pierre laszlo


Some tourists in today's Venice ride a boat to Torcello. This island was settled in the fifth and sixth centuries by the Altinians, when they were driven off the mainland by the Lombard advance. They made it an important political, religious, and economic center. It was the cradle where Venice started life.

Today's visitor to Torcello, having come to see the two back-to-back medieval churches and the Byzantine mosaics in the larger one, is entranced by the tranquillity of the setting. He feels far removed from the world, in a place of spirituality, molded by history. Sculpted stones repose on the ground.

Around the year 1000, the sector from Torcello to Murano--the island now occupied by glass makers--was one of the first Venetian lagoons where salt works were installed. I shall argue, following Jean-Claude Hocquet and Michel Mollat, that the Republic of Venice built its economic prosperity and commercial dominance on salt and its trade.

The presence of the saltworks in the lagoon is attested to from the tenth century on: at Lido Sant'Erasmo in 958, in Chioggia Minore in 991. Then, later, saltworks were installed in Equio (1022), Murano (1015), Lido Bovense (1038), and in Venice itself (1046).

Salt flats mediate between sea and sun; they use solar energy to evaporate sea water. As is well known, Venice became a great maritime power. She prided herself on her mythical link to the marine element, which the annual ritual commemorating the wedding of Venice to the sea symbolized.

In fact, driven back to the shore of the Adriatic, the Altinians, the lagoon's first inhabitants, developed its bare resources, nothing but salt gathered in the saltworks. The future Venetians then exported salt to the back-country and initially bartered it for the grain they needed. Since the mainland cities henceforth depended upon and were forced to obtain their salt from Venice, this city achieved a position of monopoly first on the salt production, then on the sale of this precious commodity. To this end, Venice waged numerous wars: it aimed to eliminate the competition from other northwest Adriatic cities--such as Comacchio, its great rival in salt production--so as to seize or destroy their saltworks. In addition, Venice entered into profitable commercial treaties, often in the aftermath of victorious wars, making the cities of Paduan Italy depend exclusively on Venice for their salt supply.

The height of salt production in the lagoon took place at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries. Jean-Claude Hocquet has made a systematic study of the manuscripts: they record saltworks covering as many as 119 fondamenti (units of area measurement). But in 1348, only 37 fondamenti were left in the south lagoon, in Chioggia (where salt production would continue until the twentieth century). Moreover, these saltworks extended over large areas: for example, the saltworks at Cona da Corio measured about 230 paces long and one hundred or so paces wide, in other words, an area on the order of 7 hectares.

The Venetian saltworks were structurally fragile, at the mercy of the sea's erosion of the the Adriatic's sandy shores, the hazards of a storm or flood, of an epidemic striking the salt workers, and above all of the overflows and course changes of the three rivers with their estuaries near the lagoon, the Brenta, the Piave, and the Sile.

Large-scale public works were indispensable for diverting the courses of these three rivers. Therefore, Venice very early on gave itself a strong political system. Indeed, an authoritarian rule, enjoying a lasting period of power <QPL: ok as is? Yes, with these small adjustments>, allows for the carrying out of large-scale projects and for ensuring their subsequent upkeep. In the thirteenth century, Venice once again innovated by establishing the gabelle: this salt tax is amove from a strong political power that in this way broadens its economic base. The establishment of the salt tax marks the transition, to borrow Michel Mollat's periodization, from an initial phase of salt production in the saltworks, with monasteries as owners of the production sites (from the ninth until the thirteenth centuries), to an intermediary phase of state production, when the Venetian state seized this highly lucrative property.

The third phase is that of salt trade, shipped throughout Europe from the Mediterranean and Atlantic saltworks. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Venice, which hardly produced salt locally any more, continued to control its production in numerous and at times remote, foreign saltworks; it had salt brought to it for re-export from points of origin such as Tripoli in Libya, Zarzia in Tunisia, Cyprus, La Mata in Spain, Ibiza in the Baleares, Chiarenza in Greece, Barletta in southern Italy, Pago, Spalato (present-day Split), Zara in Dalmatia, and Piran in Istria.

Thus, salt production and subsequently its trade, provided the Venetians, from the first centuries of the Republic's existence, with an economic blueprint: a monopoly position allows for rapid accumulation of wealth, since one retains control of the selling price. Venetian domination was imposed on the northern Italian cities to which Venice supplied salt. The Republic thus learned to couple economic dominance with military superiority so that weapons could, if necessary, guarantee the soundness of the monopoly. Venice subsequently consolidated its mastery, if not its exclusive control, on the importation of spices, perfumes, fabrics and other luxury goods from the Orient to the Mediterranean world. Its fleet gave it strategic superiority in the eastern Mediterranean, against the Turks, in particular: the first chapter of her life, a salt-making one, served her as a lasting lesson thereafter.

One cannot resist visually comparing the plans for the saltworks (such as the texts have bequeathed them to us) with maps of the city of Venice: one sees the same grid pattern, the same branching structure of the primary, secondary and tertiary canals that mark out the dry land areas, that is, the city's quarters. The model of the saltworks has plainly determined the city plan of Venice, which in turn has had a lasting influence on other city plans, on that of American cities among others.