The genius of the Venetian state lay in commerce and in industry. Trade was in its blood. The city was sustained by what has been described as the first capitalist economy, but the phrase needs refining. It represented the first great triumph of mercantilist capitalism in Europe, the commercial paradigm for seventeenth-century Amsterdam and for eighteenth-century London. In this market-place everyone came to buy or to sell; the artist and the priest, as well as the merchant, sought for profit. The system of trade defined the social and cultural systems of the city; it subsumed them. Fashion and innovation became the key concepts. Rational calculation, and the abstract relations of credit and exchange, fashioned a wholly new kind of society—a society of commodities and a society of consumers. It has been said that the modern economic spirit sprang from the experience of the city. Paris only took on an urban form, for example, when mercatores or merchants settled beside the existing schools and monasteries.
All the actions of Venice, in war and in peace, were determined by the interests of commerce. It conquered only for profit, not for glory, and calculated with cold eye the financial gain to be acquired from the pious aspirations of the Crusades or the brutal sack of Constantinople. Its diplomatic treaties are wrapped in the language of “recompense” and “reparation.” In a private document of the fifteenth century, known as the Morosini Codex, there is a formulaic sentence for disaster—“many people died and much merchandise was ruined.” The essence of trade lies in further and further expansion, but Venice itself could not grow. So it exploited territories overseas from mainland Italy to the island of Cyprus. At the height of its power, it was the third largest state in Europe. It was also the richest. That is why commercial self-interest became a foundation of national ideology.
The earliest example is that of salt. The dwellers of the lagoon, long before the immigrants from the Veneto ever arrived, had traded in that substance; the lagoon was a perfect place for salt pans, with the brine of the low-lying sea all around. But the Venetians pursued that business with a vengeance. They decided to create a monopoly in the supply of salt to the mainland. By force and by conquest Venice appropriated the other centres of salt production in the territories closest to it. Then it applied itself to the salt producers of the entire Adriatic, compelling or bribing them to close their manufactories; if any salt was produced in overseas territories (as it was in the Venetian colony of Cyprus) it was taken to Venice and stored in great warehouses from where it was despatched to consumers at monopoly prices. Effectively the city put down any hint of competition. This was the Venetian way of doing business. In similar fashion it exploited the appetite for spices that re-emerged in the twelfth century, when the Mediterranean became once more open to traffic. Within a short time it dominated the trade. In the sixteenth century, for example, it imported almost six hundred tons of pepper annually from Alexandria. It even had its own pepper officers.
The greatest source of profit lay in trade over long distances; the more the possible risk, the more the possible benefit. It has been calculated that, in the early fifteenth century, there were some 3,300 vessels within the city’s mercantile marine. The ships of the Venetians left in convoys; each year there were seven trading expeditions sailing for different destinations. One fleet travelled to the Crimea, for example, and another to Cyprus and Egypt. Venice itself owned the galleys, and rented them out to the highest bidders. It is a perfect example of the city’s commercial instinct. The freight, and the dates of travel, were arranged well in advance. Merchants at home would then invest in the journey of the travelling merchant, in return for a large proportion of any subsequent profit. There was much profit to be obtained. On the return of these argosies the quays of Venice were piled high with carpets and silks and perfumes, sacks of cloves and bags of cinnamon. Argosy is indeed the most appropriate word. It derives from the port of Ragusa (Dubrovnik in what is now Croatia), a Venetian colony in the sixteenth century.
In the fourteenth century wax and pepper, sandalwood and ginger, were despatched to Europe by Venetian merchants from the Indies and Syria, Timor and Malabar. The East did not know the market prices of the West, nor did the West know the prices of the East. But the Venetian merchant understood, and calculated, both. Metals and manufactures were despatched to the East, while cotton and spices travelled in the opposite direction. The Venetians exploited opportunities that other cities and other states did not see or to which they were indifferent. Venice is the fulcrum between what we call the medieval, and the early modern, ages.
Some of the earliest banks in the world were established in Venice. There are private banks mentioned in official records from 1270. In the thirteenth century, too, Venice created the first publicly funded national debt, known as the Monte. The Monte meant literally a “pile” of coins. Until the fourteenth century moneylenders were free to practise in the city, although they were forbidden in most other cities. In the twelfth century charging large interest was said to be “an old Venetian custom.” The counters for the money-changers, covered in cloth or carpet, were set up at the base of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. Truly the Venetians made a religion out of money. On the bills of exchange was often inserted the phrase, “And may Christ watch over you.” There was a public bank in the city by 1625, 107 years before the foundation of the Bank of England. Venice became the largest bullion market in the world.
