Venice from scratch & el fondego: Exploring Venice from the female + Venetian perspective
Above is what I see as Venetian when I leave my home on a morning in summer. That’s not what the 35+ million tourists visiting Venice get to see, though, at least, the larger part of them. In 2017, less than 10 per cent of tourists stayed in Venice for more than one day. In fact, most stay in town less than six hours! Even though they might have had a perfunctory glimpse of “famous Venice”, they missed their chance to discover so much more! There’s a whole story waiting to be told, and it starts which the Venetian facades. The outer shell of Venice that visitors notice first and for which Venice is so famous – the architecture.
There are excellent sources of information you can use to learn more about Venetian architecture (below I’m mentioning one of my favorite books, for which I’ve also written a back cover quote). Yet, there’s no book in English that tells us what these buildings were actually used for? Who had lived there and why, and what were they doing? Answering this question brings us back to the Venetian core, the DNA of Venice.
We can summarize the purpose of Venice, her DNA, in just one word: COMMERCE. Venice is the cradle of modern commerce in the western world as we know it today. Venice even invented capital market transactions to finance overseas expeditions aimed at procuring the raw materials for trade.
As a people living in the narrow space that the Lagoon is, Venetians were missing basic goods for subsistence and thus were forced to look for them elsewhere. Thus, they become masters in setting up trade networks. They organized expeditions to buy raw materials, spices, which they refined and packaged in Venice and sold all over Europe. Venetians procured their spices along the spice routes reaching from the Middle East all across Asia as far as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and China.
The spice trade made Venice the richest country of Europe, so Venetians could afford to build fairy-tale palaces all over the city and the Lagoon. They indulged in creating exotic gardens as well in which they practiced growing rare and edible plants, and of course, spices! As they loved the humid and mild climate of the Lagoon, many spices found a new home in Venice. It was the task of the Venetian spice masters to refine the imported spices and create own mixtures, which together with recipe booklets were sold all over Europe by the Venetian merchants. Yes,Venetians also invented packaging and marketing. Now you can imagine that to work with spices and other luxury goods, they needed a special type of warehouse, which became the typical house on the Grand Canal, called El Fondego (the warehouse).
So on the ground floor and first floor, the spices arriving from the Middle East on board the Venetian fleet (le mude) were stored and mixed, then packaged and stored again until they left Venice, again by boat, for Holland, France, Great Britain and central Europe.
What’s little known is that the spices weren’t just used to flavor food. In Venice, spices were used to create remedies, perfumes and beauty products as well! The Museum of Perfumery (Ca’ Mocenigo) has a video that tells you beautifully how perfumes, beauty products and soaps were created from spices. Forgotten treasures that sound so interesting to modern women as well, in my opinion :-)
Venetian cogs between 700 AD and 1797 were the premier fleet transporting loads of fragrant spices from the harbors of the Middle East to Venice. They founded trading posts between Crimea, northern Turkey, Constantinople, the Middle East, Egypt, London, Antwerp and far beyond, in the North Sea. So this is why the trading hub, Venice, required spacious palaces, solidly built, in the midst of a safe haven, the Lagoon !
The best book I know telling us about the characteristics of Venetian architecture, both with regard to contents and visually, is Dream of Venice Architecture. Click here to read my book review and interview with the editor, JoAnn Locktov, and the photographer, Riccardo de Cal.