Thursday, March 10, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #4

According to tradition, the city of Venus was founded at the stroke of noon on Friday, March 25, a. d. 421. On the Catholic calendar it was the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the day when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The story goes that around this time three Roman consuls from the city of Padua on the mainland came to a group of islands two miles from the coast known as  the Rivoalto,  or “high bank”. On slighter higher ground on both sides of a deep channel running through the area settlers from the mainland had established a small community. The area where they settled became known as the Rialto, a corruption of rivoalto, and adjacent channel was eventually transmogrified into the Grand Canal. The three consuls had supposedly come to the Rialto to set up a trading post and found a church dedicated to St. Giacomo (James), thus sanctioning the small settlement.  A church of St. Giacomo di Rialto still exists, just north of the Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal, but the building itself apparently dates to around the eleventh century. The area around the Rialto Bridge, where Venice was founded, remains to this day the most commercial and often most crowded part of the city. 
The Lagoon of Venice with Venice in the center of photo. It is separated from the rest of the Adriatic Sea by long narrow barrier islands (click on photos for enlargements). 
 Venice in center of photo. The S-shaped Grand Canal can be seen running through the middle of the city.
It is understandable that the promoters of the origins legend wanted to link the founding of the city to the Day of the Annunciation, an extremely important event on the Catholic calendar. It is not clear why the origins legend states that the city was founded precisely at the stroke of noon. Was this when the church dedicated to St.  Giacomo was consecrated? We don’t know. Indeed, the historicity of the whole legend has been questioned. Could it possible havebeen contrived simply to add luster to Venice, a city which as it evolved was never lacking in its sense of self-importance? We do know, however, that people were living on the island of the Rivoalto in the early fifth century. A few may have been long-time residents, isolated groups of fishermen, hunters, and salt gatherers. Some may have been criminals, hiding out from the authorities on the main land. Most, however, were refugees from the Goth invasions. 

Today the Goths are known mainly for giving their name to horrible pop music, even more execrable clothing, and a dubious lifestyle. At one time, however, they were a potent political force in Europe.  For centuries the Goths, a Germanic people possibly originating in Sweden, had been fighting their way south towards the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to the beginning of the Christian era they had crossed the Baltic Sea into what is now Germany and by the second century the tall, light-skinned, largely blonde-haired marauders, notoriously for their ferocity, were causing havoc all along the northern border of the Roman Empire. They eventually broke into two groups, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. In the 390s the first Visigoth ruler, Alaric I, even dared advance on Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine, or East Roman, Empire. His attack  on the capital having been thwarted by the Byzantines, he turned his army to the southwest, into Greece, where he sacked Corinth, Sparta, Piraeus (the port of Athens), and other cities. He then set his sights on the Western Roman empire and its capital of Rome. Utilizing the superb Roman-built roads he and his army soon founded themselves in the ancient region of Veneto, positioned on the broad strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites and other mountains of the Alps to the north. Blessed with numerous rivers, plentiful rainfall, fertile soil, and bountiful forests, its famously industrious people had made this one of the richest regions in the Roman empire, dotted with prosperous cities like Padau, Vicenza, Asolo, Patavium, Concordia, Altino, and Montagnana. The provincial capital of Aquileia, with a population of 100,000, was deemed by the fourth-century Roman poet and scholar Ausonius (c. 310—c. 395) to be one of the nine great cities in the world, mentioned in same breath as Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and others.

In 402 Alaric and his rampaging Goths thoroughly pillaged noble Aquileia, sending shockwaves of panic throughout Veneto and beyond. Those with the means to do so fled in advance of the Goth onslaught. Some sought refuge on the islands of the Rivoalto, where it was hoped the Goths had neither the desire nor means to pursue them. Alaric was indeed focused on Rome, which he finally ransacked in 410. He moved south to Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula, planning from there to cross the Mediterranean and invade Africa, but he died the same year, 410, before this plan could be carried out. Meanwhile, some of the people who had fled to the islands of Rialto decided to stay there, perhaps surmising, correctly as it turned out, that Alaric would not be the last barbarian from the north to rampage through their  former abodes on the mainland to the north (not one had yet heard of Attila the Hun, but they soon would), and that they were safer on the islands in the Laguna Veneta, the lagoon of Venus. This, then, were the people met by the three Roman consuls who came to the Rialto on the Feast of Annunciation in 421.

