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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Venice Piazza

Global & Local

Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

In 1987 Venice and its lagoon were designated a World Heritage Site. Two decades earlier UNESCO had launched the International Campaign for the Safeguarding of Venice to raise funds for the cleaning of historic buildings, statues, and paintings following the disastrous floods that inundated Venice in 1966.

Water and pollution are major threats to the city. Venice sits in the marshy backwaters of a sea lagoon, and its streets are canals. The lagoon is flushed by sea tides and silts up, leading to regular flooding. In addition, the Adriatic Sea is rising due to the melting of polar ice, the lagoon area is sinking as a result, and the water wells that must be dug by industry only exacerbate the problem. The pollution hazard comes from mainland factories spewing smoke over the city and fertilizer runoff from regional farms that flows into the lagoon. During the 1966 floods fuel oil that was washed out of broken oil tanks also did great damage. Only gas is now allowed in the city.

Venice's population has never exceeded 170,000. Thirty years ago the city supported close to 140,000 residents, but today there are only 65,000. Since the 19th century Venice's primary economic engine has been tourism – not transcontinental trade in luxury goods — and today's economy is dependent on the millions of tourists who visit every year (estimated at 10 million). Tourism encourages appreciation for the city's artistic treasures and historical past and generates income, but it has its own costs as well. Because Venice occupies such a small area — only three square miles — tourists can strain limited facilities. There is little opportunity for young Venetians who wish to work outside the tourist sector, and so they leave to seek jobs elsewhere. Residents worry that Venice might turn into a cultural theme park and lose its soul.

Rome and Venice:
Silk Road Empires of the Italian Peninsula

There were three historical periods when Silk Road trade flourished: 206 B.C.E.-220 C.E., 618-907 C.E., and in the 13th and 14th centuries. During two of these periods the Europeans who became vital to the trade were from the Italian peninsula. The first European center of the Silk Road was Rome. The height of the Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire spanned more than 500 years from the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 3rd century C.E., coinciding with the first period of active trading along the Silk Road.. Silk from China made its way (through middlemen) from the Han capital in Chang'an (now Xi'an) to the court of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, in the 1st century B.C.E. Other luxury goods such as glass and gems also were transported across the Silk Road and were displayed as signs of wealth by the more fortunate Romans. The luxury goods inspired local industries, and Roman artisans learned glass-making techniques first developed in Syria. With the exception of its glass, which was highly valued in Central Asia and China, the Romans had little to trade in return. As a result, Rome had to pay for these goods in gold and silver, causing a serious drain on Roman coffers and weakening the empire.

About a thousand years later the Pax Monglica under Genghis (Chinghis) Khan and his immediate heirs once again opened the Silk Road to a flourishing trade that reached from China through Constantinople and into Venice. Through its control of trade ports in the Adriatic Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean, Venice was able to establish commercial ties with Silk Road traders and bring luxury goods from the Silk Road cultures to Europe. In return for goods such as silks, ceramics, and carpets, iron and wood from Central Europe were shipped to West Asia. In this case the balance of trade was more or less maintained, and Venice prospered for 300 years between the mid-12th century and the mid-15th century. In the late 15th century the Ottoman Empire and the Venetians vied with one another for control of the ports of the former Byzantine Empire and for the Venetian dependencies in the Mediterranean. The Ottomans' eventual success in taking over most of the ports and the Portuguese opening another trade route to Asia, around Africa, marked the end of Venice's place as the European center of Asian trade.

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click images to enlarge and view captions

  • Silk: In 14 B.C.E. the Roman senate forbade males from wearing silk, which was considered to be too delicate for male attire. In spite of the ruling, men, as well as women, continued to wear silk.