The merchant of Venice was the master of Venice. The founders of Venice were merchants or, rather, they were forced to trade in order to survive. The doges themselves engaged in trade. So there is the curious anomaly that the earliest nobility of the city were wholly involved with commerce; there was no hierarchy of birth, dependent upon a feudal system of honour, but a social framework entirely fashioned out of commercial speculation. As an English ambassador wrote in 1612, “Omnes vias pecuniae norunt.”They know all the paths of money. Fortunes were not made out of landed property but out of skill in business. This accounts in part for the evident sense of equality that the Venetians experienced, one with another; in the realm of King Money, all subjects are intrinsically equal. Money knows no duty or honour.
Yet in practice it was government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. There was no merchants’ guild in Venice, for the simple reason that the city itself was one grand guild. It was a government of merchants. Much of its commerce was in fact controlled by a relatively small number of families who had always been in business. They were characterised by their acumen as a family unit so that, for example, the Dandolos were known to be audacious and the Giustinianis were benevolent. The domestic partnership whereby brothers, or fathers and sons, traded together was known as fraterna; its account books could pass through many generations, like a piece of family furniture. Household accounts were not separated from business accounts. They amounted to the same thing. The senate was essentially a board of directors, with the doge as the chief executive officer.
The government of the city was practical and efficient; it was moderate in its spending, and vigilant over its auditing of costs. The resources of the city were managed with extreme caution. The Venetians, for example, had great skill in the drawing-up of contracts, which became almost an art form. There was not the expense of a standing army; soldiers were purchased when necessary. The council of ten were charged with the administration of the Mint. The bankers kept their coins in the offices of the state treasury.
The government could only safeguard trade by maintaining liberty and security; liberty in the removal of restrictions, and security in the domination of the sea. The originality of Venetian governance lay in its unique ability to fuse politics and economics into a new form of power. It can be called state capitalism, or communal capitalism, or corporate government. The point is that it worked. In administrative terms, it was the equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. The Venetian merchants could also take comfort from Isaiah’s disquisition on Tyre that it was “the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth … and her merchandise and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord.”
The image of the merchant is central to any understanding of Venice. It was even said that all Venetians were merchants. Why should that be so? The merchant is in part a speculator, ready to take acceptable risks for the sake of future profit. He rises to a challenge, but will decline a mere escapade. He is ambitious for supremacy, and competitive if not coercive towards his rivals. But he is also thrifty, and cautious. If these are paradoxical qualities, they are part of the paradox of Venice. The love of commerce, and the desire for gain, are essential to its nature. There were many Venetian proverbs on the subject of money—money is our second blood, money makes money and lice make lice, a man without money is a corpse that walks.
Merchants calculate. They are economical with their time, as well as with their words. Within them are wells of secrecy and duplicity. They have little use for culture unless, that is, a profit can be made out of it. They are interested in peace; but they are, in essence, dispassionate observers of the affairs of the world. An opportunity, after all, can arise out of any situation. War itself can be a source of immense profits, if it is handled in the correct manner. New markets can be opened, and new resources exploited. But the Venetian merchants were more interested in the short, rather than the long, term. They shifted with the ever-shifting scene. That is why they were described as foxes in a world of lions. There is another Venetian proverb: With truth and lies you sell the merchandise.
From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries Venice became the city of luxury goods. Luxury may be defined as a form of erotic display, a deep response to the refinements of sensation. It suggests delicacy and rarefied pleasure. One need hardly add that it encourages further and further consumption. We need many things as the staples of life, but we desire even more. Desire lies in the open mouth of the consumer. Venice has always been known as a sensual city, whether in the ubiquity of its courtesans or in the lush canvases of its painters. Both artist and prostitute reflect the underlying reality of the city in which colourful display and material value are sacrosanct. The popular festivities of Venice might also be considered to be an expression of luxury.
