Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECT. IV.—: ITALIAN COMMERCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES. - Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo
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SECT. IV.—: ITALIAN COMMERCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES. - John Ramsay McCulloch, Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo 
Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853).
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ITALIAN COMMERCE IN THE MIDDLE AGES.
During the gloomy period of the subversion of the Roman empire, and the establishment of the barbarians in its different provinces, the ancient commerce of the world was all but wholly annihilated. The Romans had never penetrated to any considerable extent into the territories of the Germans and other northern nations; and the little intercourse carried on with the frontier tribes had but a slight influence over those that were at a greater distance. The latter were, for the most part, rude in the extreme, being wholly destitute of literature, and but very imperfectly acquainted with even the most necessary arts. Their bravery and thirst for conquest was accompanied with the greatest cruelty and contempt for the subjugated people, who were everywhere reduced to a state of slavery. The lands, with their inhabitants, were divided among the conquerors. And the feudal system was merely a device, not unskilfully contrived, for perpetuating the dominion of the latter by forming them into a militia commanded by the chieftains or great lords. Industry of all sorts was despised. And the perpetually recurring contests between neighbouring and rival lords afforded a pretext and an excuse for every crime.
Though they had many things in common, still there were wide and well-marked differences among the conquering tribes. And as the most violent animosities frequently subsisted amongst them, after they had established themselves in particular countries or districts, they guarded their frontiers with unwearied vigilance. Strangers were considered in nearly the same light as enemies. Commerce was limited to an exchange of the most necessary articles. Even when confined to the same country, it was prosecuted under the greatest difficulties. The merchant and his goods were exposed to the attacks of banditti, while the nobles were in the habit of imposing and exacting oppressive tolls on those passing through their territories.1 At sea matters were, if possible, even worse than upon land. Piracy was everywhere prevalent; and was again regarded, as in the heroic ages, as honourable and praiseworthy. Shipwrecked mariners were uniformly enslaved, and their property seized by the lords of the inhospitable shores on which it had been cast away.1 Nay, such was the almost inconceivable barbarism of the times, that it was not uncommon for divines to prostitute religious worship by praying that the adjacent coasts might be enriched with shipwrecks.2
The steps by which Europe emerged from this abyss of barbarism have been traced by Robertson, Guizot, and other eminent writers. But notwithstanding the depth and universality of the darkness by which it was overshadowed, parts of Italy, and the other countries adjoining the Mediterranean, preserved some small portion of their ancient acquaintance with the arts, and with trade and navigation. And the free cities round its shores being the first to distinguish themselves by the successful prosecution of these kindred branches, became, in consequence, the earliest sources of modern civilisation.
Of these cities, Venice was the most ancient and the most important. Attila having invaded Italy in the year 452, a number of the inhabitants of Aquileia and the neighbouring territories, flying from the ravages of the ferocious barbarian, found a poor but secure asylum in the cluster of small islands opposite the mouth of the Brenta, near the bottom of the Adriatic Gulph.3 The fishery was at first almost the sole occupation of the fugitives; to it were soon after added, the preparation and sale of salt, for which their situation gave them every facility; and in no very lengthened period, their ships, which were constantly increasing in size and number, visited all the harbours of the Adriatic and of the adjoining seas. They speedily, indeed, acquired a decided superiority in every part of the former, and having suppressed the pirates established on its eastern shores, became its undisputed masters. The marriage which Venice annually celebrated with the Adriatic, as marking her exclusive dominion and sovereignty over that sea, was contracted in 1173.
