Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Merchants of Venice

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Merchants of Venice

Article excerpt

As early as the twelfth century there was a flourishing commercial district in the cluster of islands divided by a canal which we now call Venice. It developed on a site where the land was higher than elsewhere, affording protection against floods.

Three centuries later, this district - the Rialto - had become the financial nerve centre of the Venetian Republic. Its tightly woven urban fabric contained many state administrative offices. A public clock tolled the hours of finance and business.

In the night of 10 January 1514 fire swept through the Rialto, reducing much of it to ashes. It spread through the wooden warehouses packed with merchandise and destroyed immense amounts of public and private treasure. Rebuilding took almost twenty years.

By the mid-sixteenth century the Rialto was a busy dockland area. Trading activities, business premises, government buildings and banks were concentrated around the little church of San Giacomo (reputedly the oldest in Venice) and its adjacent square.

At the foot of a wooden bridge, the first to be built across the Grand Canal, were many offices. Just opposite the public scales, cells awaited those who tried to cheat on their taxes or flout the property laws. On the Riva del Vino and the Riva del Ferro (the Wine and Iron Quays), thronged with barges laden with wine, oil, iron, salt and flour, stood the Land Customs House, the Wine Toll House and various valuers' offices which, dark and poky though they were, were well situated to supervise water-borne traffic.

Not far away was the great flour warehouse set up in the thirteenth century and run by private officials on the state's behalf. There was a small portico beneath which sacks of oats and corn were unloaded. The Ruga degli Orefici (Goldsmiths' Street), which led to the Rialto bridge, contained jewellers' shops, as well as drapers' stalls in a long building known as the Drapperia. Merchants selling Tuscan cloth were based in the Rialto Nuovo square behind the Drapperia.

A number of magistrates' offices were also situated at the foot of the bridge. Beneath an open portico nobles and merchants transacted business, and magistrates regulated the mooring of boats and the sale of merchandise. The Camerlenghi di Comun, magistrates responsible for state funds, officiated in an adjoining building. …

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