NOT ONLY SPICES. TRADE AND FOOD SUPPLY IN VENICE
December 16th, 2016
The Venetian Delegation of the National Culinary Academy in collaboration with the Marciana Library and the National Archive in Venice is proud to announce the opening of an exhibition focussed on the history of food trade between England and Venice from the Middel Ages through the 18th century.
The exhibit presents a selection of records divided into six sections: Venetian ambassadors at the English Court, Receptions of English ambassadors and Princes in Venice, Merchants and Travelers in England and in Venice, The Flamish trade route, Commodities and markets through 15th-18th century,  and English style recipes in the16th-18th cent. cookbooks printed in Venice.
Venetian ambassadors, wholesale and retail merchants, frequent visitors wrote thousands of records reporting the  customs and traditions of the Royals, courtiers and other social classes.
As soon as English official guests arrived in Venice, they were supposed to deal with a set schedule which consisted of the reception with the Doge, the Senators and the most distinguished members of the Governement,  a tour at the State Shipyard where they were shown the construction of a boat on the spot followed by a great banquet and a music concert, and numerous theatrical shows, dance and music parties, sumptuous gala dinners….
But the peak of their stay was the solemn Regatta on the Grand Canal, which was converted into a big stage adorned with thousand colors, due to the large number of different boats decorated with wooden bas-reliefs, statues of Poseidon and the marine dities, glittering trails ending with long fringes and ribbons, while precious silk fabrics were displayed on the balconies of the private Palazzi. Everything was so ephemeral and unreal, yet so refined and enjoyable…..
One of the most intriguing merchants in the late 16th century was Giacomo Ragazzoni, definately a gifted wholesale vendor in Venice due to his enterprising and active attitude.
He traded in textile fabrics, as well as spices, dry raisins, sugar from the East, but he established some maritime insurance companies too. His tight network of relations with affluent British operators increased his reputation as a skilful mediator, to the point that Mary Ist Tudor charged him of a secret diplomatic mission to Turkey at the time of the war of Cyprus. Giacomo was mentioned as “ideal merchant” in a treaty published in 1573 in Venice entitled “The practice of commerce and the perfect merchant”, an honor reserved for very few people at that time.
The most successful commodity required by England was a variety of spices from Asia Minor, including brown sugar, clove, pepper, nutmeg,cinammon,ginger and saffron used for pharmacopeia too. In fact red sandal, absinthe, ammoniacal salt, borax, camphor were regularly used for the producion of medicinal products or drugs.
A rare pearl from the Persian Gulf area was carefully ground by local pharmacists, and known as an antidote to “all sorts of poisons”.
Moreover, the British were keen on dry plums from Naples, currants from the Greek Patrasso, and some wines like the sweet Malvasia from Crete and a red wine from Tyre, today in Lebanon.
English landladies were crazy for the textiles handwoven directly in Venice, like silk drapes for both precious dresses and canopies embroided with gold threads, damasks, brocades, silk cloths tinted with yellow, blue and green. Sicily provided a full range of products, like the “confetti” –sugared almonds- manufactured in Palermo, the dates grown in Messina, refined and brown sugar which was more prized than the Levantine and Portuguese ones.
On the contrary, Venice needed some local raw materials which were vital for the city, all sorts of metals such as stain, copper, iron and lead, while pewter was good for expensive plates and bowls that only well to do families could afford, common people used terracotta ones….
Like today, English textile was mainly based on wool, and consisted of an amazing variety of refined cloths, although the raw wool in jute bags was exported too.
Among the highlights, you cannot miss the large paper written in Italian by Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1585 about the duties applied by the Republic of Venice to the trading of dry raisins, which were often used by the English as an ingredient for many local dishes.
Instead, the pass signed by Henry VIIIth in 1520 is quite small. It allowed twelve Venetian merchants and two Florentine ones to export a shipment of wool and animal skins, and leave England on the way to the continent. The exhibit is held in the Great Hall of the Library, the perfect location for such a unique event!