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Pilgrims and the Merchants in Venice.

Gondolas on narrow canal in Venice, Italy

Venice; Pilgrims and the Merchants

Article for senior couple and mature solo travellers joining a small group history tour visiting Venice and beyond to Italy, Greece, Turkey the Islands of the Eastern and Western Mediterranean  and the Northern shores of Egypt, Tunisia. Learn about the role of Venice as emerging point of trade and navies for hire in the middle ages through to the renaissance.

This article inspires and educates the curious mature or senior traveller as a couple or solo about Venice and its tourism history and sheds light on the connection to modern-day sightseeing in Venice. From the Middle Ages to the present day, Venice has been a magnet for tourists who want to experience Venetian history by marvelling at grandiose architecture, stunning waterways and, of course, the famous Venice carnival. One of the major groups to visit Venice after the traders, where Pilgrims.

Pilgrimage to Venice

Pilgrims – their habits, destinations, and motivations are more connected to our modern-day culture of travelling than we think. Considering that the original idea of a pilgrimage was based on religious beliefs and spiritual intentions and was a journey accompanied by fasting, reflection, and prayer, we know now that there was also a social element to these sacred journeys. The reader can learn more about these special religious journeys in this article about seven ancient roads that connected the world for Pilgrims, published by Odyssey.

Of course, most pilgrims would not get past their own neighbourhood or even leave their country, but there were also those intrepid souls who started in Europe with Jerusalem as their destination. This journey was only for the brave-hearted, and a year or longer would be spent for the return trip to the Holy Land. The pilgrims that survived the endeavour and lived long enough to tell tales were hailed for their endurance for the rest of their lives. For those attempting to reach the southern lands, Venice was the perfect vantage point. Not only because the city had established itself as the leading provider of sea travel to the Holy Land, but also because it provided the most convenient deals to get there. One could say Venice was a trailblazer of the small group tour, offering all-inclusive, twice-yearly return sailings to the port of Jaffa (near present-day Tel Aviv).

Once the most significant trading outpost in Europe, Venice is known today as a magnet for international tourists. The city inspired many writers, artists and creative minds such as Shakespeare, Hemingway, Nietzsche, Dante and the like that made Venice history. From the early Middle Ages, it was a magnet for visitors from the pilgrims to traders and mercenaries , but the reasons why people travelled to the Golden City have changed over time or haven’t changed at all. It depends on who you ask.

Venice was the trading hub of Europe to Asia.

The city was a thriving trading centre during the Middle Ages and the subsequent Renaissance. Due to its location on the coast of northern Italy, Venice was a crucial trading hub between western and northern European countries and the oriental east. Merchants across Europe flocked to Venice making their way by foot or horse and carriage or by river on barges. From the South, up the Adriatic, evading the pirates along what is todays Croatian coast came back the fleet from their journeys to meet traders in Alexandria, the Black sea and the regional hubs such as Malta and Crete.

Sea travel was the fastest way to transport large amounts of goods, Venice’s coastal location at the far end of the Adriatic Sea meant it received many visits from ships and merchants from across the world. Venice’s rich history attracted visitors from its early days as a republic. It acted as a melting pot of commerce from across Europe and Central Asia, and the city knew how to present itself to the world.

Rialto Bridge and gondolas in Venice.

One could compare the Venice of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to present-day Dubai: being on the receiving end of sudden wealth through massive trade operations, it had a desperate edge to spend its riches on eye-catching cultural attractions. A historically newly-rich show of assets and power in a human world that within Europe hadn’t experienced anything alike. The vast amount of towering churches, cathedrals, palaces and monuments throughout the city is its living proof. The generous way in which the money was spent shaped the floating city into one of the most magnificent sites in the world. Venice’s citizens quickly set forth to spend their newfound wealth, hoping to reach the same heights of cultural and artistic recognition as the more acclaimed city-states of Florence and Siena. Noble families longing to be perceived as the more culturally sophisticated than those elsewhere such as the Medici’s,   Mantua and Gonzaga . Venetians hastily built breathtakingly stunning palazzos throughout the city to reflect the wealth. Though these stunning palazzos where living upstairs and warehouses below for the merchants. This city is plastered with cobbled walkways next to narrow canals, and expansive marble facades in Venetian Gothic architecture compete for the remaining space.


Power to the merchants of Venice

Between the 10th and 13th centuries, the city was a strategic trade location between the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire and many outposts in various countries. The location advantage of the Veneto-Byzantine civilisation brought many privileges from the ruling empires and control over the Adriatic Sea. After the Fourth Crusade at the beginning of the 13th century, Venice became hugely influential and experienced, even more, commercial and financial growth. Sea trade, the city’s enormous fleet of ships, and its own trading outposts created the perfect synergy of commercial advantage between Europe and the east, Egypt and other northern African states.

Traffic jam in a Venice canal.

During this period, Venetians established several new forms of doing business and a finance system which was revolutionary at the time. Marco Polo, Venice’s most famous son, travelled along the republic’s trading routes. He explored Central Asia and China, and his unbelievable 24 year-long adventure on the famous Silk Route saw him documenting his experiences for generations to come. Marco Polo’s travels uncovered a whole new world to the Europeans, opened up the horizons to cultures and opportunities for travel, and led to more significant trade between Europe and the eastern empires.

The city’s unrivalled position within European trade operations and its talented Venetian merchants seemed to be in for the long run, but the status of a mighty trading nation was to last only until the 15th century. A series of miscalculations against the Ottoman Empire led to significant losses at battle, contributing to the downfall. But it was the Black Death, the plague, in 1348 that genuinely devastated Venice, and with it came a consequential loss of influence and wealth. Four times in a few hundred years – in 1348, 1575, 1577 and 1630 – Venice was troubled by the plague and saw its population decrease, along with its power. The issues with infectious diseases prompted the construction of the Lazzaretto Nuovo (New Quarantine), built in 1468 – a quarantine station for incoming ships and cargo, where crews and goods were isolated and searched for signs of sickness. The implementation of a quarantine strategy was a calculated move to protect the maritime empire.

The Portuguese conquer the Spice routes and Venice falls

While Venice had been the leading commercial region at the beginning of the Renaissance, trading opportunities were lost to Portugal and the city of Lisbon by the end of this period. Other countries had since developed strong commercial links with Asia, and Venice’s monopoly was lost. Over the following next centuries, Venice was conquered and overthrown by various empires, including those of Napoleon’s France and Austria. Despite these difficulties, during the 18th century, the city continued to hone itself as one of Europe’s most magnificent architectural wonders. It defended its place as an institution of literature and art. The fusion of Venetian gothic architecture with Byzantine and Ottoman influences, combined with its floating buildings amongst the waterways of the lagoon, gave Venice a truly original look.

Here come the Tourists

When did early tourists start traipsing over Venice’s old and narrow streets and marvelling at the grand sites of the city? The pilgrims of the Middle Ages were the first tourists that came to Venice. The city was quick to implement systems, policies and procedures to ensure the visitors were greeted and treated according to the ever so high standards that Venice inflicted on everything it took on. Guided tours, government-controlled accommodation standards and tourist merchandise policies were just the beginning. If medieval pilgrims were the first mass tourists, then was Venice the first tour operator? Did the Venetians invent the holiday in a package? Well, yes they did!

The proposition of travelling with a group tour of like-minded people guided by an itinerary that a specialised and knowledgable tour operator has organised is still a popular way to travel. Particularly if your destination is perceived to be culturally different, a foreign language is spoken or more important if there is some level of personal danger involved. The Venetians understood these worries and took the opportunity to provide a solution to a problem – this practice was very much the Venetian way of doing business (or really anything). They grasped the chance to provide a service to those pilgrims who were heroic enough to travel to Jerusalem but who were also still distressed about their personal safety needing the services of a weathered captain and his crew. The complete tour package to and from the port of Jaffa had a higher-priced ticket for pilgrims than it would have had for an experienced and well-travelled merchant for the same journey. In addition, other locations via the return routes were added to make the passage worthwhile and add a financial bonus for the Venetians and sightseeing for the pilgrims. This could have been a stopover at the port of pompous Alexandria, a visit to ancient Cairo, or even a crossing of the desert to visit the monastery at St Catherine of Sinai. As mentioned beforehand, the Venetians were swiftly, and their offers remind us of today’s travel planning with a renowned tour operator.

Touring Venice today with Odyssey Traveller.

Odyssey offers small group tours for mature and senior couples or solo travellers to Venice and many other destinations in Italy. The guided Venice tour can be combined with a classic Italy tour visiting remarkable landmarks and magical places with a tour company specialised in small group tours: Southern Italy, Cinque Terre, Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Lake Como, Sicily, Lake Garda, Milan, Pompeii, Central Italy and sites of Ancient Rome. Prosecco will be flowing too!

Odyssey started in 1983 as a collaboration between the Universities of Australia and New Zealand in the continuing adult education market, so it is almost 40 years old. The company has been stewarding fellow travellers on an ever-expanding collection of diverse and curious small group tours. Tours are supported by a great group of leaders who are typically retired academics and schoolteachers with a passion for continuing to be curious and sharing knowledge with you.

Small is Beautiful – Economics as if People Mattered is a collection of essays by E F Schumacher published in 1973.  He sets out the case for the community, not corporations, as the model for economic success. It influences us in all we do. For Odyssey Travellers, the term small is beautiful, captures the essence of the experience offered. We endeavour:

  • to provide touring programs that stimulate the mind, ideally changing perspectives and perceptions through travel and shared knowledge,
  • to offer small groups for like-minded people to explore,
  • to foster a collegiate, open touring platform encouraging friendships to be made and journeys shared,
  • to tread softly in the places we visit and not overwhelm the art galleries, museums, environment, or accommodation we use.

As a small team, we are orientated to learning about you the traveller, ensuring you are treated the way you wish to be treated, following the adage “treating others how you wish to be treated yourself”.  When you travel with us, you may be part of a small group, typically 8-14 people, and be part of a small business group that averages some 40 people per week travelling with us all around the world. Our scale of operation and our tours anywhere in the world are orientated for the selective few, not the many.

By travelling with us, you assist us in supporting, each year, at least one academically bright University student who might be struggling financially to continue their studies, with a scholarship to underpin those studies for at least one year.


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