In 1354 Duke Giovanni Visconti sent Petrarch to Venice to negotiate peace between Venice and Genoa.
“You see in Genoa,” the poet had written, “a city in the act of ruling, seated on rough hillsides, superb in walls and men.”52 The merchant’s itch for gain, pitting the sailor’s pluck against the sea, had plowed lanes of Genoese commerce through the Mediterranean to Tunis, Rhodes, Acre, and Tyre, to Samos, Lesbos, and Constantinople, through the Black Sea to the Crimea and Trebizond, through Gibraltar and the Atlantic to Rouen and Bruges. These enterprising businessmen developed double-entry bookkeeping by 1340, and marine insurance by 1370;53 they borrowed money from private investors at seven to ten per cent, while in most Italian cities the rate ranged from twelve to thirty. For a long time the fruits of trade were divided, never amicably, among a few rich families—the Doria, the Spinola, the Grimaldi, the Fieschi. In 1339 Simone Boccanera led the sailors and other workers in a successful revolution, and became the first of a line of doges that ruled Genoa till 1797; Verdi commemorated him in an opera. The victors in their turn divided into hostile family groups, and disordered the city with costly strife, while Genoa’s great rival, Venice, thrived on order and unity.
Next to Milan, Venice was the richest and strongest state in Italy, and without exception the most ably governed. Its craftsmen were famous for the elegance of their products, mostly made for the luxury trade. Its great arsenal employed 16,000 men; 36,000 seamen manned its 3300 vessels of war or trade; and in the galleys freemen, not slaves as in the sixteenth century, plied the oars. Venetian merchants invaded every market from Jerusalem to Antwerp; they traded impartially with Christians and Mohammedans, and papal excommunications fell upon them with all the force of dew upon the earth. Petrarch, who had ranged from Naples to Flanders in his “love and zeal for seeing many things,” marveled at the shipping he saw in the Venetian lagoons:
I see vessels… as big as my mansion, their masts taller than its towers. They are as mountains floating on the waters. They go to face incalculable dangers in every portion of the globe. They bear wine to England, honey to Russia, saffron, oil, and linen to Assyria, Armenia, Persia, and Araby, wood to Egypt and Greece. They return heavily laden with products of all kinds, which are sent hence to every part of the world.54
This lusty trade was financed by private funds collected and invested by moneylenders who began in the fourteenth century to take the name of bankers, bancherii, from the banco or bench on which they sat before their tables of exchange. The chief monetary units were the lira (a shortening of libra, pound) and the ducat (from duca, duke, doge), a gold coin of 3560 grams. This and the Florentine florin were the most stable and most widely honored currencies in Christendom.*
Life here was almost as gay as in the Naples of Boccaccio’s youth. The Venetians celebrated their holidays and victories with majestic ceremonies, carved and colored their pleasure vessels and their men-o’-war, draped their flesh in Oriental silks, brightened their tables with Venetian glass, and made much music on their waters and in their homes. In 1365 the Doge Lorenzo Celsi, accompanied by Petrarch, presided over a competition among the best musicians in Italy; poems were chanted to various accompaniments, great choruses sang, and the first prize was awarded to Francesco Landino of Florence, a blind composer of ballads and madrigals. Lorenzo Veneziano and others were making the transition from medieval severity to Renaissance grace in frescoes and polyptychs already presaging the colorfulness of Venetian painting. Houses, palaces, and churches rose like corals out of the sea. There were no castles in Venice, no fortified dwellings, no massive forbidding walls, for here private feud soon submitted to public law, and, besides, almost every mansion had a natural moat. Architectural design was still Gothic, but light and graceful as northern Gothic dared not be. In this period the majestic church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was built; St. Mark’s continued, every now and then, to lift its aging face with youthful decorations of sculpture, mosaic, and arabesques, and superimposed Gothic ogives upon some round arches of the old Byzantine form. Though the Piazza San Marco had not yet received its full encirclement of architecture, Petrarch doubted “if it has an equal within the bounds of the world.”55
All this beauty, quivering in the reflection of the Grand Canal, all this monolithic structure of economy and government, ruling an Adriatic and Aegean empire from an Archimedean fragment of the earth, met a mortal challenge in 1378, when the old strife with Genoa reached its peak. Luciano Doria led a Genoese armada up to Pola, found the main Venetian fleet weakened by an epidemic among the sailors, and in an overwhelming victory captured fifteen galleys and nearly two thousand men. Luciano lost his life in the battle, but his brother Ambrogio, succeeding him as admiral, took the town of Chioggia—on a narrow promontory some fifteen miles south of Venice—formed an alliance with Padua, blocked all Venetian shipping, and prepared, with Genoese seamen and Paduan mercenaries, to invade Venice itself. The proud city, apparently defenseless, asked for terms; these were so insolent and severe that the Great Council resolved to fight for every foot of water in the lagoons. The rich poured their hidden wealth into the coffers of the state; the people labored day and night to build another fleet; floating fortresses were raised around the islands, and were equipped with cannon, now for the first time appearing in Italy (1379). But the Genoese and Paduans, having already blockaded Venice from the sea, stretched a cordon of troops across its land approaches, and shut off the city’s food supply. While some of the population starved, Vittore Pisani trained recruits for the new navy. In December, 1379, Pisani and the Doge Andrea Contarini led the reconstituted fleet—thirty-four galleys, sixty large craft, four hundred small boats—to besiege the Genoese and their ships at Chioggia. The Genoese fleet was too small to face the new Venetian navy; Venetian cannon shot into, the Genoese vessels, fortresses, and barracks stones weighing 150 pounds, killing, among many, the Genoese admiral Pietro Doria. The Genoese, starving, asked leave to evacuate the women and children from Chioggia; the Venetians consented; but when the Genoese offered to yield if their fleet should be allowed to depart, it was the turn of Venice to demand unconditional surrender. For six months the siege of Chioggia continued; at last, reduced by disease and death, the Genoese gave up; and Venice treated them humanely. When Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy, offered mediation the exhausted rivals agreed; they made mutual concessions, exchanged prisoners, and resigned themselves to peace (1381).