Such was the origin of this famous city. Her inhabitants carried with them their republican form of government.1 Their commerce and navigation were the result of the circumstances under which they were placed. Few states have enjoyed so long a period of independence. From her insular stronghold, says the historian of the Italian republics, Venice beheld the long agony and termination of the Roman empire in the west. She witnessed the elevation and fall of the Ostrogoths in Italy, and the Visigoths in Spain; of the Lombards who succeeded to the first, and the Saracens who conquered the second. She saw the rise of the empire of the Caliphs; she saw it threaten to subdue the earth, and she saw it fall to pieces and expire. Long connected with the Byzantine emperors, she was by turns their ally and their foe; she bore away trophies from their capital,2 and subjugated some of their finest provinces; she beheld the extinction of their empire, and the rise of the Ottoman power on its ruins. But the same fate must, sooner or later, overtake all the works and institutions of men. And this proud republic, which had so long surveyed undisturbed the rise and fall of dynasties and empires, and formed the connecting link between the ancient and the modern world, has also ceased to exist.1
In the darkest and most barbarous ages, the Venetians carried on a considerable intercourse with the Levant. Marin, in his elaborate history of the commerce of Venice, has shown that his countrymen were in the habit, from the age of Justinian, of resorting to Constantinople and other ports in the Eastern Empire, and of supplying the markets and fairs of Italy with the merchandise of the East; and they obtained, at an early period, various privileges and immunities from the Greek emperors. They did not, however, confine their commerce with the East to that which they carried on with the Greeks. Soon after the Saracens had obtained a footing in Egypt and Sicily, an intimate intercourse grew up between them and the Venetians. The latter once more supplied the ports round the Mediterranean with the products of Arabia and India, brought from Alexandria and Acre. In addition to salt, corn, wine, oil, and other European products, slaves were in great request in the markets of Syria and Egypt, and the Venetians did not hesitate to undertake their supply. In this view they purchased and kidnapped slaves, whether Christians or not, wherever they had an opportunity, and sold them to the Saracens.2 Some of these purchases having been made in Rome itself, the circumstance came to the knowledge of the Pope, who, having returned the purchase money to the Venetians, ordered the slaves to be set at liberty. His Holiness, at the same time, published an edict denouncing the purchase and sale of slaves as a flagrant abuse. It may, however, be observed that the thunders of the Vatican were not directed against this traffic from any enlarged views of its injustice or inexpediency, but from a religious scruple. Had the Venetians enslaved only infidels, the church would most probably have overlooked the offence. But it was felt to be a disgrace to the Christian faith, that those who professed it should be sold by other Christians to its greatest enemies; and to obviate this scandal, the church interposed its veto. The Venetian government also prohibited its subjects from engaging in this traffic.1 But whether it were that it was not very earnest in the matter, or that it wanted means to enforce the prohibition, the merchants of Venice were engaged in the trade in slaves so late as the fifteenth century, and they swarmed in the city down to a still later period.
However much opinions may differ in regard to the influence of the crusades over other parts of Europe, it is admitted on all hands, that they were highly advantageous to the Venetians and other Italian states. They furnished the ships which the Crusaders freighted to convey themselves to the Holy Land. And the numbers of those who engaged in this pious though warlike migration, and took passage by sea, were so very great, that they gave employment to immense numbers of vessels at greatly increased rates of freight. Very large sums were, in consequence, realised by Venice, Genoa, and the other cities which engrossed this novel branch of the carrying trade. Their shipping was not only greatly augmented, but greatly improved. The vessels which navigated the Mediterranean in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, were mostly very superior to any that had previously been seen in that sea; the best class being fitted successfully to encounter the rougher waves of the Atlantic. In antiquity, and down to this period, only one mast had been used; but vessels with two and three masts, and square-rigged, began now to be generally employed. The art of tacking was discovered, and voyages during the winter season, which had been unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and but rarely practised in the age preceding the crusades, were brought, during their continuance, into general use. It only required the application of the magnetic needle to nautical purposes, which took place about this period, to carry navigation to the state of perfection at which it had arrived, when the introduction of a new and gigantic motive power rendered it all but independent of wind and tides.1
The Italian cities did not, however, in their dealings with the crusaders, content themselves with the advantages derived from high freights and the employment of their shipping. They endeavoured, at the same time, to facilitate and secure their trade, and to extend their dominions. When they agreed to convey the Christians to their destination, they were accustomed, in addition to the money to be paid to them, to stipulate for leave to establish factories and consuls in the countries to be conquered by the expedition; and sometimes, also, to acquire a share of the subjugated territory. Hence it was, that when Constantinople was taken by the crusaders, a large portion of the empire fell to the share of the Venetians, by whom they had been assisted.
