“Italian bankers ultimately managed to free themselves from the threat of expropriation by themselves taking over governments, and by doing so, acquiring their own court systems (capable of enforcing contracts) and even more critically, their own armies.”
IF ANYTHING EMERGES FROM THIS all-too-cursory overview, it is the strong suggestion that during the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, the connection between money, the Metaphor (and hence cosmology, physics), and power began to be consciously, if dimly, perceived. For the financial oligarchies, this connection was, as I have argued, most likely perceived as a threat to one of the pillars of social manipulation and power they had long associated themselves with: religion.
Indeed, at a deeper historical level, we discovered that coinage and the bullion from which it is confected can be viewed as a very close analogue of the Metaphor itself, and suggestively, while the doctrine of corporate personhood arose from certain theological foundations—in our opinion historically suspect and doctrinally erroneous ones—it is also possible to see in the activities of medieval Venetian and Florentine merchants and bankers the growing awareness that the doctrine, allied to the alchemical analogy of money as the Metaphor, could function as a basis for the concentration and accumulation of vast wealth and power in a few hands. Indeed, after the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi, we see the Medicis repeating, on a far less grand scale, the same operational strategies and tactics with a new twist: the central office became, in itself, a kind of holding company, directing the branches of its far flung concerns, each in themselves yet another corporation, thus providing another layer of insulation between the partners’ personal liabilities and that of the corporation itself.
But most importantly, what does clearly emerge from a rudimentary consideration of the strange “coincidences” surrounding the collapse of the Florentine super-companies is that the collapse, while initiated and brought on, perhaps, by factors wholly outside of any human manipulation, the possibility of deliberate Venetian exploitation of the crisis is at least possible, and to a lesser extent probable. In short, a case can be made that the “internet conspiracy theories” regarding the Venetian oligarchy—and, in some versions, the oligarchies of the other great northern Italian city-states—were indeed manipulating market forces on a global scale, and at least European politics on a continental one.
One thing, however, is abundantly clear, and that is that regardless of where one turns, or from which point of view one examines Venetian practices and institutions, whether one approaches analysis from the standpoint of domestic politics and government institutions, or from the standpoint of banking, or bullion brokering, or even geopolitics, the Venetian oligarchy did act consistently, as a class, to cloak any factional divisions within its ranks, and conspired always to protect their own interests, and to make entry into their ranks difficult. The very fact that the nobility itself was distinguished between longhi and curti, between ancient and more recent houses, strongly suggests that the longhi nobility were acutely aware of ancient roots and connections.
It is beyond any question that those oligarchies began to develop their sophisticated “playbook” during the Middle Ages. The Bardi and Peruzzi super-companies, just like the modern International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other such institutions, established the mercantilist pattern of making significant loans to governments, and exacting as a “conditionality” of their loans dedicated liens on government revenues, and eventually, even the power to oversee the tax collection that repaid these loans, gathering more and more of the powers of the state into their own hands, until, of course, overcome with events and a gold glut that shows every indication of having been engineered by Venetian hands, they were caught in a cash flow crisis from which they could not escape, and they collapsed.
As for Venice, the oligarchical playbook developed forms and methods that would make a member of the modern military-industrial complex proud, for rather than publicly amend the structure and constitution of their government, Venetians simply created new “emergency” agencies to deal with problems as they arose. The most famous, of course, was the Council of Ten, a body whose true importance can only be appreciated if one notes that the intelligence it gathered (on a truly global basis) provided information on future market conditions and trends, allowing Venetian merchants and banks to prosper, or at minimum to manage their losses. Such widespread global intelligence also raises the possibility that Venice was able to confirm the existence of the New World through Oriental, as well as archived Byzantine, sources. Academics may choose to dismiss the arrival of a massive gold shipment in Venice in the same year as the Peruzzi collapse as “coincidental.” But such shipments would have had to have been in long planning and preparation, and Venetian agents would have known of the difficulties of the company—after all, it maintained a branch in Venice, and leased Venetian ships to transport its commodities.
Within Venice, too, another technique and tactic arose, the manipulation of “seigniorage” of the mint, itself firmly in the hands of the oligarchical families. This was, so to speak, the same thing as a modern central bank such as the Federal Reserve or Bank of England manipulating the prime lending rate. And as we have also seen, Venice was not above using outright currency manipulation—witness the famous Blind Doge Enrico Dandolo’s coinage of a near replica of the Byzantine hyperperon, in an effort to drive the Roman coinage out and replace it with the Venetian one in Middle Eastern trade. The Fourth Crusade, seen in this light, was a continuation by other means of the economic warfare that this step announced.
Finally, we have argued a purely speculative case that in the wake of the Fourth Crusade, Venice may indeed have come into possession of ancient maps that clearly suggested a “New World,” and hence an opening of the system of trade that would have endangered Venice’s unique and dominant position in East-West trade. Given its geographical, and geopolitical, position, Venice would have suppressed that knowledge, yet another key ingredient of the oligarchical playbook: when knowledge is discovered that for whatever reason can threaten the power of the ruling oligarchy, that knowledge should be suppressed, until that ruling elite has positioned itself to take advantage of it (if possible).
In the aftermath of the War of the League of Cambrai, some researchers, such as Webster Tarpley, have argued that the Venetian oligarchy clearly saw the handwriting on the wall: their power could no longer be sustained using Venice as a base of operations. Seeing this, they simply decided tomove …
1Graeber, David. Debt, p. 291.