Cities and People

by Mark Girouard

Pg. 102, about Venice

Venice also escaped the labour troubles which afflicted other Italian cities. A successful industry in both silk and woollen textiles started up there in the early sixteenth century, and researched its peak around 1600 by when Venice was producing considerably more cloth than Florence. But this was a late arrival. In the Middle Ages, however, Venice had the unique phenomenon of a work-force of, by 1423, 1600 people all working in the same place and for the same employer, instead of being minutely subdivided both as regards employers and place of work, as in the textile and other medieval industries. These were the workers in the Arsenal, a conglomeration of storehouses, workshops and shipbuilding yards which had been first constructed in 1104, had been much enlarged in the early fourteenth century, and which built and serviced the Venetian fleet.

Here, one might have thought, was further potential for trouble, but in fact the Arsenal workers never presented the slightest threat to the security of the state. Once again, their quiescence was partly achieved by giving them a prominent role in state functions. They provided Doge’s bodyguard, which carried his litter in processions, kept the crow in order with wooden clubs, and served as the crew for his great gilded barge, the Bucintoro.

But as much as anything the power of the nobility was due to their own cohesion, and to a life-style which played down individual leadership, or any cultivation of the personality, in favour of loyalty to their order and readiness for public service. Young Venetian nobles were indulgently allowed to let off a little steam, wear extravagant clothes and run around the town. But once they had sown their wild oats they were expected to be sober and hard-working.