Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/313

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.

established by sea and land, Venice presented a brilliant spectacle to the eyes of Europe. Yet this period contains the germs of her decadence. Supreme in the Mediterranean by the defeat of Genoa, Venice was almost immediately called upon to face the Turks and to wear herself out in a long and single-handed contest with their growing power; firmly planted on the mainland, the Republic discovered that, with jealous neighbours around her and frontiers to be attacked, she could not stand still; she was compelled to advance, and found herself exposed to all the dangers implied in the use of mercenary arms, and committed to that policy of aggression which summoned up against her the League of Cambray.

Her mainland territory was probably a drain on the financial resources of the Republic, not a fountain of wealth. That territory was only acquired and held by paying for costly troops and more costly captains of adventure. It is doubtful whether the revenue derived from the provinces covered the cost of possession and administration. True, on occasion, the Republic applied to her land territories for a loan, as in 1474, when 516,000 ducats were advanced to the government; but the fact remains that the contentment of her mainland possessions was essential to Venetian supremacy, and that this contentment could not be secured if they were heavily taxed.

The real wealth of Venice, the wealth which enabled her to adorn the Capital and retain her provinces, depended upon the sea. It was derived from her traffic as a great emporium and mart of exchange fed by a large mercantile marine. The State built the ships and let them out to the highest bidder at auction. Every year six fleets were organised and despatched: (1) to the Black Sea, (2) to Greece and Constantinople, (3) to the Syrian ports, (4) to Egypt, (5) to Barbary and the north coast of Africa, (6) to England and Flanders. The route and general instructions for each fleet (muda) were carefully discussed in the Senate. Every officer was bound by oath to observe these instructions and to maintain on all occasions the honour of the Republic. The government prescribed the number of the crew for each ship, the size of the anchors, quality of rope, etc. A compulsory load-line was established. New vessels were allowed to load above the line for the first three years, but to a diminishing extent each year. The ships were all built upon government measurements for two reasons; first, because ships of identical build would behave in the same way under stress of weather and could more easily be kept together; secondly, because the consuls in distant ports could be sure of keeping a refit of masts, rudders, sails, etc., when they knew the exact build of all Venetian ships which would touch their ports. The ships were convertible from merchantmen to men-of-war; and this explains to a certain extent how Venice was able to replace her fleets so rapidly after such losses as those of Curzola or Sapienza. The six State fleets are estimated to have numbered 330 ships with crews to the amount of 36,000 men.