Italy, protected by its mountain barrier, had not been so frequently flooded by barbarians as the provinces of Gaul and Spain. The feudal system was there established in a milder form, and the cities retained more strength. Soon they were able to attack the castle lords, to make them pull down their towers, and to live like peaceable citizens within the walls. The Emperor had little power; Florence, Genoa, and Pisa grew into powerful city states resembling those of Italy before the rise of ancient Rome, but possessing manufactures which, in the time of ancient Italy, had been confined to Egypt, China, and Hindustan.
The origin of Venice was different from that of its sister states. In the darkest days of Italy, when a horde of savage Huns, with scalps dangling from the trappings of their horses, poured over the land, some citizens of Padua and other adjoining towns took refuge in a cluster of islands in the lagoons which were formed at the mouths of the Adige and the Po. From Rialto, the chief of these islands, it was three miles to the mainland; a mile and a half to the sandy breakwater which divided the lagoons from the Adriatic. At high water the islands appeared to be at sea; but when the tide declined, they rose up from the midst of a dark green plain in which blue gashes were opened by the oar. But even at high water the lagoons were too shallow to be entered by ships -- except through certain tortuous and secret channels; and even at low water they were too deep to be passed on foot. Here, then, the Venetians were secure from their foes, like the lake-dwellers of ancient times.
At first they were merely salt-boilers and fishermen, and were dependent on the mainland for the materials of life. There was no seaport in the neighbourhood to send its vessels for the salt which they prepared: they were forced to fetch everything that they required for themselves. They became seamen by necessity: they almost lived upon the water. As their means improved, and as their wants expanded, they bought fields and pastures on the mainland; they extended their commerce, and made long voyages. They learnt in the dock-yards of Constantinople the art of building tall ships; they conquered the pirates of the Adriatic Sea. The princes of Syria, Egypt, Barbary, and Spain were all of them merchants, for commerce is an aristocratic occupation in the East. With them the Venetians opened up a trade. At first they had only timber and slaves to offer in exchange for the wondrous fabrics and rare spices of the East. In raw produce Europe is no match for Asia. The Venetians, therefore, were driven to invent; they manufactured furniture and woollen cloth, armour, and glass. It is evident, from the old names of the streets, that Venice formerly was one great workshop; it was also a great market city. The crowds of pilgrims resorting to Rome to visit the tombs of the martyrs, and to kiss the Pope's toe, had suggested to the Government the idea of Fairs which were held within the city at stated times. The Venetians established a rival fair in honour of St. Mark, whose remains, revered even by the Moslems, had been smuggled out of Alexandria in a basket of pork. They took their materials, like Molière, wherever they could find them--stole the corpse of a patriarch from Constantinople, and the bones of a saint from Milan. They made religion subservient to commerce: they declined to make commerce subservient to religion. The Pope forbade them to trade with infidels: but the infidel, trade was their life. Siamo Veneziani poi Cristiani, they replied. The Papal nuncios arrived in Venice, and excommunicated two hundred of the leading men. In return they were ordered to leave the town. The fleets of the Venetians, like the Phoenicians of old, sailed in all the European waters, from the wheat fields of the Crimea to the ice-creeks of the Baltic. In that sea the pirates were at length extinct; a number of cities along its shores were united in a league. Bruges in Flanders was the emporium of the Northern trade, and was supplied by Venetian vessels with the commodities of the South. The Venetians also travelled over Europe, and established their financial colonies in all great towns. The cash of Europe was in their hands; and the sign of three golden balls declared that Lombards lent money within.
During the period of the Crusades, their trade with the East was interrupted but it was exchanged for a commerce more profitable still. The Venetians in their galleys conveyed the armies to the Holy Land, and also supplied them with provisions. Besides the heavy sums which they exacted for such services, they made other stipulations. Whenever a town was taken by the Crusaders, a suburb or street was assigned to the Venetians; and when the Christians were expelled, the Moslems consented to continue the arrangement. In all the great Eastern cities, there was a Venetian quarter containing a chapel, a bath-house, and a factory ruled over by a magistrate or consul.
Constantinople, during the Crusades, had been taken by the Latins, with the assistance of the Venetians, and had been recovered by the Greeks, with the assistance of the Genoese. The Venetians were expelled from the Black Sea, but obtained the Alexandria trade. In the fifteenth century the Black Sea was ruined, for its caravan routes were stopped by the Turkish wars. Egypt, which was supplied by sea, monopolised the India trade, and the Venetians monopolised the trade of Egypt. Venice became the nutmeg and pepper shop of Europe: not a single dish could be seasoned, not a tankard of ale could be spiced, without adding to its gains. The wealth of that city soon became enormous; its power, south of the Alps, supreme.
Times had changed since those poor fugitives first crept in darkness and sorrow on the islands of the wild lagoon, and drove stakes into the sand, and spread the reeds of the ocean for their bed. Around them the dark lone waters, sighing, soughing, and the sea-bird's melancholy cry. Around them the dismal field of slime, the salt and sombre plain. On that cluster of islands had arisen a city of surpassing loveliness and splendour. Great ships lay at anchor in its marble streets; their yards brushed sculptured balconies, and the walls of palaces as they swept along. Branching off from the great thoroughfares, bustling with commerce, magnificent with pomp, were sweet and silent lanes of water, lined with summer palaces and with myrtle gardens, sloping downwards to the shore. In the fashionable quarter was a lake-like space -- the Park of Venice -- which every evening was covered with gondolas; and the gondoliers in those days were slaves from the East, Saracens or Negroes, who sang sadly as they rowed, the music of their homes -- the camel-song of the Sahara, or the soft minor airs of the Sudan.
The government of Venice was a rigid aristocracy. Venice therefore has no Santa Croce; it can boast of few illustrious names. However, its Aldine Press and its poems in colour were not unworthy contributions to the revival of ancient learning and the creation of modern art. The famous wanderings of Marco Polo had also excited among learned Venetians a peculiar taste for the science of exploration. All over Europe they corresponded with scholars of congenial tastes, and urged those princes who had ships at their disposal to undertake voyages of enterprise and discovery. Among their correspondents there was one who carried out their ideas too well. Venice was not so much injured by the potentates who assembled at Cambrai as by a single man who lived in a lonely spot on the south-west coast of the Spanish peninsula.