Friday, December 14, 2007 12/14/07-Ciao!

In today's excerpt--thirteenth-century Venice, home to Marco Polo, the Basilica di San Marco, doges, canals, gondolas--and the trade center of the world:

"Venice hid from her enemies amid a seductive array of islands, 118 in all. ... Throughout Europe, travel was exceedingly slow and hazardous. But in Venice, conditions were very different. ... Travel was not the exception, it was the norm. Everyone in Venice, it seemed, was a traveler and a merchant, or aspired to be.

"Venice--seductive, Byzantine, and water-bound--was among the most important centers of commerce and culture in thirteenth-century Europe, a flourishing city-state that lived by trade. ... Venetians developed a reputation for efficient and thorough business administration--the most advanced in Europe. 'A trading venture,' [John Julius] Norwich says, 'even one that involved immense initial outlay, several years' duration, and considerable risk, could be arranged on the Rialto in a matter of hours.' Although the risks were great, riches beyond imaging lured the adventurous, the willing, and the foolish. Fortunes were made and lost overnight, and Venetian family fortunes were built on the success of a single trade expedition to Constantinople.

"Wherever Venetians went, they announced themselves with their distinctive accent and dialect, veneto. ... Some distinctive words in Marco Polo's world have leapt from veneto to English. Venetians of Polo's day bade one another ciao--or, to be more precise, sciavo or sciao vostro--which means, literally, 'I am your slave.' (The word came into the Venetian language from Croatian.) ... Arsenal, or a place where weapons are manufactured and stored, entered the Venetian language by way of the Arabic term dar al sina'ah, meaning 'workshop.' When Europeans of Marco Polo's era employed this word, they meant the Arsenal in Venice, renowned as a center of shipbuilding. A Spanish visitor named Pero Tafur ... counted the launching from the Arsenal of ten 'fully-armed' galleys within a six-hour span: one new warship every thirty-six minutes. No wonder that the speed with which the Arsenal of Venice could turn a bare keel into a fully rigged craft was admired throughout Europe."

Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo, Knopf, Copyright 2007 by Laurence Bergreen, pp. 11-17.


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