The Italian Republics - Commerce in General

Among the Italian cities, Venice, at the extremity of the Adriatic, Ravenna, at the south of the mouth of the Po, Genoa, at the foot of the Ligurian mountains, Pisa, towards the mouths of the Arno, Rome, Gaëta, Naples, Amalphi, and Bari, were either never conquered by the Lombards, or were in subjection too short a time to have lost many of their ancient habits and customs. In this way these cities naturally became the refuge of Roman civilization, at a time when other parts of Europe were wading through barbarian darkness. The feudal system never prevailed among them with any force; and several of these and other cities had important privileges conferred upon them by the German emperors at a very early period. Sismondi, the historian of Italy, asserts that Otho I (936) erect ed some of them into municipal communities, and permitted them the election of their own magistrates. It is certain that, in 991, the citizens of Milan rose in tumult, expelled an archbishop from their city, and were able to establish a qualified right to interfere in future elections. The after history of Milan is eventful and tragical; but we can only give a short account of it here. In the middle of the twelfth century, Frederick Barbarossa became engaged with the cities of Lombardy, and particularly with it, in extensive and destructive wars. In the year 1162 Milan was finally overcome; the walls and houses were razed from their foundation, and the suffering inhabitants dispersed over other cities, obtaining sympathy in their distress, and communicating their enthusiastic love of freedom in return. The republican form of government was adopted in every considerable town; and before the end of the thirteenth century, there was a knowledge, a, power, and an enterprise, among these apparently insignificant republics which all Europe could not match.

The beneficial though unlooked-for effect of the Crusades upon commerce has already been mentioned. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the commerce of Europe was almost entirely in the hands of the Italians, more commonly known in those ages by the name of Lombards. The republic of Pisa was one of the first to make known to the world the riches and power which a small state might acquire by the aid of commerce and liberty. Pisa had astonished the shores of the Mediterranean by the numb er of vessels and galleys that sailed under her flag, by the succor she had given the Crusaders, by the fear she had inspired at Constantinople, and by the conquest of Sardinia and the Balearic Isles. Immediately preceding this period, those great structures which still delight the eye of the travel er - the Dome, the Baptistry, the Leaning Tower, and the Campo Santo of Pisa had all been raised; and the great architects that spread over Europe in the thirteenth century, had mostly their education here. But unfortunately, the ruin of this glorious little republic was soon to be accomplished. A growing envy had subsisted between it and Genoa during the last two centuries, and a new war broke out in 1282. It is difficult to comprehend how two simple cities could put to sea two such prodigious fleets as those of Pisa and Genoa. Fleets of thirty, sixty-four, twenty-four, and one hundred and three galleys, were successively put to sea by Pisa, under the most skillful commanders; but on every occasion the Genoese were able to oppose them with superior fleets. In August, 1284, the Pisans were defeated in a naval engagement before the Isle of Meloria; thirtyfive of their vessels were lost, five thousand persons perished in battle, and eleven thousand became prisoners of the Genoese. After a few furtherineffectual struggles, Pisa lost its standing.

