Tag Archives: Venezia

Maps, we need maps!

As we’ve seen, Venice was hopping with trade on the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. With their compasses and astrolabes and lightly-built galleons, Venetian traders traveled all over the known world. Likewise, traders from all over the world stopped in Venice. Compasses work best with a map, so Venice’s map-making (cartography) business was booming.

In ad 1450, in a monastery in Venice, there lived a monk named Fra Mauro (Brother Mauro). Fra Mauro was an extraordinary cartographer and his map is the one you see pictured here. It’s about 6 feet across.

It’s not easy to recognize all the continents right away, because he drew it with North at the bottom. We’re used to seeing North at the top of maps. I’m not sure when it became standard practice to put North at the top. Over at the extreme right, you can see a little compass-rose with North pointing down. As you work your way left from there, you’ll see Spain and Portugal, the Straits of Gibraltar where Europe almost touches Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea where the boot of Italy is kicking up rather than down. The shapes of Africa and Asia are difficult to recognize, too. It would be a while before cartographers could accurately survey land masses. Africa is in the upper-right. Asia takes up almost all the the left half of the map.

The New World—the Americas and Australia—hadn’t been discovered yet.

Here’s an article about Fra Mauro, with some close-ups of his map.

More miles per galleon!

The magnetic compass appeared in Europe sometime in the late ad 1100s. No doubt compasses were traded along the Silk Road.

The compass was being used in the West at the same time Venice’s sea-trade flourished. Before the compass, sea-travel was limited to the few uniformly sunny months—June through September. The rest of the year sailors stayed home because they had no way to navigate. Let’s stop for a second to appreciate what was happening. China had the compass for centuries and used it to achieve spiritual harmony—chi—when they built houses or arranged furniture and gardens. The compass slowly moved west along the Silk Road—possibly it was thought of as a novelty item.

Meanwhile back in Venice and Genoa and other Mediterranean sea-faring towns, the merchants can only make money when the sun’s shining. They’re pacing back and forth and tearing their hair out because they have these new, flexible, easily-steerable ships; they have the merchandise; they have the sailors—but their ships can’t leave port for eight months out of the year because it’s cloudy!

Then, suddenly, miraculously, the compass drops into their laps. What do they do? They seize on it! They exploit it! Now mariners can go to sea, trade and make money all year round.

You’re probably thinking, “Hold on, Manders. What about that astrolabe-thinghy you were going on about a few posts earlier—how come sea-farers didn’t use that to navigate?” I have to admit, that’s a good question. Here’s the answer: If you can’t see the Sun or the stars, you can’t navigate with an astrolabe. The compass points North even when it’s cloudy. With it, the Venetians could find their way no matter the weather.

This is what happens when you have a free market. People want to trade, make money. When a new piece of technology comes along they figure out how to exploit that technology. A similar thing happened in the last few decades with the internet. The US military invented the internet for its own communications, but the business world seized it and transformed it into the world wide web.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

La Serenissima

Saint Mark’s winged lion statue on top of a granite column in the Piazza San Marco in La Serenissima—’the Most Serene’ is Venice’s nickname.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as simple as “the Ottoman Empire closed the Silk Road.” After all, why wouldn’t the Ottomans want to do business with European merchants?

You remember that Marco Polo and his family were merchants from Venice. Venice was perfectly situated for trade—right on the shores of the Adriatic Sea; and close to the westernmost end of the Silk Road by land.

Venice was a city of smart cookies. Her city government made trade deals with other governments both east and west. Venice had on-again-off-again deals with the Ottomans. Her merchants became rich and brought money into Venice. Her government built ships and rented them to merchants so just about anybody could get in on the trading business. Her shipwrights revolutionized ship-building: instead of building the hull first and then installing the ribs and braces, they built the ribs first and then nailed planks to them. Venetian ships were lighter, more flexible and well-suited to the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas.

The Venetians created a trade monopoly—nobody else could play. She maintained a navy to protect her sea-trade routes which were hers exclusively. It may have happened that the Ottoman Empire was in direct competition with Venice as she became a powerful republic. That may have been a reason for the Ottomans ending trade with the west.

It may also be that other European cities wanted to get in on sea-trade action but were unable to break Venice’s monopoly. The upshot was that with new, speedier ships, merchants were looking for different ways to do business. That meant finding new and different trade routes that weren’t controlled by Venice or the Ottomans.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

https://www.britannica.com/place/Ottoman-Empire

http://www.theworldeconomy.org/impact/The_Venetian_Republic.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lepanto

If you ever have the chance to visit Venice—go. It’s probably the loveliest place I’ve been.