The Phasing-Out Of Venice In The Social Studies Curriculum: No More Lessons To Be Learnt?, pp. 5 of 16

The decline of Venice in the social studies textbook advocating that it “lost” because 1) it “maintained a monopolistic position” or “imposed a protectionist policy”; 2) it could not operate better-designed ships (for trade or war) need to be seen in the context of the larger economic and environmental developments (CPDD, 2008, p. 116). Venice only declined in relative terms from the 16th to 18th centuries. Venice declined because the key areas of economic activities had shifted from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe and the Atlantic since the crossing by Christopher Columbus. The textbook is right in saying that the “larger states such as England and Holland, were more successful in negotiating for favourable trading rights” (CPDD, 2008, p. 116). England and Holland were, in P. Kennedy’s terms, growing faster economically than Venice or any other city-states on the Italian peninsula. The relative decline of Venice was not a decline of the city-state per se, it signified the (relative) decline of the entire region of the Mediterranean. The extraordinary lengthy period of Venice’s state-building and survival (over a thousand years) qualifies the story of Venice to represent the story of the Mediterranean in two ways. These are: 1) from the perspective of time, Venice epitmoised the long-term history and patterns in the development of the economy, states and civilisation of the region; 2) from the perspective of space, Venice was part of a network of autonomous cities and ports which were able to utilise relatively advanced financial and commercial instruments backed up by a nascent infrastructure of trust and codified legal systems before larger states dominated the region. Why Venice was not able to revive itself in the 19th century after the Napoleonic occupation and whether it could have operated independently apart from the new state of Italy in the 1860s entail the consideration of a different set of dynamics that should not be blamed on the early modern period.      

Venice put up a good fight against the process of decline. Venice was out-competed in the trade of sugar initially, sugar from the Portuguese offshore island (later from Brazil) drove down the price. Venice’s quest for a new and cheaper source of production secured it the island of Cyprus. In cotton, goods from India (as well as from Brazil) did not, for some reason, affect Venice’s commerce in the product in the Eastern Mediterranean. The appearance of new enemies, for instance, the Ottomans, was not always necessarily detrimental to Venice’s commercial interests – in fact, it opened up new markets for trading. In the later period and being an island, Venice not only procured supplies came from the surrounding areas, it also obtained the staple from places further away such as Sicily and Greece, as well as Egypt and Portugal(!). In the spice trade, it was feared initially that the Portuguese rounding of the Cape of Good Hope would bring about depression of the spice price and ruin the Venetian market. This, however, did not happen. Portuguese cajoling of ships in the Indian Ocean (specifically, the Red Sea) did cut Levant route, this, according to N. Steensgaard (1975), revived at the end of 15th century. Moreover, the Portuguese also did not always get the best quality spices from India; this has impact on the selling price. It should be noted that Venice collaborated in the Portuguese enterprise to the Indian Ocean by investing in and hiring out sailors to the expeditions; being very experienced traders and sailors in the Ocean crossing over from the Red Sea (Verlinden, 1995).

There is some evidence that Venice’s protectionist policy did worsen its trade. The report by Sir D. Carleton showed “there is a manifest decay in Venice in trade, and by consequence of shipping.” The decay of trade was accrued to the high level of the ‘imposts’ (import tax) which caused trade to “run so quick [to] Florence, Genoa and Macelles… [in which] the impost is very small.” There has hardly been a period when the onset of depression does not trigger protectionist measures. Venice’s conservative policies need to be seen in the larger context of the economic shift. The “carriage of commodities directly from the Indies by the English and Hollanders to the Northern parts hinders the coming of these wares to Soria from whence they were usually bought, [and] from hence transported over all the Christiandom.” In another words, lesser trade was passing through the Mediterranean. 

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