Pilgrimage and empire

All fun and no study makes Jack a dull boy. So while our visit to Venice is mostly about tourism, I’m learning some interesting things along the way that relate to the trip’s purpose. Mostly that this place played a central role in facilitating pilgrimage in the medieval world.

When journeys to the Holy Land were taken overland, Venice wasn’t much of a waypoint. But the Crusades and the overrunning of the Byzantine empire by Seljuk Turks effectively closed land routes. Over time, the preferred route became the sea. And there was no more dominant maritime power than the Venetian Republic. They controlled the seas through a chain of ports and an extensive fleet of mercantile galleys. Venice was well placed to exploit the pilgrim traffic from western Europe to the Holy Land. The government basically ran a travel agency service. In fact, if pilgrims had complaints about a voyage, they could register them with authorities upon their return to Venice.

Part of a larger political and economic empire. Center of commerce for silk, grain, and art from 13th to the 17th centuries. Became the printing capital of the world. The city-state of Venice is considered the first real international financial center, emerging in the ninth century and reading its greatest prominence in the fourteenth century.

One of the most famous pilgrims who went through Venice included St. Francis of Assisi. Along with a band of missionaries, he landed at Acre in 1219, visited the Holy Places, and entered a Saracen (Muslim) camp. Possibly because no one understood what he was saying, St. Francis managed to preach a sermon criticizing the Koran without giving any offence.

The pilgrim traffic wasn’t a complete windfall. Venice had to deal with lots of pirates and sometimes navigate war with the Ottoman empire. But the Venetians did get quite wealthy off of this trade. Sometimes wealthy pilgrims were detained by Venetian authorities for special taxes. Writes John Ure, “Clearly to Venetian officials, pilgrims to the Holy Land were a useful source of revenue rather than a category of visitor to be treated with any special consideration.”

Empire is simultaneously easing the way for modern-day pilgrims and profiting off of them too. Our U.S. passports get us pretty much anywhere we want to go. Is it because Europeans care about cosmopolitan multiculturalism and want to sing “kum-ba-ya” with us? Perhaps. We’ve encountered a lot of really friendly people already. I was touched, as we walked this morning through Venice’s Jewish Ghetto (Did you know that the word ghetto originally came from Venice; also it was where Shylock, the Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice lived), where Jews for many centuries were not allowed to leave after sunset and where Jews during WWII were rounded up and sent to extermination camps, to see long lines of Italian schoolkids learning about their past. It was poignant to observe two schoolmates—one Middle Eastern boy with a turban on his head and one very Italian-looking girl—walking side by side and hand in hand through the ghetto. It was a hopeful vision of loosening cultural and geographic boundaries.

I found this taped to a storefront in the Jewish Quarter

But let’s be honest, we’re also bringing in dollars to the European Union, Italy, and, yes, Venice. We’re happy to do so. Venice is less of an empire now, and the New York Times has called it “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” We agree—it’s a captivating place.

An empire powered by water
A boy powered by water

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