Towards the middle of the 15th century, when the Turkish sultan, Mahomet II., seized on the throne of Constantine and Justinian, the power of the Venetians had attained its maximum. At that period, besides several extensive, populous, and well cultivated provinces in Lombardy, the republic was mistress of Crete and Cyprus, of the greater part of the Morea, and most of the isles in the Ægean Sea. She had secured a chain of forts and factories that extended along the coasts of Greece from the Morea to Dalmatia; while she monopolised almost the whole foreign trade of Egypt. The preservation of this monopoly, of the absolute dominion she had early usurped over the Adriatic, and of the dependence of her colonies and distant establishments, were amongst the principal objects of the Venetian government; and the measures it adopted in that view were skilfully devised, and prosecuted with inflexible constancy. With the single exception of Rome, Venice, in the 15th century, was the richest and most magnificent of European cities; and her singular situation in the midst of the sea, on which she seems to float, contributed to impress those who visited her with still higher notions of her wealth and grandeur. Sannazarius is not the only poet who has preferred Venice to the ancient capital of the world; but none, perhaps, have expressed their preference in such highly valued verses:—
Though Venice was the first city in which the spirit of commercial intercourse that had been suppressed by the irruption of the barbarians was revived, Amalphi, Pisa, and Genoa were not long behind. The former, on the Gulph of Salerno, thirty miles south of Naples, though now an obscure village, inhabited by about 3,500 fishermen, attained, at a remote epoch, to distinction as a maritime republic, and is said by Gibbon to have preceded Venice in re-opening an intercourse with the East. But the more recent researches of Daru, who enjoyed sources of information inaccessible to previous historians, show that this statement is inaccurate, and that Venice carried on a considerable traffic with the Levant before any competitor appeared in the field. But the Amalphitans entered, at a very early period, on this career with singular energy and success. In the ninth century their city is said to have had 50,000 inhabitants. They were extensive navigators and merchants. Their trade comprised the products of Africa, Arabia, and the East; and their settlements in Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, acquired the privileges of independent colonies. William of Apulia, a writer of the 11th century, has noticed Amalphi in verses, partly quoted by Gibbon, and said by him to “contain much truth and some poetry.”1
These, however, were circumstances that redounded more to her own profit than to that of others. But we are said to owe a peculiar and not easily exaggerated debt of gratitude to Amalphi. It was, says Sismondi, a citizen of that republic, Flavio Gioja, who invented the compass or introduced it into navigation; in her was found a unique copy of the Pandects which revived the knowledge and the study of jurisprudence in the West; and the maritime laws of Amalphi (Tabula Amalphitana) early acquired in the Mediterranean the same influence that was enjoyed by the laws of the Rhodians in antiquity, and that was acquired at a later period by the laws of Oleron in the countries bordering on the Atlantic.2 Very large deductions must, however, be made from this too partial statement. Gioja may have improved the compass by rendering the needle more suitable to the purposes of navigation; but if he did this much, it is all, for there can be no doubt that it had already been applied to them.3 Some authorities treat as a fable the story of the famous manuscript of the Roman law carried off by the Pisans from Amalphi, and now at Florence. And though there be no reasonable ground for this exaggerated scepticism, Savigny and others have shown that the study of the civil law was vigorously prosecuted long previously to the alleged discovery of the MS. referred to.1 The statements respecting the Tabula Amalphitana, appear to be entitled to no credit, and to be wholly founded on a mistake. Though several distinguished authorities have referred to this table, none of them quote it, or appear to have seen it. No trace or vestige can now be found of any such table or law. And the presumption is, that it never had any real existence, and that some other law had been mistaken for it.2
Though brilliant, the career of Amalphi was but short. She was sacked by the Pisans in 1135, when the MS. of Justinian’s Compilations is said to have fallen into their hands, and was soon after subjugated by the Normans. Her commerce having been diverted into other channels, she speedily sunk into total obscurity.
It was the lot, and perhaps the misfortune, of Italy in the middle ages, as of Greece in antiquity, to be split into an immense number of independent and rival states. This division, and the generally liberal system of government that prevailed in the different cities, powerfully excited the patriotism and energies of the people, and made them feel that their own interests and importance were identified with the prosperity and greatness of the city or state to which they belonged. The powers which had been dormant for centuries were in consequence revived; and the Italians became famous for their progress in the arts, in literature, and in every pursuit that could add to the comfort and the embellishment of society. But this was not effected without a corresponding cost. The disputes among the rival republics, from the limited extent of their territory, from their being engaged in similar pursuits, and from their deeply affecting every individual, were prosecuted with all the eagerness of personal, and the rancour of political, quarrels. Each petty state regarded its neighbours as its most dangerous enemies. And was anxious, whenever an opportunity offered, to invoke the dangerous assistance of the foreigner.
We need not, therefore, wonder that the Pisans did not long escape a fate similar to that which they had been so instrumental in bringing down upon the Amalphitans. A strong spirit of rivalry had always subsisted between them and the Genoese, over whom they had for a while the ascendancy. At an early period the Pisans wrested Sardinia from the Saracens. All parts of the Mediterranean were visited by their ships; and besides Elba, Sardinia, and the Balearic islands, which they had also conquered, they had factories on the coasts of Syria and the Black Sea. On the recovery by the Greeks of the capital of their empire from the Latins and Venetians, the Genoese, from whom they had received most valuable aid, were rewarded with various privileges and immunities. Among others they obtained possession of Pera, one of the suburbs of Constantinople; and soon after formed the design, in which they ultimately succeeded, of excluding all ships but their own from the Black Sea. This attempt at monopoly, added to other causes of animosity, led to a violent struggle between them and the Pisans. Victory was long doubtful. But at length, in 1284, the decisive battle of Meloria,1 in which the Pisans were defeated with the loss of a great part of their fleet, and about 16,000 men killed and prisoners, terminated the contest in favour of the Genoese.2 Intestine commotions hindered the Pisans from making any effectual efforts to recover from this disaster, and precipitated the downfall of the state, which afterwards fell into the hands of the Florentines. Though greatly fallen off, Pisa is still a considerable and interesting city, and has one of the most celebrated universities in Italy. But so complete has been the ruin of her commerce and navigation, that no trace can be found of her port, and even its locality has become a subject of doubt and discussion.
