The Allure of Venice

Have I written about Venice since visiting two months ago? I don’t think so. Even if I did, the city is worth revisiting, at least in thought.

Rare is there a city in the Western world that truly vexes me. After a fair bit of traveling, I can start finding patterns that tie certain cities together. Whether they are the huge metropolises of New York or London, or port towns of San Francisco or Genoa, there’s usually an aspect of a city which I can relate.

Venice is no such city.

Part of this is due to its unique nature of course. As we all know, it is a man-made island city, chock full of canals and gondolas, and nary a car, truck, or scooter to be seen. It makes for an interesting adventure in this aspect alone.

Then there’s the romantic aspect to it. Regardless of whether one is looking for love, God, art, or an amazing view, there are many aspects to Venice which can satisfy.

While I appreciate a great view out the window, or a fine piece of artwork as much as the next person, what drew me to Venice was its past – a past that is quite well hidden nowadays.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world history knows of Venice’s history in the pepper trade. But the extent in which they prospered under this trade is just short of amazing. Venice was the New York and London of its day. It was, quite literally, one of the richest places on earth, certainly the second richest city in Europe, possibly the first, depending upon where the papacy was at in its history during the time of Venice’s zenith. There weren’t many rulers in Europe who could tell the papacy to piss off, pre-Reformation. The doges who ran Venice could, and (albeit very rarely) did.

Ah yes, the Doges. One of the few regions of Europe during the middle ages that didn’t have a monarchy. The business class elected their leader. Granted they elected him to a lifetime appointment. It was the doges who directed the city for wealth gathering, and looked to exploit trade routes and the various markets of pepper, ginger, and sugar, which is why I was interested in the city.

The Venetian era I am interested in is from the ninth century AD until roughly the time of Columbus. Once the Portuguese found a way to circumvent the trade routes monopolized by Venice by sailing around Africa, the Venetian empire was done. Here’s the interesting bit – the Venetians knew it was over when word of Portugal’s successful voyage made it back to their ears. There’s evidence of a meeting that took place during this time in which all of the merchants and political leaders got to say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Oh shit! Now what do we do?”

What they did is re-invent themselves. It took a few generations, but the leaders of Venice essentially made the city a destination for the elite.

Before this massive change, the city wasn’t the city of romance we see today. It was a city of commerce. Imagine an island nation of accountants and seafarers, and you’ll get a good idea of what they city was comprised of. Sea merchants lived a life that was comprised of 90% waiting (waiting for financing, waiting for the commodities to arrive from the caravans, waiting for the merchants to sell) and 10% of adventure mixed with terror (traveling on the seas was not for the timid, what with the dangers of weather, ships with limited range and weight capacities, and the ever present threat of pirates and other nation-states looking for a quick buck).

So when in ports (and let’s face it, Venice’s was one of the premier destination for sea-merchants), there was a fair amount of both free time and opportunity for stress relief. All of this in a city in which the Catholic church had less of an influence as they had in other cities.

You can see aspects of this city around the Rialto, the central area of Venice where the iconic bridge is located. Specifically you can see it in the many-times rebuilt warehouses that are close to the Mercarto Rialto, the open air market that serves the community in that area. Alas, most of the original buildings are gone. Some are gone due to a fire in the beginning of the sixteenth century, others have been demolished or refurbished to reflect Venice’s current approach to viewing the world.

Here’s the one thing to take away from my ramblings. Imagine Venice in your mind, whether you’ve been there or not. Now take that image and toss it aside. It used to be far different. Where most cities sort of evolve into the metropolis they are today, Venice intentionally re-invented themselves…in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I find that fact amazing.