FROM the Thirteenth Century, the Venetians had acquired such progress in commerce and had made such numerous treaties with the peoples of Europe and Asia that at certain periods the city was filled with strangers, attracted by exchange and commerce and who were entertained by their business acquaintances. The Senate anxious to develop everything that might contribute to the glory or wealth of Venice wished to facilitate the sojourn of all these strangers by establishing fondachi, or caravanserais, where they might be lodged gratuitously by presenting themselves to special magistrates, whose duty was to establish their identity and importance. The Germans were the first to have their Fondaco, which was situated on the Rialto itself and many times rebuilt, and of which, unfortunately only a mass of modern and characterless appearance is now to be seen.
Three nobles, with the title of Vis Domini, presided over the administration of establishments of this kind ; there was a public weigher who took note of the weights and nature of the merchandise and classified it in the warehouses that belonged to the Fondaco. This was on the same principle as our docks with the exception that the owners of the cargo were lodged in the building itself at the expense of the State. Next in importance to the weigher came the Fonticaio, or keeper of the building. In this same Thirteenth Century the Armenians were also favoured by the government; but a certain Marco Ziani, nephew of the Doge Sebastian, who had a deep affection for them, because his family had lived in Armenia for a long time, bequeathed to them his palace, the Ziani Palace, in the street of San Giuliano.
The Moors also had their Fondaco, near the Madonna del Orto on the Campo dei Mori, where a number of houses enriched with carvings of camels bearing merchandise and figures in Moorish costume may yet be seen.
The Turks, in the Seventeenth Century received for their share that superb palace on the Grand Canal which still bears the name Fondaco dei Turchi, and which the city has restored as the civic Correr Museum; this palace, one of the oldest and most curious in Venice, and which must be contemporary with the Ducal Palace and the facade of St. Mark’s facing the lagoon, belonged to the Duke of Ferrara; but long before this, from the Fourteenth Century, the Turks had been provided for by the State in the street called Canareggio, and later in that of San Giovanni e Paolo, near the statue of Colleoni, one of the most beautiful spots in Venice, where the wonderful church of San Giovanni e Paolo stands. But it must not be forgotten that these Turks, so useful from a commercial point of view, were infidels, therefore the windows of their fondaco were ordered to be walled up ; the rooms were lighted from an interior patio; an enclosing wall was erected, the two corner turrets, which might serve for defence, were razed, and a Catholic warder was stationed there who shut the doors at sunset. Women and children were forbidden to cross the threshold, arms and powder were deposited in a safe place in front of the entrance; and finally, to complete this series of prohibitions, it was forbidden to lodge an Ottoman in the city.
The Tuscans, who, as every one knows, were great merchants, and had become very wealthy by means of their banks and counting houses, had their Fondaco on the Rialto; and the people of Lucca had theirs in the Via Bissa, in that part of town lying between the Rialto and San Giovanni Crisostomo.
The Greeks and Syrians were so numerous and on such good terms with the Venetians, that they lived all over the city. As for the Jews, who could not be excluded because of their peculiar aptitude for trade, they had been subjected to innumerable restrictions. As early as the Sixth Century they had arrogated the monopoly of money changing, and the greater number of the princes, considering their own interests, encouraged them to live in their cities. In the Thirteenth Century, the Lombards and the Florentines had in their turn succeeded in getting the monopoly of large trans-actions; envy arose against those who were amassing and preserving such immense wealth; and finally the spirit of the Crusades, in awaking Christian sentiment, had also excited public animosity against the Jews; Venice remained open to them and in profiting from this they perhaps abused this privilege, for we soon find them forced to take refuge at Mestre, the little country where today the railways from the north and south converge to enter Venice. But banks properly speaking did not yet exist; pawn-shops were not known, and, consequently, with a view to developing petty as well as large commercial interests and of encouraging business generally, the Senate decided to re-admit the Jews to the city. The time of their sojourn was limited, and they were compelled to wear a mark by which they could be recognised, which at first consisted of a piece of yellow material sewn on the breast, for which afterwards a yellow bonnet was substituted and later a bonnet the upper part of which was covered with red. They were forbidden to buy houses, lands or even furniture, or to practice noble arts (except, indeed, medicine). Cruel to these men, whom they sought out for their proverbial intelligence and by whose abilities they profited, the Senate assigned them, as at Rome, a special district to live in, the Corte delle Galli, between the streets of San Girolamo and San Geremia; they also gave it the customary name of Ghetto. They were obliged to pay dearly even for this unhealthy abode, and a wall was built around it to separate them from other citizens; they were exactly in the position that the Jews of Morocco are in to-day, forced to close their doors from sunrise to sunset, and with two Catholic warders paid out of their own money to keep watch over the place. On holidays they were strictly forbidden to go out. Two armed ships. guarded their outlets to the sea. They could not have a synagogue in Venice and were forced to go to Mestre, and for their burial-ground, they were grudgingly accorded an arid strip of beach on the lagoon.
We are, however, not concerned with the condition of the Jews in Venice, but merely with their commercial relations towards the subjects of the Republic; let us, therefore, return to the fondachi, or residences granted by the State to the representatives of foreign trade. Two fondachi have become famous and still remain in existence : that of the Turks and that of the Germans. The Fondaco dei Turchi still stands today on the Grand Canal, at San Giacomo dell’ Orio.