At this period, and for long after, the naval power of the Genoese enjoyed an undisputed superiority in the western parts of the Mediterranean. And profiting by the discovery of the mariner’s compass, their ships, many of which were of large burden, began to extend their voyages beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to Portugal, France, the Low Countries, and England. It is not known when they first appeared in our waters. Probably it was somewhere towards the close of the 13th century. In 1316, Edward II. complained of the Genoese supplying arms to the Scotch, then at war with him, reminding them of the long friendship which had subsisted between their state and his ancestors, the kings of England; and in the same year the French carried off from the Downs a Genoese ship laden with produce for England. But though they appear to have been preceded by their rivals, the Venetians were but little behind them in finding their way hither. Marin mentions that 100,000 lbs. sugar and 10,000 lbs. sugar-candy, were shipped from Venice for England in 1319. And in addition to sugar, spices, and all sorts of eastern products, with silks, cottons, glass, etc., were sent to us from Italy.
In 1323, a quarrel took place between the crews of five Venetian ships lying at Southampton and the towns-people, in which several lives were lost. The king, fearing lest the irritation arising out of this circumstance might deter the Venetians from continuing their trade to England, granted a free pardon to all parties concerned in the affray, promising at the same time the most perfect security and friendly treatment to all Venetians coming to England. In 1325, the same monarch, Edward II., concluded a commercial treaty with the republic of Venice, in which its subjects were exempted from the liability under which aliens then laboured, of having themselves or their goods seized on account of the debts of other foreigners.1
In the ages now referred to, Bruges and Antwerp were the principal seats of the commerce carried on between the Italian cities and the north of Europe. The Hanseatic League, of which the foundations had been laid in the 12th century, had its principal factory in Bruges; and there the ships belonging to that powerful confederacy, were in the habit of meeting those from Italy, and exchanging their respective products. And the wealth resulting from their being the seat of this traffic, coupled with the establishment of the woollen manufacture, early raised the Low Countries to a high degree of opulence and refinement.
While they were thus prosecuting their trade along the western coasts of Europe, the Venetians and Genoese were animated by the fiercest spirit of hostility. Excepting, indeed, a few short intervals of suspicious truce, the war between them was waged for nearly three centuries. The most memorable, perhaps, of the many contests in which they were engaged began in 1378. After defeating the Venetian fleet, the Genoese took possession of Chiozza, which commanded one of the passages leading through the Lagoons to Venice. The consternation in the latter at this event was extreme; and had Doria, the Genoese admiral, proceeded at once to the attack of Venice, she might probably have fallen. But, fearing to encounter the despair of his enemies, he endeavoured to weaken them by intercepting their supplies of provisions, and to strengthen himself with reinforcements. So confident were the Genoese of success, that they rejected all overtures for an accommodation; and Doria announced his determination to bridle the horses on the portico of St Mark! But the result disappointed his expectations. Having recovered from their first surprise, the Venetians made extraordinary efforts to secure the city. And such was their success, that, from being the assailant, Doria became the assailed, and was closely shut up in Chiozza. Notwithstanding the most desperate attempts to disengage themselves, the Genoese were in the end compelled to surrender.1 It is worthy of notice, that at the close of this deadly struggle in 1381, the Venetians, who had taken about 7,200 prisoners, had only 3,364 to give up; nearly 4,000 having died in their pestilential dungeons. The Genoese, on the contrary, gave up almost all the prisoners they had taken.1 It is difficult, in reading this statement, not to wish that the latter had been successful—that “Doria’s menace” had been realised.
Though justly regarded as one of the principal bulwarks of Christendom against the Turks, Venice had to contend, in the early part of the 16th century, against a combination of the European powers. The famous league of Cambray, of which Pope Julius II. was the real author, was formed for the avowed purpose of effecting the entire subjugation of the Venetians, and the partition of their territories. The emperor, and the kings of France and Spain, joined this powerful confederacy. But, owing less to the valour of the Venetians than to dissensions amongst their enemies, the league was speedily dissolved without materially weakening the power of the republic. From that period the policy of Venice was comparatively pacific and cautious. She was early aware of the irreparable injury which the discovery of the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope was likely to inflict upon the most important branch of her commerce. And, to avert its effect, she did not scruple to concert measures with the Mameluke sultan of Egypt, and to assist him in fitting out a fleet against the Portuguese in India. She soon, however, became sensible that the evil was one to which she must submit; and she became less inclined than ever to engage in doubtful enterprises. But, despite her efforts to keep on good terms with her neighbours, and especially with the Turks, then in the zenith of their power, the latter invaded Cyprus in 1570, and conquered it, after a gallant resistance continued for eleven years. The Venetians had the principal share in the decisive victory gained over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571; but, owing to the discordant views of the confederates, it was not properly followed up, and could not prevent the fall of Cyprus.
