Andrea Zannini on the economic profile of Venice in the 18 century

Andrea Zannini from the University di Udine gave a talk on the economic profile of Venice in the 18 century.

Why studying Venice in the 18 c. ?Venice is an classic example of long-term decline of an economic power. Venice is also a fascinating city loosing its economic strength while preserving a high standard of living. Finally, Venice is a test-case of relations between politics and economy in the age of Enlightenment.

There are some difficulties in studying Venice. There is a huge amount of documents and data produced by a pre-statistic administration. How can a single scholar master such a huge amount of documents ? How can find a single names in millions of documents ? How can I be sure that some data is representative. In addition, Venice is a unique city, very difficult to be compared with any other one. Finally, at the 18 c, the Modern Economic Development was starting elsewhere. In some sense, Venice can be considered a fossil from the past.

The republic of Venice at the mid-18c. was still divided in the Stato da terra and Stato da mar. In all ca. 50 000 km2. The empire (in the term justified ?) was covering very different climates and ecological contexts. We can individuate three interdependent economic systems :

  • The city of Venice (pop 140 000 ca)
  • The fertile and densely populous Italian provinces of the Stato data terra (pop 1 875 000 ca)
  • The coastal territories and the islands of the Stato da mar (pop 50 000 ?)


In term of demographic long-period trends can be identified

  • 1570 – 1631 crisis (plagues)
  • 1630 – 1690 recovery
  • 1690 – 1766 weak growth
  • 1766 – 1796 crisis
  • 1796 – 1817 deep crisis (invasion and return of plague)

The economic system established in the second half of the 17 c represented the basic framework of the Venetian economy of the 18 c.  At the beginning of the 18 c, Venice is still a great capital with a glorious past as a commercial hub between the Eastern and Western world. There is a relatively large Italian dominion with some important cities (Verona, Padua, Vicenza) which have been important manufacturing ceneres during the Renaissance. But How much “commercial” was still Venice in the 18th c. ? How much “preindustrial” or “agricultural” was the Venetian Stato da Terra ?

The economy of the Dominante: Trade

Was the the economy of the Dominante ? Venice is regional (Adriatic) port linked to European and intercontinental networks ? It exports manufactured products from the city and the mainlands : woolen, conterie (pearls, beads), raw silk (1/3 of the world production), luxuries (books, paper, jewels). Trade was still the core-business of a great city that remained a cosmopolitan centre. Going from San Marco to Rialto, you could find items from everywhere in the world.

The economy of the DominanteIndustry 

The Arsenale, already quoted by Dante in the Divina Comedia (La bolgia dei barattieri – versi 1-21) was still one of the major industry in pre-industrial Europe (1750 workers). There were still some export-oriented luxury productions : glass (Murano), books, jewels, etc. But most of traditional manufactures (wool, silk, paper) had already been displaced in the mainland.

The economy of the DominanteServices

Venice was still a great administrative and political capital of a colonial State ( 5000 officers ?). Venice was stil a city with enormous riches and affluent families (10 000 servants). Tourism is extremely important. Fernand Braudel asks “Did Venice discover mass tourism ?” (20 000 tourists per year). They came for carnaval, gambling and sex.

The economy of the Dominante: Conclusions

The decline is relative but certainly not absolute. Venice was still a city producing wealth. Venice experiences “tertiarisation”. Venice is progressively consuming old resources. The rich families were consuming the richness gathered by the ancestors.

The economy of the Stato da Terra : Agriculture

The Stato da Terra is a large, fertile land with a network of cities. There is an intense penetration of urban capitals in the county. The “villa civilization” played a important role. “Villas” were not only for holidays but a form of control of economic and agricultural activities. Nobles become land owners. Main products were : grain, wine, raw silk, timber, the traditional products of the agricultural economy of the Ancient Regime.

The economy of the Stato da Terra : Industry

There is a widespread presence of proto-industrial poles (ruralisation of the economy). The main productions are paper, silk yarn, woolen and cotton textiles, hardware, lumber. There is a deep and profitable synergy with agriculture. Paysants could work for a part of the year in the country side. The water energy could be used for both agriculture and industry.

The economy of the Stato da Terra : Conclusions

There are signals of a great proto-industrial liveliness. Great availabity of capitals, human resources, a cultural and politcal environment, open to innovations. Was the Republic of Venice an advanced proto-industrial economy?

There are still strong signs in the “Anagrafi” that Venice was still a agricultural state

  • 1766-1770 : primary : 73, secondary : 13, tertiary : 12
  • 1780-1784 : primary : 73, secondary : 12, tertiary : 14
  • 1785 – 1789 : primary : 75, secondary : 11. tertiary 12

see also A. Zannini sempre più agricolo, sempre più regionale. L’economica della Repubblica di Venezia da Agnadello al Lombardo -Veneto /1509-1817)

Economy and politics

Which are the relations between the economic life and the aristocratic State ? A confused mix of laissez-faire and protectionism. The basic ideas were two : (1) Venice before all, (2) a soft taxation, without representation.

In the 18c, Venice had already downgraded to a regional power. The city seemed flourishing but lived consuming riches gathered in the past. The State was populous and productive but remained was still an “advanced organic economy” (E.A. Wrigley). There were still a large amount of conservatism both in economy and politics.

Slides of the presentation :



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