Venice possessed no natural resources, and so it relied upon manufacture; the only way of maintaining its supremacy was in the creation of more various and more rarefied items. Luxury was prodigality, whether in spices or perfumes or dye-stuffs or ornaments of gold and rock crystal. Venice traded in them all. It made the glass and the silk and the soap. It manufactured the marzipan as well as the wax. Venice was a centre of silk manufacture, while the neighbouring island of Burano was the home of lace-making and Murano of mirrors and glass. The manufactories of Venice created the first glass window pane, which was undoubtedly a luxury on its arrival. In 1615 it became the first western city to market coffee. The fork was also a Venetian invention, one of the panoply of luxuries that emerged upon the dining table. Venetian households, in general, were known for their ornamentation and luxurious furnishing. The whole city was a hive ever active, relying to a large extent upon rapid and small transactions. You may see the merchants in the paintings, many of them young and eager, surrounded by pens and papers and balances. Each one is in a little world of striving and risk. Lorenzo Lotto finished “Portrait of a Young Man with Account Book” by the early 1530s; from various signs and tokens it is clear that the young man, after an unhappy romance, is seeking for consolation in the perusal of household accounts. He turns the pages of a double-entry register. Never have the blessings of business been more poignantly stated.
But we can move closer to the merchant. We can glimpse more of his life. A manuscript notebook of the early fourteenth century, known as the Zibaldone da Canal, has survived. It was compiled by a merchant, of unknown name, and is filled with arithmetical and geometrical notations together with what the merchant calls “many beautiful and subtle calculations.” There are medical remedies of an eminently practical nature, together with the most egregious superstitions. He notes that cheese becomes lighter as it dries out, so that it must be weighed carefully at the end of a voyage. He estimates the profit to be earned from gold smuggled into Tunis. He calculates the length of voyages. He recommends that a traveller, on first boarding his ship, should invoke saints Oriele and Tobias. He remarks, also, that there is “a time to threaten and not to fear.” The heart of the merchant is thereby laid bare.
In Venice according to one senator, “everything is up for sale.” He was referring in particular to political office, when the state itself became the object of commercial speculation, but he was entirely correct in a wider sense. Venice became the market of the world. “Indeed it seems,” one visitor wrote in 1494, “as if the whole world flocks there, and that human beings have concentrated all their force for trading.” This notion of “force,” the energy and power released by commerce, is the perfect word for the tempest of Venetian business. To Venice came the wines of Crete and the cinnamon of the Indies, the carpets of Alexandria and the caviar of Caffa, the sugar of Cyprus and the dates of Palestine. Cloves and nutmegs arrived from the Moluccas by way of Alexandria; the camphor of Borneo was brought to the lagoon together with the pearls and sapphires of Ceylon; the shawls of Kashmir lay beside the musk of Tibet, while the ivory of Zanzibar was unloaded with the rich cloths of Bengal. The Venetian ambassadors signed commercial treaties with the soldan of Egypt and the khan of Tartary, the sultan of Aleppo and the count of Biblos. The sons of nobles became apprentices at sea. Marco Polo was a merchant.
Fernand Braudel, in Le Temps du Monde (1979), characterises Venice in 1500 as the centre of the world economy. In 1599 it was described by Lewes Lewkenor as “a common and general market to the whole world.” In Coryat’s Crudities (1611) Saint Mark’s Square itself is called the “market-place of the world.” The city dominated the Adriatic, and insisted that all of its trade passed through its own ports. Venice fought off all other claimants. It was the quintessential merchant city, the ultimate bazaar.
The early trade fairs of Europe were conducted in Venice, perhaps from the examples of Egypt and Syria. The annual fair of the Sensa, with its origins in the twelfth century, was devoted to luxury goods; there were no less than twenty-four shops, for example, reserved for the goldsmiths and the silversmiths. It took place in Saint Mark’s Square, lasted for fifteen days, and welcomed some hundred thousand visitors. There were glass-blowers and painters and armourers; in fact, craftsmen of every kind. Trade then became a carnival and an entertainment. It became the object of festive ritual, just as the harvest rites of the countryside had a spiritual as well as a secular importance.
Yet there is a sentence from Voltaire that underlines the economic significance of this trade in luxuries—“Le superflu, chose très nécessaire”; luxury was necessary because it stimulated trade. The possession of luxuries, for example, was a vital element in the attainment of status. It has been argued that the growth of luxury is largely responsible for the rise of modern capitalism, in which case Venice was a pioneer capitalist in more than one sense. In its exploitation of raw materials, in its obsession with profit, in its rational organisation of trade and manufacture, and in the size of its operations across the known world, it was the very model of capitalistic enterprise. These urban merchants and shopkeepers learned how to diversify, to create new occupations and products, to seek for simplicity in all forms of exchange.
Luxury is the stepmother of fashion. There were sudden “crazes” in the city and the great chronicler of Venice, Pompeo Molmenti, noted that “no nation ever showed itself so insatiable in the matter of fashions.” In his Treatise of Commerce (1601) John Wheeler remarked that “all the world choppeth and changeth, runneth & raveth after Marts, Markets and Merchandising, so that all thinges come into Commerce.” This was the situation of Venice. So here we may see the beginnings of what has become known as consumer demand. The consumer emerges in Venice. Fashion was the goddess of this turning world. Vivaldi was disparaged as yesterday’s composer, according to an eighteenth-century observer, “for fashion is everything in Venice, where his works have been heard for too long and where last year’s music makes no money.” At a later date Margaret Oliphant, the Scottish novelist, described it as “the sensation-loving city.” The ladies of Venice always wore the latest style, and in the street of merchants known as the Merceria there was a doll dressed in the latest Parisian mode. The shop itself became known as “The Doll of France.” Fashions created luxuries; luxuries encouraged trade; trade prompted industry.
Venice was built from gold. It was the golden city. The desire to grow rich led to an obsession with gold. It was both a solace and a treasure. It was an investment and a defence. It was glorious. It was pleasing to the eye. The Venetian protagonist of Ben Jonson’s Volpone rises with appropriate words upon his lips, “Good morning to the Day; and, next, my Gold.” In the Mint of Venice there once stood a statue of Apollo holding gold ingots. Petrarch, in an encomium upon Venice, enumerated all the wild and distant places to which its merchants travelled. “Behold,” he wrote, “what men will do for the thirst of gold!” One early fifteenth-century doge spoke of Venice as holding the “signoria dell’oro” or lordship of gold. Venice was golden in the manner of Jerusalem or of the celestial city.
Gold was one of the principal glories of Venetian painting. The artists worked with gold thread and gold dust and flakes of gold. The Virgin, in Bellini’s “Frari Triptych,” is enthroned beneath a gold mosaic; she is suffused by a golden light that seems to contain the sweet breath of eternity. This is the light that can be experienced in Venice itself. The same painter, in his “Agony in the Garden,” bathed Christ’s back with powdered gold. In his “Resurrection,” at the Scuola di S. Rocco, Tintoretto has gilded the branches of the fig tree so that the light of the miracle may be seen to touch and transfigure the natural world. Gold, believed to be engendered by the sun in the bowels of the earth, is a sacred commodity.
The most celebrated casa, or house, in Venice is surely the Ca d’Oro. Its façade, constructed between 1421 and 1437, was so embossed and gilded that it became a glittering wall of light. There were 22,075 sheets of gold leaf fixed upon its surface. It was matched in the city only by the “golden coffer” of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the “golden basilica” of Saint Mark’s. In the basilica itself is displayed the Pala d’Oro, the gilded altar screen encrusted with precious jewels. The fame of Venetian goldsmiths was such that their work became known as opus Veneticum. Gold was used in the decoration of Venetian glass, and was of course part of the texture of the cloth of gold worn by the doge. When dressed in gold the doge became an emblem of the city and a token of its wealth. The precious material represented dignity and moral power. Even the performers in Venetian operas were dressed in gold.
There is the less lovely topic of land, to which the Venetians applied a form of agricultural capitalism. In the fifteenth century Venice acquired much territory on the mainland. A century later, the landscape had been transformed. The patricians had in part eschewed maritime trade, and concentrated instead upon their investments on terra firma. The labourers in the fields worked under the eyes of supervisors. The barns and the wine-presses were organised for the maximum efficiency. Land was reclaimed, systems of irrigation were introduced. The Venetians applied the techniques used for the creation of the city itself. It marked the end of feudalism, and the new exploiters of the land eventually became known as the capitalisti. At the same time the appetite for bucolic poetry, and the affection for pastoral landscapes, became more pronounced. Culture followed economics.