The war with the Turks in Candia commenced in 1645, and continued till 1670. The Venetians exerted all their energies in defence of this valuable island; and its acquisition cost the Turks above 200,000 men. The loss of Candia, and the rapid decline of the commerce of the republic, now almost wholly turned into other channels, reduced Venice, at the close of the 17th century, to a state of great exhaustion. She may be said, indeed, to have owed the last 100 years of her existence more to the forbearance and jealousies of others than to any strength of her own. But nothing could avert that fate which she had seen overwhelm so many powerful states. In 1797, the “maiden city” submitted to the yoke of the conqueror; and the last surviving witness of antiquity, stripped of independence, and of the greater portion of her commerce, preserves only an inglorious existence, or is slowly sinking into the waves whence she arose.
Venetian ships of the largest class were denominated galeasses, and were fitted out for the double purpose of war and commerce. Some of them carried fifty pieces of cannon, and crews of 600 men. These vessels were sometimes, also, called argosers, or argosies.1 They used, as already seen, in the 14th and 15th centuries, to be common in our ports. Sir William Monson mentions, that the last argosie that sailed from Venice for England was lost, with a rich cargo and many passengers, on the coast of the Isle of Wight, in 1587.
In the beginning of the 15th century, the annual value of the goods exported from Venice by sea, exclusive of those exported to the states adjoining her provinces in Lombardy, was estimated, by contemporary writers, at 10,000,000 ducats; the profits of the out and home voyage, including freight, being estimated at 4,000,000 ducats. At the period in question, the Venetian shipping consisted of 3,000 vessels of from 100 to 200 tons burden, carrying 17,000 sailors; 300 ships with 8,000 sailors; and 45 gallies of various size, kept afloat by the republic for the protection of her trade, etc., having 11,000 men on board. In the dock-yard a great many labourers were constantly employed.1 The trade to Syria and Egypt seems to have been conducted principally by ready money; for 500,000 ducats are said to have been annually exported to these countries; 100,000 were sent to England.2 The vessels of Venice visited every port of the Mediterranean and every coast of Europe; and her maritime commerce was probably, when greatest, not much inferior to that of all the rest of Christendom. So late as 1518, five Venetian galeasses arrived at Antwerp, laden with spices, drugs, silks, etc., for the fair at that city.
The Venetians did not, however, confine themselves to the supply of Europe with the commodities of the East, and to the extension and improvement of navigation. They attempted new arts, and prosecuted them with vigour and success, at a period when they were entirely unknown in other European countries. The glass manufacture of Venice was the first, and for a long time the most celebrated, of any in Europe; and her manufactures of silk, cloth of gold, leather, refined sugar, etc., were deservedly esteemed. The jealousy of the government, and their intolerance of anything like free discussion, was unfavourable to the production of great literary works. Every scholar is, however, aware of the fame which Venice early acquired by the perfection to which she carried the art of printing. The classics that issued from the Aldine presses are still universally and justly admired for their beauty and correctness. The Bank of Venice was established in the 12th century. It was a bank of deposit merely, and was skilfully conducted.
