The rise and decline of a great power: Venice 1250-1650

The rise and decline of a great power: Venice 1250-1650

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The rise and decline of a great power: Venice 1250-1650

By Luciano Pezzolo,

Working Papers, Department of Economics, University of Venice, No. 27 (2006)

Abstract: This essay outlines the rise and decline of the most powerful Italian republican state between the middle ages and the early modern period. It moreover seeks to analyze the political, financial, and military means that enabled a state based on a peripheral site and disposing of relatively limited population resources to achieve such a prominent position in Europe. It then examines the causes of its decline, in both relative and absolute terms. The history of Venice in fact offers an excellent case study with which to verify Schumpeter’s thesis for a specific geographical area, that of the Italian peninsula, which has been surprisingly neglected by scholars interested in the origins of the fiscal state.

Introduction: In the early 1570s Battista d’Agnolo del Moro painted a picture to be placed in the Camera dell’Armamento, the Republic of Venice’s most important administrative office concerned with the navy. In the foreground we see three Provveditori all’armar (the patrician officials in charge of the Camera), in the midst of heavy sacks of coins. Under the vigilant gaze of St Mark they are handing money to a soldier dressed as an ancient Roman. In the background the doge and high dignitaries of the Republic take their leave of troops who are embarking on war galleys to the sound of drums and trumpets. The painting has a clear allegorical message.

On the one hand, the figures of St Mark and the Roman soldier point out the sacred character of the war being conducted and its continuity with the military glories of ancient Rome. On the other hand, it lays stress on the close connection, of a much more prosaic kind, between money and war.The more mundane part of the scene represented by the picture – the war fleet preparing to sail, officials providing for its funding – was quite a usual sight for a Venetian spectator of the time, but the classical and religious references added by the painter imbued it with intense ideological meaning, while also underlining the massive extent of the government’s mobilization of military and financial resources.

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