In 1378 Venice was at nadir: her Adriatic trade was bottled up by a victorious Genoese fleet, her communications with the mainland were blocked by Genoese and Paduan troops, her people were starving, her government contemplated surrender. Half a century later she ruled Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Bergamo, Treviso, Belluno, Feltre, Friuli, Istria, the Dalmatian coast, Lepanto, Patras, and Corinth. Secure in her many-moated citadel, she seemed immune to the political vicissitudes of the Italian mainland; her wealth and power mounted until she sat like a throned queen at the head of Italy. Philippe de Comines, arriving as French ambassador in 1495, pictured her as “the most triumphant city that I have ever seen.”1 Pietro Casola, coming from hostile Milan about the same time, found it “impossible to describe the beauty, magnificence, and wealth”2 of this unique assemblage of 117 islands, 150 canals, 400 bridges, all dominated by the flowing promenade of the Grand Canal, which the traveled Comines pronounced “the most beautiful street in the world.”
Whence came the wealth that supported this magnificence? Partly from a hundred industries—shipbuilding, iron manufactures, glass blowing, leather dressing and tooling, gem cutting and setting, textiles… all organized in proud guilds (scuole) that united master and man in patriotic fellowship. But perhaps more of Venetian opulence came from the mercantile marine whose sails flapped on the lagoons, whose galleys took the products of Venice and her mainland dependencies, and the German and other wares that scaled the Alps, and carried them to Egypt, Greece, Byzantium, and Asia, and returned from the East with silks, spices, rugs, drugs, and slaves. The exports of an average year were valued at 10,000,000 ducats ($250,000,000?);3 no other city in Europe could equal this trade. The Venetian vessels could be seen in a hundred ports, from Trebizond in the Black Sea to Cadiz, Lisbon, London, Bruges, even in Iceland.4 On the Rialto, the commercial center of Venice, merchants could be seen from half the globe. Marine insurance covered this traffic, and a tax on imports and exports was the mainstay of the state. The annual income of the Venetian government in 1455 was 800,000 ducats ($20,000,000?); in the same year the revenue of Florence was some 200,000 ducats, of Naples 310,000, of the Papal States 400,000, of Milan 500,000, of all Christian Spain, 800,000.5
This commerce dictated the policies, as it so largely financed the operations, of the Venetian Republic. It raised to power a mercantile aristocracy that made itself hereditary and controlled all the organs of the state. It kept a population of 190,000 (in 1422) profitably employed, but it left them dependent upon foreign markets, materials, and food. Imprisoned in her labyrinth, Venice could feed her people only by importing food; she could supply her industries only by importing lumber, metals, minerals, leather, cloth; and she could pay for these imports only by finding markets for her products and her trade. Dependent on the mainland for food, outlets, and raw materials, she fought a succession of wars to establish her control over northeastern Italy; dependent likewise on non-Italian areas, she was anxious to dominate the regions that supplied her wants, the markets that took her goods, the routes by which her vital commerce passed. She became by “manifest destiny” an imperialistic power.
So the political history of Venice turned on her economic needs. When the Scaligeri at Verona, or the Carraresi at Padua, or the Visconti at Milan attempted to spread their sway over northeastern Italy, Venice felt en dangered and took to arms. Fearful that Ferrara might control the mouths of the Po, she tried to determine the choice or policy of the ruling marquis there, and resented the claims of the papacy to Ferrara as its fief. Her own westward expansion angered Milan, which had expansive ideas of its own. When Filippo Maria Visconti attacked Florence (1423), the Tuscan Republic appealed to Venice for aid, and pointed out that a Milan master over Tuscany would soon absorb all Italy north of the Papal States. In a debate often repeated in history, Doge Tommaso Mocenigo, dying, pled in the Venetian Senate the cause of peace; Francesco Foscari argued for an offensive war of defense; Foscari won, and Venice began with Milan a series of wars that lasted, with some lucid intervals, from 1425 to 1454. The death of Filippo Maria (1447), the chaos of the Ambrosian Republic in Milan, and the capture of Constantinople by the Turks inclined the rival states to sign at Lodi a treaty that left the island Republic exhausted but victorious.
Her expansion in the Adriatic began with a legitimate excuse. Her geographical position as the northernmost port of the Mediterranean was the fortune of Venice, but it was of no worth without control of the Adriatic. The eastern coast offered in its isles and bays convenient lairs for pirate vessels, whose raids were a frequent loss and constant peril to Venetian shipping. When Venice bribed the Crusaders to help her take Zara in 1202, she acquired a post from which year by year to clear out these pirate nests, until all the Dalmatian coast accepted her sovereignty. When those same Crusaders raped Constantinople (1204), Venice received, as her share of the spoils, Crete, Salonika, the Cyclades, and the Sporades, precious links in a golden chain of trade. With leisurely pertinacity she took Durazzo, the Albanian coast, the Ionian Islands (1386–92), Friuli and Istria (1418–20), Ravenna (1441); she was now indisputably Queen of the Adriatic, and charged tolls to all non-Venetian vessels plying that sea.6 As the advance of the Ottoman Turks toward Constantinople made it difficult for that capital to defend the outlying possessions of Byzantium, many Greek islands and cities submitted themselves to Venice as the only power ready to protect them. In Cyprus a stately queen, Caterina Cornaro, last of the Lusignan line, was persuaded that she could not hold her island against the Turks; she abdicated in favor of a Venetian governor (1489) and a Venetian pension of 8000 ducats a year; she retired to an estate at Asolo, near Treviso, set up an unofficial court, patronized literature and art, and became the subject or dedicatee of poems and operas, and paintings by Gentile Bellini, Titian, and Veronese.
All these laborious conquests of diplomacy or arms, these outlets, guardians, and tributaries of Venetian trade faced in their turn the rising tide of the Ottomans. At Gallipoli (1416) a Turkish garrison attacked a Venetian fleet; the Venetians fought with their usual courage and won a decisive victory; for a generation the rival powers lived in a truce and commercial amity that shocked a Europe anxious to have Venice fight Europe’s battle against the Turks. Even the fall of Constantinople did not disrupt this entente; Venice arranged a tolerable commercial treaty with the victorious Turks, and exchanged courtesies with the conqueror. But now Venetian access to the lucrative trade of the Black Sea ports was dependent on Turkish permission, and soon met with irritating limitations. When Pius II, voicing the sentiments of a Christian and the commercial interests of Europe, proclaimed a crusade against the Turks, and received pledges of arms and men from the European powers, Venice responded to the call, hoping to repeat the strategy of 1204. But the powers welched on their promises, and Venice found herself alone at war with the Turks (1463). For sixteen years she carried on this struggle. She was defeated and despoiled; by the peace that she signed in 1479 she ceded Negroponte (Euboea), Scutari, and Morea to the Turks, paid 100,000 ducats as a war indemnity, and pledged 10,000 ducats a year for the privilege of trading in Turkish ports. Europe denounced her as a traitor to Christendom. When another pope proposed another crusade against the Turks Venice turned a deaf ear. She agreed with Europe that trade was more important than Christianity.