But the policy of government, which was suspicious and jealous in the extreme, though favourable to the introduction and establishment of manufactures, was fatal to their progressive advancement. The importation of foreign manufactured commodities into the territories of the republic for domestic consumption, was forbidden under the severest penalties. And the processes to be followed in the production of most articles being regulated by law,1 the manufacturers, with little to fear from foreign competition, and tied down to a system of routine, had nothing left to stimulate their invention and enterprise. Hence, during last century, the manufactures of Venice were chiefly remarkable as evincing the extraordinary perfection to which they had early arrived, and the absence of all recent improvements. An unexceptionable judge, M. Berthollet, employed by the French government to report on the arts of Venice, observed, “That the industry of the Venetians, like that of the Chinese, had been precocious, but had remained stationary.”2
M. Daru has given the following extract from an article in the statutes of the State Inquisition, which strikingly displays the character of the Venetian government, and their jealousy of foreigners:—“If any workman or artizan carry his art to a foreign country, to the prejudice of the republic, he shall be ordered to return; if he do not obey, his nearest relations shall be imprisoned, that his regard for them may induce him to come back. If he return, the past shall be forgiven, and employment shall be provided for him in Venice. If, in despite of the imprisonment of his relations, he persevere in his absence, an emissary shall be employed to despatch him; and after his death his relations shall be set at liberty!”3
The trade of the Mediterranean was not, however, wholly engrossed by Venice and other Italian cities. From an early period Marseilles and Barcelona engaged in it with spirit and success. The latter appears to have a well-founded claim to the honour of having compiled the Consolato del Mare, perhaps the earliest of the codes of maritime law promulgated in modern Europe. Some authorities have, indeed, ascribed the Consolato to the Pisans. But, on the whole, there can be no reasonable doubt that it was compiled at Barcelona, probably in the 13th century,1 though it was not printed till 1502. We may farther observe, that the earliest ordinance relative to insurance that is known to exist was issued by the magistrates of Barcelona in 1435. The earliest Italian law on the subject is nearly a century later, being dated in 1523.2
It was not, however, in the great sea-port towns only that the superior industry and enterprise of the Italians were conspicuous. It pervaded all parts of the peninsula. The cities in the interior were as much celebrated for their manufactures as Venice and Genoa for their commerce and navigation. Milan, Verona, and the towns in their vicinity, attained, in the 13th century, to the highest eminence in the preparation of silk and woollen goods. Florence, also, and Lucca, distinguished themselves in the same way; but more, perhaps, by their exchange and banking operations, and the skill with which they carried them on. And though we may reasonably question the accuracy of some of the statements which have come down to us regarding the population and wealth of the principal Italian cities3 at this epoch, they must obviously have been very great. The splendid cathedrals, palaces, and public buildings of all sorts that were then erected, the patronage of the fine arts, and the numerous forces that were kept on foot, are sufficient evidence of their flourishing condition. The private citizens, too, who were lodged in well built and well furnished houses, lived in a style of considerable comfort and luxury. On this side the Alps all was rusticity and barbarism; while, on the other, refinement and the arts had made much progress. In these days, indeed, Italy was as far in advance of the rest of Europe, as England and France are now in advance of Russia.
The family of Medici, who rose to the rank of sovereign princes, and allied themselves with some of the principal potentates of Europe, laid the foundation of their fortune and renown as merchants of Florence. Cosmo de Medici, surnamed the Father of his country, was the most eminent banker and trader of the 15th century. He had houses in most parts of Europe, and in Egypt, and elsewhere. And, to his honour be it stated, his agents were no less assiduous in collecting the treasures of ancient learning and the choicest productions of art, than in attending to the details of business.1 He founded the Laurentian Library, and many of its most valuable manuscripts were procured at his expense and by his exertions. His wealth, talents, and political connections gave him very considerable influence even in foreign countries; and Edward IV. of England is said to have been in no inconsiderable degree indebted to the pecuniary assistance afforded to him by Cosmo for his success in his struggle with the house of Lancaster. After being at the head of the Florentine republic for about thirty years, this distinguished merchant and statesman died in 1464, amid the universal regrets of his countrymen, and of the learned throughout Europe.
Other cities of Italy were early engaged in the same pecuniary traffic by which Florence was so much enriched. In the beginning of the 13th century the citizens of Asti, an inland city of Piedmont, had acquired great wealth in France, and other countries, chiefly by their dealings in money, and they soon became among the most opulent and enterprising of the Lombard merchants. The citizens of Milan, Placentia, Sienna, and other towns in the north of Italy, subsequently engaged in the same career, and added to their business as manufacturers the trade of bankers and money dealers. The pecuniary affairs of Europe in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries were almost entirely in the hands of the Italians and Jews. Companies, or societies of Italian, or, as they were more commonly termed, Lombard merchants, were settled in all the principal towns in the different kingdoms. They were taken under the immediate protection of the several governments. Though often attacked, they enjoyed extensive privileges and immunities. The operation of the ancient barbarous laws concerning strangers was suspended with respect to them. They became the carriers, the manufacturers, and the bankers of Europe.
A number of these merchants established themselves in London as early as the 12th or 13th century. And notwithstanding the many changes and revolutions that have since taken place, the street in which they principally resided, and where they carried on their operations, retains its ancient name of Lombard Street, and continues to be mostly occupied by banking establishments.
The Jews and Lombards were engaged in a traffic which, though highly useful, was generally looked upon as odious and criminal. And being liable to punishment, if detected, they were not satisfied with the more moderate premium which they would have claimed had their trade been open and authorised by law. Having to indemnify themselves not only for the ordinary risks that must always affect the lending of money, but also for the opprobrium and the plunder which they frequently suffered, their charges were increased in proportion, so that the usual rate of interest in those days was what we should now call most exorbitant and scandalous usury.1 The prejudice against them was so very strong, that in 1283 the Commons granted the fiftieth part of their moveable property to Edward I., on condition of his expelling the Italians from the kingdom. They were, however, soon after recalled; though, despite the protection given them by government, they continued to be exposed to many vexatious annoyances.
