January 8th, 2018
Drowning in Spices
For me, going to Venice has been the plan since the time I lived in Venice, which is to say that when I lived in Venice Beach, I was dreaming of Venezia. It’s a long-deferred ambition and there are days when I wonder if that deferral will end up permanent because Venice, as you have surely heard, is drowning.
It’s actually drowning twice over, settling deeper into the rising sea while also being swamped by tourists. Italy recently banned big cruise ships from elbowing through Venice’s Grand Canal, their Vegas-bathtub stylings looming stories above the rooftops while their wakes erode the walls of the city. But the ships simply tie up across the lagoon, and the passengers are still ferried across to Venice, assault troops in leisure wear. All through the summer season, tourists outnumber actual residents, with the predictable result that life for the locals is becoming more and more tenuous; a souvenir t-shirt isn’t much use when what you really need is a plumber.
Admittedly, there is a poetic justice in Venice’s defeat by waterborne invaders, since it was seapower that made Venice. The exquisite urban fabric was knit by wealth accumulated through centuries of trade. Venetian ships and sailors held sway all out of proportion to their actual numbers, at least partly because Venice lies at the head of the Adriatic, in the hinge between the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and the land routes that lead to western Europe. For a society interested in trade, the location was perfect, and boy, were the Venetians interested.
They traded many things, but more than anything else, Venice was a trading empire built on spice. All spices treasured by medieval European nobility came from the far side of the world, in the long arc of botanical wonders that grew from India to the islands of Indonesia. Medieval trade routes — the descendants of routes that brought spices to the Romans — were long and uncertain, a patchwork of voyages and caravans and traders that moved through multiple great civilizations and attendant religions before reaching the shores of the Med in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
The backbone of Venice’s trade, the master spice, was black pepper. European nobility paid a fortune for each pound — and they went through it by the pound. They believed it guarded them against sickness, it inflamed their palates and their passions, too, as a vaunted aphrodisiac. They even took pepper to their graves with them.
Inspired by avid customers, Venetians were willing to go the distance to deliver, even when it meant stepping outside the lines. For instance, Venetian mariners transported the Crusaders to their war with the Muslims, but they also continued to trade with the ostensible enemy while the wars raged. The most powerful man in Christendom, the Pope, regularly excommunicated Venetian traders and encouraged other city states to wage war on Venice as punishment for doing business with those who prayed to the same god in a different way. Always pragmatists, Venetians alternately fought off their enemies, signed formal apologies, and made sacred promises to repent — and went right back to business, adhering to the letter of the law while outflanking it with new strategies and routes.
Long before the rest of Europe dallied with the thought, Venice was a place where commerce outweighed ideology. Different races, religions, and nationalities were all at home on the streets of Venice, and they were free to do business by the same rules. In time, Venice nationalized its maritime industry, making all Venetian ships the property of the city-state, rentable by individual traders. They designed big merchant galleys — ships with both sails and banks of oarsmen — which were the swiftest vessels in the Mediterranean.
And they also instituted the muda, big, well-protected merchant convoys that allowed precious cargoes to travel safe from pirates or the attentions of rival sea powers. The muda ensured that the pepper flowed, but it also provided a crucial conduit for exchange of culture. Traveling between civilizations was a long and hazardous journey, but the muda made it easy and safe, and the result was that Venice’s streets were awash, not in rising seas, but with new ideas, different languages and a tolerance bred by familiarity with the strange.
To their foes, which would be most of Italy and the Church, Venice was a place where greed trumped morality. But from the perspective of the 21st century, Venice looks like an enlightened society, unwilling to follow a moral compass which found true north in violent intolerance.
The good times didn’t last forever, of course. Other people had oceans outside their door, and they started to wonder if all that water was connected. Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama was the first to outflank Venice, making his way around the horn of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. But though da Gama was trying to imitate the success of Venice, something changed the moment he did. Maybe it was the realization that because he owned the entire trade route, he didn’t need to share to get rich. Cooperation and tolerance were, it seemed, for suckers and da Gama quickly set the pattern for the next five centuries of colonialism by greasing the ways of his business with the blood of those different than himself.
As more rival powers found ways to reach the spices, Venice didn’t collapse. It remained powerful as it slowly declined for centuries, finally sinking into a long dotage as one of the earliest tourist destinations. But long before it had become a theme park of itself, Venice had sewn, with remarkable precision, the seeds of the destruction that is now befalling it.
Venice was the forerunner of today’s international, globalized capitalism and might even be the source of the bankrupt notion that reducing social interactions to their economic basis is a good thing. Men who follow in the footsteps of the Venetian traders still seek their fortune across the sea, only now the muscle of oarsmen has been replaced with cheap and filthy bunker fuel that drives cruise ships and container ships and vomits more CO2 than entire countries the size of Mexico and the UK. The engine of social exchange and discovery which broadened the mental horizons of the Venetians is now industrialized tourism, consumption with a cultural face, reaching its banal apotheosis in selfie-stick toting crowds collecting images of things that they’ve seen images of. And for the master article of trade, we are still looking to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, but now the thing worth any price isn’t pepper but petroleum, poisoning the sky and filling the bathtub of the sea.
The Italian government is spending a sizable fortune to build the drolly named MOSE project to tame the waters, but they know that, even if it works as it is supposed to, they will only hold back the sea for another decade or so. It’s a romantic impulse, and Italian as such. But I don’t actually think it will change anything because Venice, though it seems so tangible, is already a ruin. The magic that remains are the elegant bones of way of life that is not merely gone, but which has been fundamentally erased. Venezia is an archaeological site, which anyone with a price of a ticket can explore, wandering — and wading — the alleys and piazzas in search of what seems to lie before them. We know the history, have the letters and journals of those who lived there. We can even gaze upon the paintings that Canaletto made when it was still alive. But we can only imagine what Venice once was and know that it is not the thing before us.
When I think about these things is when I know that I’ll never get to Venice, even if I go there. Instead, I can stay right where I am and ponder how it is that choices and values that were distinctly right became so deadly wrong — every time I put too much pepper in the soup.
Chair Swimming by Roberto Trombetta
Black Pepper by Mark Seton
The Ducal Palace, 1730 by Canaletto
Umbrellas of Venice by Roberto Trombetta
Spice Trade Then by deserteyes
Spice Trade Now by Asian Development Bank