In the seventeenth century, as trade became ever more difficult and uncertain in a world of change, the patricians of Venice saw land itself as the major source of income. Rice and maize were exported; mulberry trees were cultivated. By the eighteenth century agriculture had become the single most profitable enterprise in Venice. There were those at the time who lamented this flight from mercantile trade to farming. It was wrong to abandon the sea, the mirror of Venice, in order to harvest the land. Or so it seemed. But the Venetians had always sought profit rather than honour. By exploiting the terra firma, they remained true to their first principle. Yet of course there were consequences. The partial withdrawal of Venice from the international world of trade inevitably led to a decline in influence and in status. The Venetians became more provincial.
The principal market of the city, however, remained that of the Rialto. It was the power station of Venice. It was the seed, the origin. It resembled the City of London, the centre of London’s energy, but on a more local and much more intense scale. Here the first settlers were supposed to have come ashore and, by the strange alchemy of the city, here the first negotiators or merchants began their trade. Commerce seems to have sprung up, fully armed, from the ground itself. It enters the public records of the city at the end of the eleventh century, when the patrician families of Gradenigo and Orio gave up their properties in the neighbourhood of the Rialto for use as a public market; the area had been a commercial centre for some time, primarily used by butchers, and the gift to the Venetian commune was a recognition of that fact. In the twelfth century the private houses in the neighbourhood were converted into shops and warehouses. It became truly a bazaar. Such was the importance of its commerce that, in 1497, the council of ten decreed it to be a sacrario or sacred precinct. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday there were ducal processions to the two principal churches of the Rialto. Trade could have no finer commendation. It had been enshrined.
The Rialto grew and grew. Outlying streets were cleared and widened; the canals were improved, and docks constructed. In the 1280s the Rialto Nuovo was erected to the west of the original market and, thirty years later, the Campo di Rialto was enlarged. There was a general desire to bring harmony and even dignity to this commercial scene; a great map of the world was placed on the wall of its principal colonnade. There was a prison, and a pillar for public proclamations. There were warehouses, too, and government offices for the administration of trade. The patricians met and mingled within a loggia or open-sided gallery at the base of the Rialto bridge. When much of the neighbourhood was destroyed by fire in 1514, it was rebuilt on the same pattern with the streets or “blocks” running parallel to each other. The essential conservatism of the Venetians required that they should preserve the old forms. The passageways of the Rialto, like a souk out of the East, had become the natural expression of trade.
The main street was lined with shops selling luxury goods, but there were areas for banking and for shipping insurance. There were separate markets for diverse commodities, and “specialist” stalls such as those for leather goods. The more expensive the items, the closer they were to the heart of the Rialto; this central spot was marked by the little church of S. Giacomo di Rialto. Taverns and brothels were on the periphery, where they were joined by rag-sellers and dealers in secondhand goods. It was an island of money-making, from the highest to the lowest. It was a little Venice within the larger Venice, a vivid instance of the commercial life.
There was already a wooden bridge linking both sides of the Grand Canal in the vicinity; it was rebuilt on two separate occasions but it could hold out no longer against the tide of improvement. The first stone of the existing bridge was laid in 1588, and the work was completed within three years. Two rows of shops and stalls lined its span of eighty-nine feet (27 m), but the higher significance of commerce was not neglected. On its side were sculpted the figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Hail, money, full of grace.
The city’s topography, therefore, was defined by its centres of trade. The larger campi became open-air markets. The Merceria, the route linking Saint Mark’s Square and the Rialto, was lined with 276 shops of every kind. It was, according to John Evelyn, “one of the most delicious streetes in the world.” There were also pedlars and street-sellers, hucksters and itinerant craftsmen; sales and auctions were held in the streets, beneath porticoes or in the shade of the churches. Shops themselves became places of assembly. It was a great carnival of commerce.
There were traders of every description. There were no less than forty trading guilds, ranging from apothecaries to weavers, from victuallers to barber surgeons. There were also hundreds of different occupations without a guild, from wet-nurses to porters and latrine-cleaners. It has been surmised that virtually the whole population of Venice worked. It was a desperate obligation for those below the level of the patrician. The existing street names of the city bear witness to the forgotten world of work and trade—a street of the sheet-metal workers, a street of soap-makers, a street of wax factories, a street of dyers. The street of the goldsmiths became, at the end of the nineteenth century, the street of the greengrocers. The tailors and the jewellers worked together in the same quarter. Jacopo Bellini, the progenitor of the great Bellini family, executed many drawings and studies of the itinerant labour of his city. He knew that these tradesmen and hucksters were the essence of Venice itself.