The citizens of Veneto at the time of the Goth incursions were a mixed lot. The belt of land between the Adriatic Sea and the mountains to the north served as a bridge between western Europe and the land to the east—the Balkan Peninsula, Greece, Asia Minor, and beyond, and for centuries people from both the Occident and Orient had been traveling through the region. Excellent roads, including the ancient Via Pustumia (built c. 148 b.c. by Roman consul consul Spurius Postumius Albinus Magnus), which began in Aquileia, the capital of Veneto, and continued the whole way across the top of the boot of Italy to Genoa on the western coast of the peninsula, facilitated travel and the relatively easy movement of trade goods. The ports of Veneto at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea attracted travelers and trade from the entire Mediterranean, linking the province with the ports of western Europe, northern Africa, and the Levant. With all the people passing through Veneto it was inevitable that some, attracted by its fertile countryside and rich cities, would decide to stay. Over the centuries this emigration resulted in a rich bouillabaisse of cultures. In addition to the ancient local stock there were Romans and other Italians, other Europeans from further west, Greeks, Levantines, north Africans, Arabs, and probably even Persians and Mesopotamians, backwash from the Roman Empires’s many wars in the Mid-East.

One alternate historian, Joseph Farrell, in his provocatively entitled book Financial Vipers of Venice: Alchemical Money, Magical Physics, and Banking in the Middle Ages and Renaissance has even suggested that slaves brought back from Mesopotamia by Roman legions eventually settled in Veneto and it was they who went on to found the city of Venice. He claims that the real hard core Venetians down through the centuries were mostly of Mesopotamian descent and that the great lengths to which the Venetian aristocracy would eventually go to impede marriage outside of their own circle was in fact a stratagem to maintain these bloodlines dating back to the ancient Mesopotamia. He also maintains that the legendary financial acumen of Venetians was a result of the arts of accounting and money management first invented by the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia and refined by their descendants, who eventually ended up in the Lagoon of Venice. Mesopotamia was, after all, where money was invented.

I know of no mainstream historian who agrees with the postulation that Venice was founded by Mesopotamian slaves (DNA studies of living members of the Venetian aristocracy would certainly be interesting, however). Mainstream historians like Jane Gleeson-White do provide tantalizing links between Mesopotamia and finance as it evolved in Venice. In her breathtakingly suggestive book Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance, she points out that writing, invented in Mesopotamia, started out as a way of counting objects: keeping count, or “accounting.” She adds:
Apart from its role in the invention of writing, accounting is significant for human civilization because it affects the way we see the world and shapes our beliefs. To take this early example, the invention of token accounting in Mesopotamia was important not only because it facilitated economic exchanges and generated writing, “but because it encouraged people to see the world around them in terms of quantifiable outcomes”. For the first time we had tools which allowed us to count and measure— to quantify— the world around us and to record our findings.
She goes on to trace how the art and science of accounting, founded by Mesopotamian pebble counters—an early version of today’s bean counters— developed in ancient Greek and Rome and eventually became practiced in the mercantile cities of Italy. It would be honed to perfection in Venice. By Enrico Dandolo’s time the Venetians had become masters of a world-view dominated by ”quantifiable outcomes”. Balancing of their ledger books became the all important consideration. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 was motivated by the need of the Venetians to even their accounts with the Crusaders, who owned them a vast amount of money, and then add a quantifiable profit to compensate for the risk they had taken. Enrico Dandolo was above all a masterful book-keeper. The Mesopotamians pebble counters would have been proud.

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