighths of Byzantium, all trading ways opened up and a colonial empire, concentrated on the Aegean, developed.
As a consumer centre Venice did play a rather meaningless role. But within a long process of adaptation and learning the Venetians developed techniques of trade, forms of companies and methods of finance, but to the same degree means of business development, of insurance and patent protection, in addition technical and organisational innovations, last not least means of controlling the money-market, that made them forerunners of developments for the rest of Europe.
Nevertheless only the nobility or patriciate had the right to exercise the wealth-bringing long-distance trade. It was the same patriciate that erected a monopoly of political leadership. It left production and small business to the strata of its society that were not capable of becoming a member of the council - which was the visible sign of nobility. On the other hand they provided protection against competitors, against violation of secrecy - and exercised strict control.
Ab initio Venice had to face fierce competition and rivalry, especially coming from Genoa. War, whether declared or not, was the normal status that for four times culminated in year-long open wars, conducted with all means. Finally, the tiny - as far as its expanse was concerned - super power had to draw back, because the world powers of those days, Spain and the Ottoman Empire, had a world of natural and human resources, Amsterdam, London and Lisbon the political and economic means that Venice could not afford in that ever growing range.
In the 17th and 18th century, the regional power that had almost lost its entire colonial empire, was more and more specialized in the production of luxury articles and in agricultural products of the Terraferma.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Until the 9th century
- 3 Between Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire: 9th century to 1171/1204
- 4 1171 to 1261
- 5 Venice as key of world trade between 13th and 15th century
- 6 Immigration
- 7 Further reading
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Venice's historical roots reach at least as far back as the Etruscan Culture. The settlements from which later on Venice grew up, could revive the late roman trade with Northern Italy. At the same time Venice succeeded in extending its privileges in the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium as well as the Holy Roman empire were always prepared to concede privileges to the venetian traders, when they were in heavy political constraints. These far going privileges - as quarrelled as they were - formed the judicial fundament for the preponderance of the adriatic town in commercial matters. At the same time it reached its aims to overthrow the dalmatian and Italian rivals and to secure the routes of transport.
The crusades brought intensification of trade, of which Venice took profit so that it soon ranked first among the trading nations. Already a century before the conquest of Constantinople (1204) lots of traders' colonies flourished. This the more, when the Venetians conquered Crete and other important points that together formed a colonial empire, the backbone of free trade and of the convoys of large ships sent to the markets around the mediterranean see. In addition it offered lots of opportunities to regulate the local balances of power and secured partly the means of living - especially wheat - for the mother town.
Taking and keeping control of long distance trade from Venice necessitated neue means and measures of checking and controlling. The "commercial revolution" with its new cultural, organisational forms, not to forget with its new ways of living, lead to a never before seen predominance of economy, especially as the economically leading clans were at the same time incorporated in the vehicles of political power. Economic success attracted - as ever - thousands of people, amongst them lots of artisans with capabilities of utmost importance. Refining and melioration, new products could developg.
Crusades and the conquest of the Byzantine Capital opened the direct ways to the East and far into Asia. But these voyages, similar to the costly convoys to Flanders, Tunisia, Syria and Constantinople, required huge amounts of capital, which normally means credit. This fact is closely combined with the early reduction of barter and a strong position of money-mediated trade. A long learning-process that lead to a rudimentary economic policy started, including patent protection, trade FÖRDERUNG, but strategic help for the afflux and leave of capital and metals.
The city could finance its everyday duties by revenues of the tariffs, but in difficult times it rigidly made recourse to the estate and capital of the thousand rich families. Money in its core in those days mostly consisted of gold or silver. As a consequence the economy depended heavily on the timely afflux and efflux of these metals. So Venice had to develop a highly flexible system of currencies and change rates between coins consisting of silver and gold, if it wanted to preserve and enhance its role as platform and turntable of international trading. In addition the change rates between the currencies circulating within Venice and outsides had to be adjusted adequately. On the other hand the nobility had hardly any scruples to force its colonies to accept change rates, which were only useful for the fisk.
In addition Italian traders were used to means of payment, which could help avoiding transportations of gold and silver that were expensive and dangerous. Crediting became a way to bridge the ubiquitous lack of noble metals, and at the same time, to accelerate goods turnover, were it with the help of a simple bank transfer, were it with the aid of a bill of exchange. Also available and helpful were to float loans, used as a kind of traders' money, circulating from hand to hand. Cambists played an important role just as well as the later state-controlled banks whose predecessors in Venice was the "wheat chamber" or Camera frumenti.