A large proportion of Venetians worked in the textile industry. There were the lace-makers, their eyesight ruined by their labour. Children, from the age of five, were enrolled in the trade. The exquisite refinement of the art, prized by the rich matrons of Europe, can be measured in human suffering. Other workers turned raw English wool into finished articles. The looms of the city produced damask and cloth of gold. There were weavers of tapestry and spinners of cotton. Of course women and children were part of this enormous trade. The workshop knows no gender. Despite the severe restrictions placed upon the movement and freedom of patrician women, the females of the lower orders were treated as fuel for the fire of the Venetian economy. Women were employed as printers and sail-makers, ironmongers and chimney-sweeps.
There were also female hawkers. Gaetano Zompino published Cries of Venice (1785) in which he listed sixty different varieties of hawker. Similar books were written in London and Paris, but in Venice the endless sound of human voices would have a distinct and different quality. There was no other background noise, apart from the hurrying feet of the passers-by and the calls of the gondoliers. The cries of the wood-dealer and the chair-mender and the man with the performing monkey would have echoed through the streets of stone, joyful and mournful, intense and intimate. Tomatoes a little sour, perfect for the salad! Women, you must make water with lemons! The pears that wet the beard!
In this climate everything could be raised, or lowered, to the status of a commodity. As Venice grew richer the churches became ever more ornate, as ornamented and encrusted as the jewel boxes of the great Venetian ladies; it was reported that, at the time of the creation of Venice, the Almighty had been promised “a hundred temples of gold and marble.” The reverence for show and splendour began early. That is why Venice was the showcase of the world. Information became a commodity, as Venice became the centre for the trade in printed books. Knowledge could indeed be packaged like a consignment of pepper. Albrecht Dürer, a resident of Venice for a time, executed a sketch in which books are being produced en masse as if they were loaves of bread. As a result there were more literate people in Venice than in any other part of Italy. Incipient capitalism had its uses. It is appropriate that the manufacture of spectacles, for the purpose of reading, was begun in Venice.
There was a thriving trade in human flesh. By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries. The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery. They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent. They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens. Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea—Armenians and Georgians among them—before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus. They sold boys and young women as concubines. One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.
Many of them were consigned to Venetian households. No patrician family was complete without a retinue of three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops. Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service. The galleys were stocked with slaves. But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable. Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses. Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324. In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital. The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.
The solemn benefits of the Church could also be bought and sold, with the purchase of altars and windows and commemorative masses. In 1180 a stall was set up in Saint Mark’s Square for the sale of indulgences from time spent in Purgatory. Relics could be purchased. The seamless robe of the Saviour was valued at 10,000 ducats. The island of Crete was slightly cheaper. It was sold to Venice for a thousand silver marks.
Music and art, sculpture and opera, were all appraised by the criteria of profit and loss. The point was put plainly enough by the quintessentially Venetian artist of the eighteenth century, Giambattista Tiepolo, who suggested that painters should “please noble, rich people … and not other people who cannot buy paintings of great value.” Yet this could be construed as a moral, as well as an economic, imperative. Artists might, in the process of appealing to the wealthy, “be directed towards the sublime, heroic, towards perfection.” In Venice there was every reason to believe that the possession of money was compatible with the pursuit of glory. It might even be argued that the Renaissance itself, springing from the social and cultural life of the Italian cities, was the first movement towards the commodification of the western world; it was composed in part of art objects that could be ordered and purchased, that could be transferred from place to place, that were not unique to one city or one society. In Venice we can witness the rise of cultural materialism, which in turn created the first cosmopolitan culture. Music was part of the market, too, in which Vivaldi and Galuppi drove hard bargains. Opera was notably successful in Venice because, from the beginning, it was highly profitable. Speculators even made money from the leasing of boxes. It is hard to name one activity in the city that was not commercial in origin or in nature.
The painters of Venice, in their portraits and in their more expansive urban scenes, provided an inventory of costly material goods. The sitter is seen with his or her possessions, and the city is decked in ornate splendour. Bellini’s paintings depict the fine porcelain, and the sumptuous carpets, currently available in Venetian shops. These canvases were in turn placed within gilded and elaborate frames. It is not accidental that Venetian houses were known for their plenitude of pictures. Everything promised richness.