The latter part of the 15th century, before the discovery of the route to India by the Cape of Good Hope, and while the ability and moderation of Lorenzo de Medici, the grandson of Cosmo, combined to allay the animosities of the different states, and enabled them to develop their energies during a peace of considerable duration, is probably the most brilliant period in modern Italian history. It may be compared to the age of the Antonines in antiquity, and was prosperous beyond any other that Italy had experienced during the previous thousand years. It is to this season of tranquillity that Guicciardini so strikingly adverts, in the commencement of his history, “When,” says he, “the whole extent of that fertile and beautiful country was cultivated, not only through its wide plains and fruitful valleys, but even amidst its most sterile and mountainous regions; and under no control but that of its native nobility and rulers, exulted not only in the number and riches of its inhabitants, but in the magnificence of its princes, in the splendour of many superb and noble cities, and in the residence and majesty of religion itself. Abounding with men eminent in the administration of public affairs, skilled in every honourable science, and every useful art, it stood high in the estimation of foreign nations. Which extraordinary felicity, acquired at many different opportunities, several circumstances contributed to preserve; but among the rest no small share of it was, by general consent, ascribed to the industry and the virtue of Lorenzo de Medici; a citizen who rose so far beyond the mediocrity of a private station, that he regulated by his counsels the affairs of Florence, then more important by its situation, by the genius of its inhabitants, and the magnitude of its resources, than by the extent of its dominions; and who having obtained the implicit confidence of the Roman Pontiff, Innocent VIII., rendered his name great, and his authority important in the affairs of Italy. Convinced of the perils that might arise both to the Florentine republic and to himself, if any of the more powerful states should be allowed to extend their dominions, he used every exertion that the affairs of Italy might be so balanced that there should be no inclination in favour of any particular state; a circumstance which could not take place without the permanent establishment of peace, and the minutest attention to every event however trivial it might appear.”1
This period of prosperity terminated with the death of Lorenzo in 1497; and in 1530 the republican government of Florence was finally subverted. The fall of the free governments that had been established in other parts of the country, Venice only excepted, either preceded, or very soon followed, the fall of the Florentine republic. And had Italy been fortunate enough to be then consolidated into a single monarchy, she would have been fully compensated for the loss of political independence. According as local hatreds and party animosities subsided, the nation would have become animated with the same spirit, and would have been able to defend itself against foreign aggression. And the probability is, that in the course of time the people would have acquired power sufficient to soften the rigour of a despotical or military government, and to recover, along with an infinitely greater degree of security, the most valuable portion of their former rights and privileges. But the subversion of the Italian republics was attended by no such result. Instead of being reduced under one, the country was divided among a host of petty despots and despotical aristocracies. Nor was there any possibility of remedying this evil; for Austria, having obtained possession of the Milanese and Tuscany, no native government could acquire an ascendancy; so that the disastrous feuds and divisions which led to the ruin of the republics, were perpetuated.
It would be an irksome and a useless task to endeavour to describe the various effects of which this state of affairs has been productive. Down to a late period the Italians ceased to exercise any perceptible influence over the deliberations of their multitudinous rulers. Parcelled out among foreign sovereigns, or sovereigns descended from foreigners, what interest could they feel in the contests of the Bourbons of Parma and Naples, the Austrians of Milan and Mantua, and the Lorrains of Tuscany? They were not only deprived of their ancient liberties, but the constant state of vassalage in which their petty sovereigns were themselves held by the great Transalpine powers, prevented their acting in conformity either to the wishes or the interests of their subjects. The national spirit was thus gradually destroyed. The Italians either ceased to have or to express an opinion on public affairs. They endeavoured to forget the stormy discussions in which they had been engaged, by plunging into the depths of sensuality; and from being the most intelligent and industrious people of Europe, sunk into a state of indolence and apathy. “The victim by turns of selfish and sanguinary factions, of petty tyrants, and of foreign invaders, Italy has fallen like a star from its place in heaven; she has seen her harvests trodden down by the horses of the stranger, and the blood of her children wasted in quarrels not their own; conquering or conquered, in the indignant language of her poet (Filicaja), still alike a slave; a long retribution for the tyranny of Rome.”1
[1 ] Le commerce fut aussi arrêté par les entraves que lui mirent les droits et les peages. Ils etoient en grande quantité; et les rois, avec toute leur puissance, ne pouvoient s’y opposer. Quelqu’ ingenieux que soit notre siecle pour inventer une multitude d’impôts onéreux, les grands de ce temps là l’etoient bien davantage encore, et ils obligeoient les marchands que passoient des marchandises sur leurs terres, de leur payer des droits dont nous pourrons a peine comprendre les noms tels sont, par example, ceux de Rodaticum, Pulveraticum, Cispitaticum, etc. Schmidt “Histoire d’Allemagne,” ii. 145.