Despite the predominance of intermediary trade, ship building was an industry of utmost importance right from the beginning - and it was by far the most important employer. Quite important in the later Middle Ages were the production of drapery, of silk and glass. Still the salt monopoly was of utmost importance, even more so the trade of wheat and millet. This trade did not contribute less to the wealth of the patriciate than the abundant rest of the trade.
In early Modern Times the power of Venice reached its climax, but the tiny super power was unable to confront the enormous powers of the Ottomans and of Spain with their gigantic resources. By and by Venice lost its colonies and its monopoly for the trade in the Adriatic Sea. In addition capital of the Netherlands and of England overran the venetian competitors, they did not accept any monopoly and trade moved into the North Atlantic. In addition market access became ever more difficult because protectionism became rampant in most mediterranean and European states.
Close to the end, the venetian state became a conservative agrarian system, which, despite increasing tourism, met incomprehension. There was no broad decadence but a slow recidivism behind the expanding trade powers of the 18th century.
Until the 9th century
In antiquity the sea level was a few metes lower than today. Greek and etrurian trays reveal much earlier settlements than expected. Chioggia (Clodia) was a roman military colony and in the Fontego dei Turchi above the Canal Grande a coin from the days of emperor Trajan was found.
At the latest during the 6th century fishery, but overall sea salt and grain played the major roles. At about 750 King Aistulf of the Longobards prohibited trade with the Byzantine subjects - that means obviously with the people of the lagoon as well.
At 780 ca. we find traders at Pavia offering goods from orient, e.g. Tyrian purple. Before 785 already, venetian traders resided in Ravenna and in the so-called Pentapolis, men that had been "expelled" by the Franks in 787/791. About thirty years earlier they did appear in the slave trade with the saracenes.
Trading mostly meant drapery. Obviously coins and coinage were common - e.g. coins of emperor Louis the Pious were in use, but stamped with „Venecia“ on the reverse -, but Venetians preferred the coins of Verona, although a venetian zecca (Arabian word for coin) is verifiable for the ninth century already.
The early emporium of Torcello was soon replace by Malamocco, later by Rialto. The nuclei around Olivolo, San Marco and Rialto made up three foci, one concentrated on ship building arsenal, one as political centre, one as centre of trade and exchange.
The early phase of „feudalization“ together with the acquisition of wide real estates, brought huge amounts of capital to certain families. The last will of the doge Giustiniano Participazio from 829 demonstrates, to which amount these families did invest their revenues into buildings, goods and adornments, but the more it is astonishing that they invested even more in credits and trading companies. The leading stratum was obviously involved in trading very heavily, much more than the nobility of the neighbouring mainland.
Between Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire: 9th century to 1171/1204
With the destruction of Comacchio (883) that controlled the mouth of the Po River, Venetians liberated the trade till Pavia and Piacenza – the more as a treaty with Charles the Fat had opened his Realm. Much more difficult was the relation to Istria and even more Dalmatia, where the Narentani, pirates of the dalmatian coast resisted until 1000, when doge Pietro II Orseolo conquered the northern and central part of the region.
Privileges in the Holy Empire worked well together in combination with supremacy in the adriatic sea and a chart of the Byzantine Emperor of 992. In compensation for military aid against the Arabs of southern Italy emperor Basil II had reduced the tax for the ships by half. In addition Venetians started trade with Tunisia and Alexandria in Egypt where they delivered wood, weapons, metal and slaves, even though the trade with Islam was sometimes banned. Emperor Leo V (813–820) had already forbidden this trade., but during relatively peaceful times this ban was obviously loosened.
The breakthrough came in 1082 with the privilege of emperor Alexios I Komnenos, which guaranteed free trade and opened large parts of his Realm for the first time. Colonies for the merchants, Fondachi and wharves completed and enhanced the by far largest colony in Constantinople.
In the Holy Land, which was conquered by the crusaders at about 1098, Venice gained the right of free trade, because it had helped Gottfried von Bouillon in 1100 and had conquered Tyros, the trade central in Syria. The colonies became enjoyed autarchy and autarky. From Syria to Little Armenia they conducted their trade deep into Asia, as well as Alexandria and the Maghrib became their targets.
The counterpart of the privilege of 1082 became the one of 1084 that emperor Henry IV ceded for his whole realm. Deeply mired in the Investiture Controversy he allowed Venetians to trade in his whole realm, but his subjects were not allowed to extend their trading activities over Venice. Together with the monopoly in the Adriatic Sea and the staple, and the fact that merchants could only trade in Venice with the intermediates that the city provided, Venice was on the way to monopolize the trade between West and East. The merchants of the Holy Empire had to reside in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, where control was intense.