Artists came to the lagoon in order to learn the techniques of powdered gold, used in painting and in manuscript illumination. In Venice they would also find the finest pigments, brought from the East. Venetian painters, too, were well known for their skill in depicting the texture and appearance of the velvets and satins that were sold in the city itself. In a portrait of one doge, Bellini clothes him with the costly damask that had only recently been imported from the Levant. The sign of art as a commodity is the surface. In many cases the surface is without content or, more precisely, the nature of the subject is subordinated to the imperatives of surface decoration or ostentatious costliness. It is one of the attributes of capitalist enterprise that an object is no longer significant for its essence but for its exchange value. Here we may see one of the abiding characteristics of Venetian painting.
The notion of art as trade is of intrinsic importance to the cultural history of Venice. Most works were commissioned directly from the patron or patrons, and so the artists responded directly to what we might call consumer demand. There was an association, in the fifteenth century, between artistic theory and trading practice. There were manuals instructing the merchant on the right shades of dyes and spices, couched in precisely the terms that the artist would understand. In the activities of trade and art, objects become separated from the world; they are more intensely seen and judged. The consumer, too, judges by the senses.
There was also a connection between mercantile calculation and pictorial geometry; Piero della Francesca, after all, wrote A Treatise on the Abacus as well as one entitled On Perspective in Painting. When a Venetian merchant calculated the volume and appearance of his goods he was engaged in the same process as the Venetian artist. Sebastiano Serlio and Andreas Vesalius both lived in Venice, or in the Veneto, in the 1530s. One wrote a treatise on human architecture, and the other completed a treatise on the human body; the finely shaded illustrations in both books bear a striking resemblance.
A steady supply of paintings was despatched along the trade routes of the city, on both sides of the Adriatic; in a literal sense art followed commerce. The establishment of trade between Venice and the Netherlands, for example, heralded the profitable interchange between two schools of painting. When Venice and Germany joined in commerce, they also joined in art. The good citizens of Augsburg and Salzburg had many paintings of the Venetian school; the collectors of Venice possessed many works from German and Netherlandish painters.
There was also a market for “utility art,” with panel paintings used as devotional props and easel paintings as interior decoration. The material, rather than aesthetic, quality of the work was the important consideration. By the sixteenth century there were already “dealers” operating in Venice, mediating between artist and client, or between seller and purchaser. The contracts drawn up between consumer and supplier often specified the amount of gold, or expensive pigment, to be employed in any one painting. They ordained the nature, as well as the dimensions, of the work. They included a “deadline” for completion as well as penalty clauses for late delivery. Some contracts even included a clause in which the artist agreed to surpass the work of another named artist. Tintoretto, from a family of dyers, had all the skills of the merchant. He habitually undercut the prices of his rivals, thus assuring a steady supply of commissions. He worked quickly as well as cheaply. The letters of Titian are filled with money matters, with haggling and demanding and complaining. Canaletto, two centuries later, was a master of the export trade. Tiepolo concentrated upon the production of historical and allegorical painting on the very good grounds that only they provided him with a reasonable profit margin.
There was a passion for collecting in Venice; anything, from Roman coins to freaks of nature, could be taken up and placed in cabinets or cupboards. So the city could become a market in another sense. Private collecting was a Venetian phenomenon of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It created new forms of demand, and new methods of accumulation; it made the act of possession intrinsically worthwhile. The consumer could pose as the connoisseur. The sybarite could become a humanist saint. He was called a virtuoso. The first known collections were Venetian, dating from the fourteenth century. But the obsession with studioli or curiosity shops just grew and grew. The collection of the Venetian patrician Andrea Vendramin included sculptures and medals, urns and gems, lamps and shells, plants and manuscripts, costumes and mummified animals. The whole world could be purchased and displayed. Another Venetian patrician, Federigo Contarini, aspired to possess a specimen of every thing or being ever created; in this, of course, he could not be assured of success. During the course of the seventeenth century possession became more specific and specialised. There was a market for antiquities and a market for landscape paintings; there was a market in natural marvels, such as the many-headed hydra valued at six thousand ducats, and a market in ancient musical instruments. Coins and medals were also popular. The collection of Apostolo Zeno, for example, contained 5,900 medals. We must never forget, however, the commercial instinct of the Venetians. Zeno’s medals were a financial investment as well as a scholarly marvel. A collection could also be a portfolio. That is perhaps why it was an enduring, as well as a widespread, passion in the city. The last great Venetian collector, Conte Vittorio Cini, died in 1977.
