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At the Centre of the Old World: Trade and Manufacturing in Venice and the Venetian Mainland, 1400-1800

Author(s):Lanaro, Paola
Reviewer(s):D'Amico, Stefano

Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Paola Lanaro, editor, At the Centre of the Old World: Trade and Manufacturing in Venice and the Venetian Mainland, 1400-1800. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2006. 412 pp. $32 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7727-2031-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stefano D’Amico, Department of History, Texas Tech University.

The eleven essays in this volume, edited by Paola Lanaro, Professor of History at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, represent an important contribution to our knowledge of the economy of the Venetian State in the early modern period and, more generally, to the debate on the Italian economic decline in the seventeenth century. Traditionally, Venetian economic history focused on the capital city and its prosperous trading activities. In the last two decades, however, the argument advanced by Cessi and Luzzato that commercial interests and the protectionist measures supported by the great international merchants had hindered the development of urban industries, has been questioned, and the role of the industrial sector of the economy reevaluated. New studies have also shown the importance of the economic development of the lesser cities of the mainland and their proto-industrial districts. Following these lines, At the Centre of the Old World calls for a reexamination of the economic history of Venice and Veneto from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, focusing on the interaction between the capital city and its dominions, and their successful attempt to adjust to the changing European economy.

The volume is divided into two parts, the first analyzes the economy of Venice, and the second that of other centers and areas of the mainland. Paola Lanaro’s introductory essay very clearly and effectively discusses the historiography on Venetian economic history and the new directions of research. The analysis of the Venetian economy is opened by an essay by Andrea Mozzato, who demonstrates convincingly how wool manufacturing did not develop only in the sixteenth century when commercial opportunities declined, but was already prosperous in the previous century. Mozzato argues that the industrial sector actually took advantage of Venice’s commercial power, which could easily provide raw materials and sell the finished products on international markets. Marcello Della Valentina examines the organization of the urban silk industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, stressing a flexibility that allowed it to adjust to the changing market and to remain competitive. Fewer high quality cloths were woven and Lyons fabrics were copied and exported to the East where Venice still enjoyed an undisputed supremacy. At the same time, cheap female labor gradually replaced that of guild workers. Although they were unable to innovate in terms of technology and fashion, trade guilds never opposed the introduction of technical innovations or foreign technicians and weavers and were able to adapt to an evolving market.

Francesca Trivellato examines a similar flexibility in the Murano glass industry which, facing competition in crystal glass by northern European countries, moved to Venice and employed women in bead manufacturing and immigrants from Friuli in the production of small-size mirrors. Glass beads were shipped to the Levant and Western Europe for re-export to the colonies, while mirror plates were sold mainly to the Italian market. In a more general essay on the industries of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Walter Panciera argues that the urban economy was remarkably resilient. In the eighteenth century, besides the glass industry, new manufactures, like printing, chemistry and cotton, were able to flourish. In the more traditional textile sector, silk replaced wool, which did not disappear, but was simply transferred to the Terraferma. Panciera stresses that, the economy of Venice cannot be considered separately from the economy of the rest of the Veneto, especially starting from the seventeenth century.

The first essay of the second section, by Edoardo Demo, examines the urban textile industry of the Venetian mainland between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Demo effectively shows how this area represented one of the most important European industrial regions during this period. A growing sericulture counterbalanced the decline of the wool industry, and the latter still flourished in Bergamo and in many centers of the foothills area like Schio and Valdagno. Francesco Vianello explains how the crisis of the 1590s led either to the beginning of or to an acceleration of the processes of territorial diversification and specialization for rural manufactures in the area of Vicenza, Padova and Treviso. Carlo Marco Belfanti focuses on hosiery manufacturing stressing its resilience and its growing role in the textile market, while Giovanni Favero illustrates the contribution to the regional economy of the new factories of fine majolica in small and medium sized towns of the mainland, such as Bassano, since the early eighteenth century.

Luca Mocarelli studies the case of Venetian Lombardy which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, became one of the more lively European economic districts. Bergamo and Brescia could count on their privileged economic relations with both Venice and Milan and developed important wool, iron, paper and silk manufactures. At the end of the eighteenth century they produced 10 percent of Italian thrown silk.

In the conclusion to the volume, Maurice Aymard stresses not only the flexibility and adaptability of Venice to variations in demand, products and techniques, but also the creation of a new economy for the region, whose resources were used more effectively. The Venetian case clearly illustrates how in pre-modern Europe “the growth of the urban sector, and especially of the largest city, can no longer be considered … as the only indicator of the vitality of an economy” (p. 369).

The eleven essays successfully synthesize the most recent trends in the economic history of early modern Italy. They represent an invitation to historians to continue the analysis of the countryside and the rural industries, whose role ? especially after the seventeenth century ? became essential; and at the same time, to reevaluate the role of the urban economies and their ability to adjust to the new trends due to a flexible productive organization that was not always hindered by and in some cases even favored by the presence of the guilds. As Francesca Trivellato writes in her essay, the guilds “in the hands of capable entrepreneurs … became malleable tools of winning short- and medium-term economic strategies” (p. 145).

However, more than in the importance of the single contributions, the value of the volume lays in the successful attempt of providing for the first time an analysis of the economy of a large and important Italian region, and to study its development within the Italian and European contexts. Hopefully other regional syntheses will soon follow this model, allowing us to reach a better understanding of the characteristics and transformations of the Italian economy in the early modern period.

Stefano D’Amico is Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University. He is the author of a book and several articles on the social and economic history of Milan in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He is currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled A City within the Empire: Spanish Milan, 1535-1706.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval