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Medieval Manhattan – The Rialto in Venice as discrete centre of transaction networks and communication

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The Venetian Rialto had been the centre of world trade for centuries. Ursula Kampmann will give us an impression of that era with the help of a painting by Carpaccio. We will meet slaves, Turks and of course the rich merchants of Venice.

 

 

I give up. Show me a guidebook to Venice writing about the economic importance of the Rialto omitting all these deadly dull details about the bridge’s history of construction. And believe me, there is enough information about Rialto’s economic past.

 

I guess the most beautiful source is a painting by Vittore Carpaccio. A religious fraternity had commissioned him to paint it. Strictly speaking, it depicts a miracle. Yet, that miracle is completely marginalized. Instead, priority is given to the Rialto which a contemporary annalist described as follows:

 

“This is the place where goods to be sold are weighed, where accounts are kept for customs and turnover taxes. This is where the real Rialto is, where all people gather in the morning and after lunchtime. Big deals are transacted with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

 

A minor detail shows us that even large merchant ships used to travel as far as the Rialto. When Carpaccio painted this picture, the Rialto Bridge could still be opened to give way to the ships heading for the weighing house. The bridge was made of wood, but the small shops, where today’s tourists can buy overpriced souvenirs, already existed at that time.

 

Do you notice the small windows in the wooden wall? The light passed through these windows and lit the shops. The Venetian Republic earned itself a fortune with the shop rent. An eye-witness informs us about the price:

 

“There are stores that pay a rent amounting to almost 100 ducats, yet hardly measuring two paces in length and width. We can vouch for the shops being very expensive because we run an inn at the new fish market, a small pub amidst all our stores. Because of its convenient location, the inn alone pays 250 ducats, hence more than the loveliest palace of the city.”

 

No wonder that Palladio’s draft for a new bridge was dismissed. He did not take account of the little shops.

 

Just look how international Venice used to be. There, at the far back, you see Turkish merchants with their long beards and their turbans. They came in great numbers from the Ottoman Empire, to acquire European artisan craftworks.

 

One of these products was the throne of Suleiman the Magnificent, made of gold and embellished with jewels and pearls. The throne had been made by Venetian gold smiths, for the price of 40,000 ducats.

 

A little bit less, about 50 ducats, this Moor might have cost. That was a normal price for a healthy black boy of twelve to sixteen in Venice at that time. Don’t be surprised by his elegant attire. His master had the boy wear a livery in the colors of his house.

You see, such Moors served as status symbol. They were baptized and given a new name. Some of them were even better off than ordinary servants because their owners had them within reach and treated them as some kind of human lapdogs.

 

At the time Carpaccio was painting his picture, the famous store house of the Germans did not yet exist. It was built ten years later. Instead, the Persian trading post was situated there, with pretty much the same function, however not for the Germans but for the visitors from the Near East.

 

It is easy to see from where the Venetians got their idea for store houses hosting different nations: The Italian term for this institution, fondaco, reveals it. Fondaco derives from the Arab word funduq, referring to a kind of publicly controlled caravansary. That was where the foreigners stored their goods. There they lodged, there they negotiated and paid decent fees on everything.

 

You are surprised to see no women in the street? Well, the women stayed inside the houses most of the time. And all of them loved to spend their time on the roof terraces which generally served as a garden substitute for the Venetians. Due to the high prices of land, hardly anyone could afford a real garden in Venice.

 

The true heroes of our painting are the representatives of the merchant class, clad in elaborate garments. Their eye-catching garments contrast strikingly with their attitude. The Venetians were known for their discretion. They did not join in all the shouting and waving about at the marketplace. A Venetian rather talked with a lowered voice and transacted the most important deals by merely saying ‘yes’.

 

At the Rialto, they not only conducted business but likewise visited their bank. The senate had permitted four enterprises to keep the accounts for their customers. Those accounts had the same legal status as a notarial document.

 

Every Venetian came to the Rialto once a day, mainly to listen to the latest news and rumors. On the basis of those tidings he made his business decisions.

 

Just imagine the dignified gentlemen at the Rialto all churned up inside when they learned that Vasco da Gama had indeed found the ocean route to India, around Africa. That threatened to affect the lucrative spice trade, as Girolamo Priuli wrote in his diary on 24 April, 1501:

“Although many may talk away their fears and refuse to see what is ahead, this news is more important than the entire Turkish war. The loss of the spice trade would be like the loss of milk and nourishment to an infant. … I clearly envisage the ruin of the city of Venice, for the lack of any commercial trade will soon result in the lack of money as the basis of Venice’s status and reputation.”

 

Yet, that vision did not come true quite so soon. Venice developed other business models and thus became the world’s most famous tourist destination as early as the 18th century.

Well, not always to the advantage of Venice.