Genoese and Venetian Middlemen

Compared to the East, Europe constituted a minor outpost in the world trading system, for European craftsmen produced few products to rival those of Asia. However, Europeans desired luxury goods from the East, and in the late Middle Ages such trade was controlled by the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa. In exchange for European products like Spanish and English wool, German metal goods, Flemish textiles, and silk cloth made with imported raw materials, the Venetians obtained luxury items like spices, silks, and carpets. They accessed these from middlemen in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Because Eastern demand for these European goods was low, Venetians made up the difference by earning currency in the shipping industry and through trade in firearms and slaves.

Venice’s ancient trading rival was Genoa. By the time the Crusades ended around 1270, Genoa dominated the northern route to Asia through the Black Sea. From then until the fourteenth century, the Genoese expanded their trade routes as far as Persia and the Far East.

In the fifteenth century, with Venice claiming victory in the spice trade, the Genoese shifted focus from trade to finance and from the Black Sea to the western Mediterranean. Located on the northwestern coast of Italy, Genoa had always been active in the western Mediterranean, and when Spanish and Portuguese voyages began to explore the western Atlantic (see page 414), Genoese merchants, navigators, and financiers provided their skills to the Iberian monarchs.

Quick Review

What goods did each of the major participants in the Afroeurasian trade system supply?

A major element of both Venetian and Genoese trade was slavery. Merchants purchased slaves, many of whom were fellow Christians, in the Balkans of southeastern Europe. After the loss of the Black Sea trade routes—and thus the source of slaves—to the Ottomans, the Genoese sought new supplies of slaves in the West, eventually seizing or buying and selling the Guanches (indigenous peoples from the Canary Islands), Muslim prisoners and Jewish refugees from Spain, and by the early 1500s both black and Berber Africans. With the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, Genoese and Venetian merchants became important players in the Atlantic slave trade.

Italian experience in colonial administration, the slave trade, and international trade and finance served as a model for the Iberian states as they pushed European expansion to new heights. Mariners, merchants, and financiers from Venice and Genoa—most notably Christopher Columbus—played crucial roles in bringing the fruits of this experience to the Iberian Peninsula and to the New World.