Niccolò Serpetro’s Marketplace of Natural Marvels was published in Venice in 1653 with the entirely appropriate notion of placing the curiosities of nature in an imaginary piazza not unlike Saint Mark’s Square; here, amid the porticos and shops and stalls, the wonders of the world could be purchased. The market is the metaphor, and the reality. Everything is on display. The display, rather than any intrinsic worth, is the point. Serpetro’s imagined world was recreated in the late eighteenth century, when a great wooden oval was constructed in Saint Mark’s Square entirely for the display of goods. The Venetians were celebrated for their skill at window-dressing, and created the first glass shopfronts in the world. So their markets were great exhibitions. From the fairs of the twelfth century onwards, the goods of the city were paraded. At a later date works of art were put up for sale in the square, classical and contemporary works hanging side by side in the open air. It is entirely appropriate that the Venice Biennales—of art, of film and of architecture—are still flourishing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They are continuing a great tradition of showmanship.
The first factories of capitalism were the silk manufactories of Venice. Ships were turned out from the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenal fully rigged and fitted, in the same fashion as the automobiles of a later date. Glass-making and mirror-making were full-blown industrial enterprises, in which the division of labour was matched by the economies of scale. These were family trades, too, with the son taking over from the father.
The authorities of the city also invented the concept of “zoning,” whereby industries were despatched to separate locations. It would be possible to construct a map of Venice in which every trade and industry is given a separate territory, cloth-stretchers to the west and tin-smiths to the north-east. The area of Dorsoduro was taken up by fishermen and silk-workers, while that of Castello was inhabited by sailors and by shipbuilders. This rationalisation of urban space continued well into the nineteenth century, when it was decreed that the Lido should be devoted to recreation and become a seaside resort.
The industrial power of Venice, pre-eminent in the sixteenth century, is attested by the fact that its technical innovations soon reached other parts of Europe. The manufacture of gold cloth in France was introduced by the weavers of the city. Luxury soap-making came out of Venice. The type fonts of the Venetian presses were copied in other cities. Venetian workers revolutionised the production of fine woollen cloth. The city became the unlikely setting for technological change and innovation. For more than a century it was the first industrial city in Italy and, indeed, the centre of European industry. At the peak of its development, in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, its population reached 180,000.
In the end that industry declined. The nature of any decline in the human world is interesting. As a spectacle, it is arresting; as a lesson, it is invaluable. A nation in decline is always more intriguing than a nation at the summit of its power. Sorrow and humility are always more attractive than triumph. But was this the case with Venice? There seems to have been very little sorrow, and no humility at all.
The reasons for the industrial decline of the city are many and various; they may be said to be part of changes in the human world as a whole. The discovery of new trade routes, and the emerging supremacy of Amsterdam and London in the late seventeenth century, have been cited as explanations. The merchants of England, Holland and France were able to undercut the prices of Venetian suppliers. The Venetian government refused to compromise on the quality of its luxury goods; its competitors had no such scruples. The cloths and metals of the north were cheaper. It was, in essence, the global transition from the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. The compass of the world had changed. That is why in the seventeenth century the wool market, the staple of Venetian trade, was perilously close to collapse. The Venetians, too, were temperamentally averse to innovation; as we have already noticed, the patricians and merchants were traditionalists. The habits of control and regulation, born from the earliest communal fight of Venice to survive, could not be changed in a generation. Other economies were more open, and more flexible. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, therefore, Venetian industry had been curtailed.
Yet it cannot be said that the standards of living, among the various sections of the Venetian populace, were notably affected. Certainly it would be wrong to talk in anthropomorphic terms of “weakness” or “decay.” Perhaps, after all, talk of decline is unwarranted. There may simply be transition. Venice merely changed its nature, to deal with changing circumstances, and attained commercial success in a different guise. It is still a rich, and richly endowed, city. It is the home of biennales and of tourists. It has in effect marketed and sold its ultimate commodity—itself. Its history and memory have been transformed into luxury goods for the delectation of travellers and visitors. It traded in goods and in people; now, finally, it trades upon itself.