1171 to 1261
10,000 Venetians are said[by whom?] to have been arrested on 12 March 1171. That and the following embargo put the whole trade at stake. Retaliation failed despite 120 galleys being sent into the Aegean. Tumults and riots occurred; the doge was killed in the streets. The Fourth Crusade later offered doge Enrico Dandolo the opportunity to take revenge.
Sudden wealth and feudal way of living
Having conquered Constantinople and built a colonial empire, Venice was the predominant power in the eastern Mediterranean – with Genoa as enemy. This predominance formed the political frame together with the Latin Empire (1204–61), which allowed a massive expansion of trade. In addition, the merchants participated in growing trade with the Holy Land, where Acre played the main role until 1291.
Trade alone was unable to swallow such huge amounts of capital, so many nobles, but also Populari grassi, men grown rich very fast, acquired estates on the Terraferma. Although the old clans tried to prevent this development, they could not stop it. Huge amounts were invested this way, although the towns on the mainland objected to these alienations.
Thanks to the gigantic wealth of populari and grandi, only casual conflicts occurred. The two strata converged to only one, whose members were regarded as the Magni. They held the political power and monopolized the profits of long-distance trade. Pressure was further reduced by sending 3,000 to 4,000 men and their families to Crete. Some of the nobles conquered little empires of their own in the Aegean; many of them were sent as placeholders to hundreds of military and administrative posts.
The Venetian empire reached from Venice to Crete. Its centre point was the Golden Horn. Although Venice was completely unable to conquer the three eighths of the old empire that the crusaders had conceded to Enrico Dandolo, it secured strategic points.
Forms of company
The typical form of company was the so-called Collegantia. Within its frame a silent partner introduced about three quarters of the capital investment, the active partner, who conducted the trade, introduced the rest. Aims, responsibility assignment and shares were fixed before the journey being started, but the active partner could also reinvest his gains during the same journey. In a way silent and active partner were only roles that were fixed before each adventure, in which several silent partners could dare their luck. This way the risks diminished and the opportunities to accumulate capital increased. Close relationships and dependencies were developed and as a consequence family partnerships were largely preferred.
Not before the Late Middle Ages – and thus very late in comparison to Tuscany - veritable societates prevailed, companies conceived for longer periods. In addition double-entry bookkeeping enhanced the possibilities to stretch initiatives into rather far away countries by founding outposts or factories, and by enhancing controlling. Directing activities and intensification of local contacts were facilitated this way, too.
Venice as key of world trade between 13th and 15th century
The Arabian conquest of Jerusalem caused a long lasting deviation of trade routes to Bagdad and Tabriz. Cilician Armenia was now the main hub of trade. In addition the Venetians lost their main ports in Egypt and in 1291 also the most important Akkon.
They could only try to make their way through Armenia, Persia, Turkestan. After long and difficult negotiations they were re-admitted in Byzantium.
This was very important in so far as sailing through the Bosporus was now the most important way to reach Central Asia. It was not by coincidence that Marco Polo travelled through Asia in these years between 1278 and 1291. A second way led to Trabzon further to the Persian Gulf to India, a third one from Tana at the mouth of the river Don to the Wolga and the Caspian Sea to India.
But the larger part of trade was conducted by sea-vessels and not overland. Venice so developed a system of regular convoys with strong protective means, but also encouraged private trading.
Structures (13th - 15th centuries)
The population of Venice – maybe 85,000 to 100,000 at about 1300 – could only bear these permanent losses, because there was also a permanent afflux. This afflux was heavily encouraged by Venetian officials, especially after the waves of Black Death after 1348. Specialists like silk weavers from Lucca or mill builders and bakers of the Holy Empire. Venice was forced to expand within its narrow territory, so gardens and swamps were largely by dwellings.
The members of different nations came to live in Venice and they concentrated – as ever – in certain areas. The people from Milan lived in an alleyway near Rialto. Many bankers and drapers came from Tuscany, especially from Florence, many people came from southern Italy, Greece, Kroatia and even France. From about 1250 an increasing number of people came from the Holy Empire – that means Germans, Hungarians or Bohemians – called „tedeschi“. They dwelled in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and they were helped and controlled by Visdomini del Fondaco. Official brokers or middle-men were the only ones who were allowed to buy and sell the products.
Also immigrating to Venice, the Jewish people offered much more and cheaper credits to the Venetians, but most of them lived in Mestre. However, with the foundation of the Ghetto in 1516, the majority of the Jewish people started to live in secluded quarters, locked up at night.
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- Coins (engl.)
- News on the Rialto Newsletter (engl.)
- Venezia e le isole della Laguna archeologia subacquea (ital.)