In Venice, ‘the sea was all that mattered’. Truly, this was the founding principle that marked the history of this celebrated city.1 For a very long time historians made the Serenissima a model of success, wealth, and opulence, sometimes asserting that the Venetians ‘had a monopoly of the transit trade in spices from the Orient’ and ‘that they were the masters of the Mediterranean’.2 Such accounts, flattering to the pride of the inhabitants of the lagoons, emphasised the prestige of Venetian navies and the patriotism of its noble lovers of liberty, united to defend the city against the adversities of nature and of men. All this is entirely misleading.
The Venetians were not the only ones who used the maritime routes of the Mediterranean Sea, an area that they were forced to share with great rivals.3 Beginning in the eleventh century, the Venetian government, determined to take a place in international affairs, intervened vigorously against the Normans who had recently installed themselves in southern Italy and Sicily. At that time all of the Christian West, not only the Venetians, was excited by the success of the crusaders, and tried to find advantage in these unsettled commercial conditions. So it was that the drive to establish a trading presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, from Ceuta in Morocco to Lajazzo in Cilicia, began with violence. The Middle Ages were a time of war in which periods of peace were extremely brief. Governments knew how to manage unpredictable economies that were continually buffeted by the repeated conflicts of the age. The Venetians were not the masters in the western basin of the Mediterranean. There the Genoese and the Catalans reigned. In the East they were forced to share the wealth of the Byzantine Empire, the Armenian kingdom and caliphates with their competitors, the Pisans, the Amalfitans, and the Genoese. Though faced with fierce opposition from the other Italian cities, little by little, the tenacity and the communal spirit of the Venetians succeeded in lifting the Serenissima to dominance. They knew how to build the foundations of their maritime power.
From the eleventh century onward, the successive governments of the city wanted above all to take control of navigation in the narrow Adriatic Sea, from the Po Valley with its populous and prosperous cities, and reaching out toward distant lands. It is the Adriatic problem that gave the first impetus to Venetian imperialism. Later, the peace that Venice concluded in 1177 with the emperor Frederick I established the Republic’s ‘Lordship of the Gulf’, which it alone would dominate until the middle of the sixteenth century.4 For some Italian maritime cities the first Crusades in the Near East provided an opportunity for conquest, but the Venetians would wait until the Fourth Crusade when, in 1204, they finally dismembered the Byzantine Empire for their own gain. Their naval power rested upon constantly growing trade, closely following a considerable growth in the demand for maritime transport between the two shores of the Mediterranean. These conditions allowed the creation of an overseas colonial empire, the stato da mar. Radiating outward from major islands such as Euboea and Crete, and from bases at strategic points along the coast, such as Coron and Modon in the Peloponnese or, in the Aegean Sea, from the many islets of the Duchy of Naxos, the enterprise of Venetian colonists and tradesmen grew unceasingly. Great successes, as much in battle as in the marketplace, are the mark of a powerful state. Without a doubt these successes rested on three critical and all-important determining elements. First was the creation of that unique institution, the Arsenal, by the communal authorities. Second was the implementation of vigorous oversight of the Republic’s naval potential as is clearly demonstrated in the establishment of convoys of merchant galleys. Finally, there was the continuing concern for associating the defence of economic interests with preoccupations of territorial expansion aimed at the founding of a colonial empire. These, it seems, were the reasons why Venice became a great maritime power.
There was a technological solution to the new equation that determined the relation between time and distance. This ‘world economy’, as defined by Fernand Braudel, saw new kinds of sailing craft brought into use. In Venice, even as the traditional role of sailors was called into question, the galley remained the preferred vessel. Venetians saw no reason to force cargo ships to evolve in a different way from warships when the galley could fill both these functions that were intimately bound together in medieval deep-sea navigation.5 If the numerous crew of a galley was expensive, it was much less so than the loss of the vessel and its cargo. The galley was the favourite weapon of the Venetians and all means were employed to optimise its capabilities within the parameters dictated by necessity. From a very early time Venice had several shipyards, the well-known squeri, within the city itself. Perhaps from the beginning of the twelfth century – some have suggested that it was as early as 1104 – the ruling elite decided to provide the city with a shipbuilding establishment controlled by the government.6 Archival documentation from 1206 confirms the existence of such a state-controlled naval shipyard and also attests that the construction of ships for the Commune was to be confined to this facility. In 1223, the first evidence appears for the existence of the patroni arsenatus, directors of the Arsenal, elected from among the nobles of the Great Council and salaried by the Commune. Their task was clearly defined: to provide necessary raw materials to the craftsmen, especially wood for ships’ frames, hemp for sails, and cordage, and to see to the timely delivery of sound and robust ships. The details of Doge Enrico Dandolo’s direct intervention in the preparation for the attack on the capital of the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade of 1204 are well known. This intrusion of the public authority into the management of naval construction would continue until the end of the Republic. In 1258, the capitulares illorum de arsena defined the role of the directors. From 1277, after some hesitation, the state attempted to retain its skilled labour force by forbidding craftsmen from emigrating. Within two years, between 1269 and 1271, the government decided to codify the regulations that governed the craft guilds in the Arsenal. The statutes of the caulkers’, shipwrights’, and rope-makers’ guilds also date from this period. By 1265, the districts that produced wood and hemp for the Arsenal were managed by public administrators. Then, in 1276, the government required that at least one squadron should always be prepared to put to sea at a moment’s notice, which required the continual presence of craftsmen at the Arsenal. Finally, in 1278, an arms manufactory completed the complement of activities sheltered within the protecting walls of the shipyard.7
1 F. C. Lane, Venise, une république maritime (Paris, 1985), 96, and in ‘Venetian Shipping during the Commercial Revolution’, in The Collected Papers of F. C. Lane (Baltimore, 1966), 3–24.
2 F. Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II , 2 vols(Paris, 1982), I, 493.
3 J. H. Pryor, ‘The Naval Battles of Roger of Lauria’, Journal of Medieval History, 9 (1983), 179–216, and also in his Geography, Technology, and War. Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean (649–1571) (Cambridge, 1988).
4 G. Cracco, Un altro mondo, Venezia nel medioevo dal secolo XI al secolo XIV (Turin, 1986), 52.
5 F. Melis, I trasporti e le comunicazioni nel medioevo, ed. L. Frangioni (Florence, 1984), 111.
6 E. Concina, La casa dell’Arsenale, in Storia di Venezia, Temi, Il Mare (Rome, 1991), 147–210.
7 G. Luzzato, Studi di storia economica veneziana (Padua, 1954), 6.