Those who visited Venice thirty years ago, must have noticed, when going along the Grand Canal, this ancient building with its open loggia on the first story, ornamented with marble columns having Byzantine capitals. This antique facade, entirely covered with slabs of Greek marble and encrusted with circular escutcheons, was falling into ruin, and earth and moss were filling the interstices. During the long hours of the day, the Turkish custodian who still lived there, might be. seen silently leaning against the last arch of the loggia in Oriental immobility, indifferent to the gondolas passing and repassing and upon which his eye rested without noticing them. A poet, unacquainted with that Oriental indifference, which looks like reverie and which does not engender a single dream, would have said that his eyes were full of sorrow, and that he was musing on the Past and of the ancient glory of Venice. This building, known by the name of Fondaco dei Turchi, was built in the Thirteenth Century by the family of the Palmieri of Pesaro. Pietro Pesaro, the last embassador of the Venetian Republic at Rome and the last of his name, could not bear to see the downfall of his country, and died in exile. The Pesaro were not always masters of this building. In 1331, it was bought by the Republic and given to the Marquises of Este, lords of Briare. Later, when they became the Dukes of Este, they gave in this building those splendid fetes in which Ariosto and Tasso figured.
Pope Clement VIII. took possession of the beautiful do-mains of the Dukes of Ferrara, and gave them to his nephew, Cardinal Aldobrandini, who, in 1618, sold them to Antonio Priuli, Doge of Venice. The Republic, seeking a favourable locality for the sale of Turkish merchandise, hired Antonio Priuli’s palace, which thus became the residence of the Turks and the depot of their merchandise. Extremely severe laws regulated its establishment. Finally, the Fondaco came back into the possession of the Pesaro, Maria Prioli having bought it as a dowry to her husband Leonardo Pesaro, Procurator of St. Mark’s. The last descendant of the Pesaro bequeathed the Fondaco dei Turchi to the Count Leonardo Marini, his nephew, who sold it in 1828 to a contractor, who, in his turn, ceded it in 1859 to the city of Venice, which is now the owner. Count Sagredo, a Senator, was the first to become interested in this palace.
He wrote an excellent monograph upon it, in which the portions relating to art were treated by the skilful architect Frederic Berchet, who with great care and true feeling, proposed plans for restoring it. The commission under the direction of the first Count Alessandro Marcello, and then of Count Luigi Benito, welcomed the project; the latter began the execution of it, which was carried on with precision and promptitude. In addition to the Chevalier Berchet, who made a great reputation for himself by this work, we should mention the superintendent of the work, Sebastian Cadet, and the sculptor, Jacopo Spura, who restored the ancient marbles and preserved all their artistic distinction. After so many vicissitudes, this ancient building, so intelligently restored, is now to remain forever the Museum of Venice.
The Fondaco of the Germans (Fondaco dei Tedeschi), has been so disfigured by successive restorations that it is necessary to consult history and also to make an effort of the imagination, before you can bring yourself to give attention to this large and massive palace, deprived of ornamentation, without elegance of form and without proportion, that rises on the left of the Rialto Bridge coming from the railway. Tradition says that at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, its exterior was splendidly decorated with frescoes from the brushes of Giorgione and Titian. This is the first we hear of Giorgione’s name as the decorator of the exterior of a palace; but as the Senate d’ordine pubblico had decided to ornament the fondaco, it is quite certain that the famous Barbarelli, that great poet of colour and form, would have been employed. It would be interesting to search the official records in the archives of the Frari for the financial accounts of the Fondaco, which should certainly be there, and learn if really these great lords and politicians employed Giorgione’s genius for this work. But without turning over the leaves of the archives, we may accept the assertions of the great writers and the monographs on Venice, that speak of having still in their time seen this splendid decoration, defaced and ruined indeed, but still showing the incontestable marks of this master’s genius. Selvatico has left an account of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi ; he attributes this building to Fra Giocondo, the famous Dominican who built the Consular Palace at Verona, and the Chateau de Gaillon in Normandy, one facade of which has been transported to the court of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It seems that from time immemorial the Fondaco existed on its present site, and when, in 1540, a considerable fire destroyed the building, the Senate, anxious to show its interest in the cause of commerce in general, and also for a nation to which Venice had been bound by close commercial relations for many centuries, ordered that a new building of a regular form should be rebuilt. But, if Selvatico pretends that Fra Giocondo was the architect chosen by the Signory, other documents show that Girolamo Tedesco was given the order. After describing the building and its position on the Grand Canal, with its entrance to the sea and its flight of stairs on the water for unloading the merchandise, Selvatico expresses himself in words that leave no doubt as to the richness of the decoration: “The profile of the windows is poor, but they are arranged symmetrically enough to produce a simple and noble effect; and indeed they needed no further ornament, since all the plain parts of the walls were covered with splendid frescoes by Giorgione and Titian, frescoes that have been almost entirely destroyed by the hand of man and the agency of time together. At the two angles of the facade overlooking the canal, there once stood two towers, upon which might be read two important inscriptions. But a few years ago, when the building was restored, the two towers were overthrown, the inscriptions effaced, and what is still more irreparable, two magnificent figures by Giorgione which might be regarded as the best preserved of all, were destroyed.”