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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Venice Piazza

Commerce

Trading Culture

The Roman Empire had long since collapsed when, in the north of the Italian peninsula, the Venetian Empire established its power, which was based on maritime commerce. Venetian fortunes rose and fell in relationship to Constantinople (Istanbul), another great port city. Sometimes the two capitals of empire were partners, at others they were rivals in commerce and war. From the 8th to the 11th centuries Venice was first a semi-independent province of the Byzantine Empire (a Byzantine emperor called Venice "Byzantium's favorite daughter"); then, as Venice's maritime power grew, it became more of an ally to Byzantium (Venice was exempted from duties normally paid in Byzantine territories). With the elderly Doge Dandolo at its head, the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1204, and as a part of the peace treaty Venice established colonies and trade agreements that allowed it to control much of the maritime trade in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic seas. This, in turn, gave Venice unparalleled access to the Silk Road. The Pax Mongolica from the mid-13th to the mid-14th centuries not only allowed Venetians to travel across Mongol lands, but it also substantially increased East-West exchange as the Mongols became interested in making alliances with Europe.

Venice's goal in building an empire was not to rule over far-flung lands or to propagate religion, but to protect, expand, and encourage trade. The Venetian Republic was led by pragmatic men: the doge and Council of Ten were elected from the Grand Council of around 2,000 members, many of whom were merchants.

Venetians realized that they needed a good navy to control the seas, and so they established a shipbuilding yard called the Arsenale. A huge area, considered a pre-modern industrial complex, it produced military, mercantile, and ceremonial boats.

If trade was power, then knowledge of the major trading region in the world — the overland Silk Road — was a vital part of successful trading relationships. Western intellectual curiosity was aroused by the learning in the Muslim world that in the 11th and 12th centuries surpassed the West's. Several schools were established in Venice to translate Arabic books on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and encyclopedic collections of information about the natural world.

After the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century and the Ottoman Turks' conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks slowly took over the trade ports that Venice had acquired in the 13th century, leading to the decline of Venice as a trading empire.

Venice Merchants

Venice was a city of pilgrims, itinerant traders, soldiers, supplicants, extraordinarily rich merchants, clerics, and civic leaders. Its streets and canals have teemed with life for the past 1,300 years. It has always been a place of cultural interaction. During the annual Great Whitsun trade fair merchants from East and West met to display and sell goods and to introduce new, exotic items; for instance, in 1580 coffee was first introduced to Europe in Venice.

The merchants' homes reflected their economic success and cosmopolitan outlook. Venice's patrician rulers were also its merchants, and they built mansions as tangible signs of their wealth. These mansions, called palazzi, were often rich in color and architectural detail. They faced the canal and had water gates allowing boats to be brought directly into the ground-floor area where the trade goods were stored. On the upper floors, windows of Venetian glass let light into sumptuous halls decorated with Turkish carpets, Chinese porcelain, Syrian metalwork, silk hangings, vases, and religious paintings and statuary.

The merchants gave lavishly to build and decorate churches and spared no expense in decorating the Doge's Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark. The most precious and spectacular objects taken as booty during conquest also found their way into these public buildings.

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