Richard Nisley


City of Commerce
History - World Released - Jan 06, 2013

Imagine a place where the gap between rich and poor is minimal, where the ruling elite govern democratically, and, despite having no walls, battlements or ramparts, is virtually unconquerable for 1000 years.

The lost continent of Atlantis? No. The place is an island (or islands) in the north Adriatic Sea known as the “City of Canals”--Venice. It could jas easily be known as the “City of Commerce.” From 800 to 1800, Venice ruled the Mediterranean and was among the richest nations on earth. The populace was business-minded, educated, and free, and tolerant of differing races and religions (Christians, Jews and Moslems comprised the population).

While the surrounding world was ruled by kings, Venice was ruled by a council of enlightened business leaders, similar to our Senate. They elected an executive officer--a duke--who carried out the functions of state leader much as our nation's president. He was elected for life but removed from office for bad behavior by the council. Of course, other republics started out this way and eventually succumbed to dictatorships. Venice never did. Why not? Because it never raised an army to conquer other countries, and so never had to deal with some conquering hero returning home to woo the populace and take over, as Julius Caesar did on his return to Rome. Venice never had any territorial ambitions. It's only ambition was trade. The average working Joe was happy because of a type of profit-sharing encouraged by the council. Every Venetian, it seems, profited from trade.

In the beginning Venice was little more than a series of small, muddy, flood-prone islands in the center of a lagoon. The first inhabitants lived in huts perched on stilts and subsisted on duck hunting, fishing, and making salt. This changed when barbaric hoards swept down from Northern Europe to plunder the Roman Empire. The population of cities in the Northern Adriatic found safety on the islands of the lagoon. After the barbarians departed, the Roman citizens returned to the mainland. When another barbaric tribe--the Lombards--arrived and decided to stay, the mainland residents moved to the islands for good and established the first permanent settlements. The Lombards built ships and tried to take the islands, but being unfamiliar with the vagaries of the lagoon they were no match for the Venetians who trapped their boats on the shoals and destroyed them.

Venetian political independence was solidified in the ninth century with the defeat of the Franks. Led by Charlemagne, the Franks invaded the Italian peninsula intent on conquering the Lombard territory and incorporating it into a latter-day Roman empire centered in Gaul. After he was crowned emperor in Rome, Charlemagne's armies twice tried to conquer Venice and failed. The carnage was so complete that the waters of the lagoon turned red. The Venetians, who by then had developed into shrewd businessmen, agreed to pay annual tribute to the Franks in exchange for peaceful coexistence. Trade agreements were negotiated and in no time Venice dominated trade in the north Adriatic. Salt was their most valuable asset and they traded it for timber from the Alps to build the foundation of present-day Venice. What little land existed above water was drained, filled with mud, raised and enclosed with dykes, banks and shorelines built up, in order to construct stable buildings that would last. Mud was dredged from channels to make them navigable. There were no streets; Venetians got around the city by boat. The first city was built of wood. As the Venetians prospered from trade, they imported granite, marble and other permanent materials and gradually replaced wood with stone as the building material of choice. Most of present day Venice is built of stone that was shipped in block-by block on hand-rowed wooden boats.

Venice had ties both east and west. Unlike most of mainland Italy, Venetian political ties were more with Constantinople in the east Mediterranean than with Rome. In fact, Venice turned a blind eye to its Roman heritage. Venetians never fully adopted Roman law, they were often at odds with the Roman papacy, and they were slow to take up the revival of Roman classicism that interested so much of Italy during the Renaissance. For this reason Venetian architecture is so different from other Italian cities dating from the Renaissance, a blending of east and west, of moslem and christian influences.

Thanks to its alliance with Constantinople, Venice set up trading networks throughout the Mediterranean. It wasn't interested in expanding its territory, only in establishing trade agreements with ports and trading centers. Venice represented the most central point of trade and exchange in Europe in the Middle Ages because it existed at the crossroads of two great trading arteries: the sea route into the eastern Mediterranean and the land routes over the Alps into Northern Europe. It you lived in Milan, Vienna, Paris, Berlin or London, chances are the coffee you drank, the silk you wore, and the Persian Rug you displayed so proudly, came through Venice.

Two things led to Venice's decline--the fall of Constantinople (their big brother-protector), and the discovery of America, which shifted trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Venice never made the adjustment. England and the Netherlands--which were more or less enlarged versions of Venice, having to rely on trade and being run by enlightened business leaders--gradually surpassed Venice as world-class traders. When Venice fell, it fell without a shot being fired. Napoleon was the conqueror. He arrived by boat and entered the city without resistance.

Austria, which took over after Napoleon departed, built a bridge to connect Venice with the mainland. Today a railroad line straddles the bridge. Many of the canals have been filled in over the years, and many of the older buildings have been replaced with newer ones. The city is no longer sinking, now that water is no longer being pumped from underground wells. Today, the problem is the rising sea. The water level has risen about nine inches since 1800.

Copyright © 2012-2017 Richard Nisley - All Rights Reserved.