The greatest commercial, and altogether the most remarkable city of the Italian republics, was Venice. Secluded from the world, on a cluster of islands in the Adriatic, the inhabitants of this city had taken up their abode in the course of the fifth century, and they boasted themselves to have been independent of all the revolutions which Europe had been under going since the fall of the Roman Empire. This might be true to a great extent, though for long it was certainly more the result of their obscurity than their power. By the tenth century, however, the descendants of those fishermen that had first taken refuge here, were able to send fleets abroad which could encounter and overawe both Saracens and Normans. The Venetians had all along kept up a correspondence with Constantinople during the darkest periods of the middle ages. This was greatly renewed and extended about the time of the Crusades. When Constantinople was taken by the Latins (1204), the Venetians, under their doge, or chief magistrate, Henry Dandalo, became possessed of three-eighths of that great city and of the provinces, and Dandalo assumed 'the singularly accurate title of Duke of Three-Eighths of the Roman Empire. The Venetians greatly increased their share of the spoil by making advantageous purchases from the more needy of the Crusaders. Among the most important of these was the Isle of Candia, which they retained till the middle of the seventeenth century. The idea of a bank took its rise in this city, and an establishment of that nature, simply for the receipt of deposits, is said to have existed in it as soon as the year 1157. But it was not till about a century later that banking, as the term is now understood, began at all to be practised. The merchants of Lombardy and of the south of France began at that time to remit money by bills of exchange, and to make profit upon loans. The Italian clergy who had benefices beyond the Alps, found the new method of transmitting money exceedingly convenient; and the system of exacting usury or interest, after experiencing every obstruction from ignorance and bigotry, became a legal part of commerce. In the thirteenth century the government of Venice was entirely republican; but continued wars with Genoa reduced both cities. These wars were all conducted on the seas, and the display of naval strength on both sides seems prodigious, when we reflect on the poor condition of Italy at the present day. Besides these wars for objects of ambition, there were continual jealousies which rose above enlightened views of self-interest, and led to the most disgraceful broils. At the middle of the fourteenth century a battle took place between the rival citizens, in which the Genoese were defeated. Their loss was immense, and in distress and in revenge they gave themselves up to John Visconti, Lord of Milan, then the richest and among the most ambitious of the petty tyrants of Italy, hoping that he would give them the means to reestablish their fleet and continue the war with the Venetians. He did so, and in another naval engagement, fought in 1354, in the Gulf of Sapienza, the Venetians were entirely defeated. But the Genoese had sacrificed their liberty in their thirst for revenge. Visconti became their master instead of friend. Venice was able to rise above its temporary discomfiture, and during the fifteenth century its fame and power became greater than they had ever been before. In the beginning of the fifteenth century the Venetians captured the town of Padua, and gradually lost their empire of the sea while they acquired possessions on the continent.

Among the most famous of the Italian states at this period was Florence; and its fame was founded, not on arms, but on literature. Like the other Italian cities, however, it owed its first elevation to the commercial industry of its inhabitants. There was a curious division of the Florentine citizens, subsisting about the beginning of the thirteenth century, into companies or arts. These were at first twelve - seven called the greater arts, and five the lesser; but the latter were gradually increased to fourteen. The seven greater arts were those of lawyers and notaries, of dealers in foreign cloth (called sometimes calimala),of bankers or moneychangers, of woolen-drapers, of physicians and druggists, or dealers in silk, and of furriers. The inferior arts were those of retailers of cloth, butchers, smiths, shoemakers, and builders. It was in the thirteenth century that Florence became a republic, and it maintained its independence for two hundred years. In the beginning of the fifteenth century it became peculiarly distinguished by the revival of Grecian literature and the cultivation of the fine arts. Como de Medici, who lived a citizen of Florence at this time, and was known by the name of the Grand Duke of Tuscany - descended from a long line of ancestors, whose wealth had been honorably acquired in the prosecution of the greater arts - possessed more riches than any king in Europe, and laid out more money on works of learning, taste, and charity, than all the princes of his age. The same liberality and munificence distinguished his family for several generations.

The commercial success of the states of Italy induced the inhabitants of northern Europe to attempt similar enterprises. In the thirteenth century the seaports on the Baltic were trading with France and Britain, and with the Mediterranean. The commercial laws of Oleron and Wisbuy (on the Baltic) regulated for many ages the trade of Europe. To protect their trade from piracy, Lubec, Hamburg, and most of the northern seaports, joined in a confederacy, under certain general regulations, termed the League of the Hanse Towns; a union so beneficial in its nature, and so formidable in point of strength, as to have its alliance courted by the predominant powers of Europe. 'For the trade of the Hanse Towns with the southern kingdoms, Bruges on the coast of Flanders was found a convenient entrepôt, and thither the Mediterranean merchants brought the commodities of India and the Levant, to exchange for the produce and manufactures of the north. The Flemings now began to encourage trade and manufactures, which thence spread to the Brabanters; but their growth being checked by the impolitic sovereigns of those provinces, they found a more favorable field in England, which was destined thence to derive the great source of its national opulence.'