Friday, November 13, 2009

La Serenissima

Business was good in the fourteenth-century Mediterranean and that meant towns got bigger. Venice was soon the most important city in the Mediterranean. Venetian ships were in the thick of it, and their agents were located in both gateways to spices, silk, and other products of the East, name, Syria and Egypt. The success of the merchants of Venice depended on these gateways, Syria perhaps being the more important of the two, assisting in the growth of the ancient city of Aleppo, the terminus of a number of trade routes. The riches made from this trade with both Syria and Egypt was incredible because the demand was incredible. Venice did have manufactured products to trade, but in reality, it sacrificed all its valuable metal currency to meet the powerful demand for black pepper, spices, drugs, cotton, linens, and silk. The trade between Egypt and Venice, usually transshipped through Crete, was intense even in 1350. Crete was an entrepôt for spices from Beirut and Alexandria, too. As Venice grew richer, people flocked to the city and its territories, and had flocked perhaps for some time if we consider the purported origin of the name Venice: from veni etiam, come and come again. These were halcyon days for Venice in terms of trade, for Syria and Egypt were both part of the Mamluke governance, a Muslim Egyptian dynasty, at this time and the historical turning point of the Ottoman victories of 1516-17 had not yet occurred, “so Venice slept the sleep of the rich,” as French historian Fernand Braudel put it. Today, Venetian cuisine seems to have passed by its love of spices and most dishes eschew them. But spices or not, no one will forget a proper Venetian risotto, a dish that likely evolved from a rice soup. In Italy, a person who laughed easily was said to have eaten rice soup, a play on words: che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso (he had eaten laughter/rice soup).

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[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

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