[1 ] Robertson’s “Introduction to Charles V.,” Note 29.
[2 ] Incredible as it may seem, this practice was continued down to a comparatively recent epoch. “Cependant il y a encore en Allemagne des pays où la coutume de confisquer les biens naufragés n’est point encore abolie. Il y a même des endroits on les ministres prédicateurs ne font pas difficulté de prier Dieu en chaire qu’il se fasse bien des naufrages sur leurs côtes. Et ces prieres, Thomasius à entrepris sérieusement de les justifier; mais par des raisons si singulieres, qu’elles ne valoient pas la peine que Barbeyrac a prise de les refuter.”—Valin, Commentaire sur l’Ordonnance de 1681, ii. 586, 4to, 1776. See also Puffendorff, “Droit de la Nature et des Gens,” par Barbeyrac, ii. 706, 4to, 1734.
[3 ] Gibbon, iv. 302, ed. 1838.
[1 ] In the course of time the government of Venice fell entirely into the hands of the aristocracy, and was ultimately formed into the most jealous, vigilant, and relentless despotism that has ever existed. No individual dared to express, and hardly even to entertain, an opinion on public matters. The highest functionaries of the state, as well as the meanest of the people, were equally subject to the tyranny of its inquisitorial and secret tribunals. But, however unrelenting, this despotism had at least the merit of maintaining public tranquillity. And, while the other states were torn by intestine factions, few events occurred that could affect or ruffle the torpid and even tenor of Venetian life. But, as Mr Hallam has truly stated, “the wildest excesses of faction are less dishonouring than the stillness and moral degradation of servitude.”—Middle Ages, i. 483.
[2 ] The bronze horses in St Mark’s Place.
[1 ] Sismondi, “Republiques Italiennes,” i. 298, ed. 1818.
[2 ] Schmidt, “Histoire d’Allemagne,” ii. 146. He adds, “Et afin de rendre les esclaves plus beaux, on avoit déjà la coutume horrible d’en chatrer plusieurs.”
[1 ] Marin, “Storia del Commercio,” ii. p. 52, and p. 163.
[1 ] Forster’s “Mahometanism Unveiled,” ii. 235, etc.
[1 ] Coryat says that Sannazarius received a douceur of 600 crowns for these lines, a liberal certainly, if not an extravagant, reward.—Coryat’s Crudities, i. p. 197, ed. 1776.
[1 ] “Decline and Fall,” vii. p. 225, ed. 1838.
[2 ] “Republiques Italiennes,” i. 242, ed. 1818.
[3 ] See post, Essay on the Origin of the Compass.
[1 ] Schomberg’s “Historical View of the Roman Law,” pp. 197-204; Pardessus Lois Maritimes, i. 140.
[2 ] See post, Essay on Maritime Law.
[1 ] A small island about 10 miles S.S.W. from the mouth of the Arno.
[2 ] Sismondi, “Republiques Italiennes,” iv. p. 23.
[1 ] Anderson’s “Chron. History of Commerce,” under the years 1316, 1323, and 1325; Henry’s “Hist. of Great Britain,” viii. 323, etc., ed. 1800.
[1 ] The analogy between the Athenians at Syracuse, and the Genoese at Chiozza, is too striking to require to be pointed out.
[1 ] Daru, “Histoire de Venese,” cap. 10.
[1 ] The native authorities say 16,000; but there can be no doubt that this is a gross exaggeration.
[2 ] Daru, tome ii. p. 189, etc.
[1 ] Daru, iii. 153.
[2 ] Ibid. p. 161.
[3 ] Ibid. tome iii. p. 150.
[1 ] See post, Essay on Maritime Law.
[2 ] We may take this opportunity of stating that the work of Capmany, entitled “Memorias Historicas sobre la Marina, Comercio, y Artes de Barcelona,” 4 vols. 4to, Madrid, 1779-91, comprises a larger body of important and well-digested information in regard to the early commerce and commercial institutions of Barcelona, and the Mediterranean ports generally, than is elsewhere to be found.
[3 ] These statements have been collected and condensed, in so far as regards Milan, in the “Memorie Storiche di Verri sulla Economia Publica di Milano.”
[1 ] Cosmo de Medici was the father of a line of princes, whose name and age are almost synonymous with the restoration of learning. His credit was ennobled into fame; his riches were dedicated to the service of mankind; he corresponded at once with Cairo and London, and a cargo of Indian spices and Greek books were often imported in the same vessel.—Gibbon, “Decline and Fall,” cap. 66.
[1 ] See Essay on Interest, passim.
[1 ] We quote the translation given by Roscoe, in his “Life of Lorenzo de Medici,” p. 235, ed. 1846.
[1 ] Hallam’s “Middle Ages,” i. 358.