Two men loitered in a Genoese prison, cowering in a dark corner away from a dribbling pool of rainwater in the centre of their cell. One man, a stern-eyed and sallow-skinned pontificator, mused aloud with twisting wrists that looped in exaggerated circles. The other, a timid observer with a balding crown and spidery moustache, watched his cellmate tell fantastical stories of faraway places, tales that ranged from the laughably alien to numbingly mundane.
This story-teller was the legendary adventurer Marco Polo and his cellmate was the infamous adventure writer Rusticello da Pisa; a jailed match made in heaven. Throughout their imprisonment, Polo told of his travels to Asia and his role as a foreign emissary for Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, stories of which Rusticello took mental notes, structuring them in a space that would one day fill a blank page. Sparing little, Polo conveyed the marrow of his life with passion and flippancy, his tone not discriminating the crucial details from the insignificant.
One such detail - presumably told in a lull where both Polo and Rusticello had exhausted their greatest hits - was the Chinese salt industry. With salt being culturally relevant to all Venetians, Polo - a Venice native - passively made notes of the eastern salt production and trade, thinking that his soon-to-be Venice fans would find them interesting. These ambivalent tellings - initially more like footnotes than substantial stories - resulted in the Venetian Republic becoming the dominant trading empire along the Mediterranean and eventually an economic superpower that sustained the republic beyond the span of a thousand years.
The Mythology of the Edible Rock
The crystalline mineral is found in almost every single house on this planet. Despite this and the respect we have for salt’s ability to modify foods and our health, the mineral has made a remarkable transition from its ‘white gold’ status to a commonplace commodity.
Found in almost every mythology, the reverence surrounding salt was not localised to a specific place or people. It plays a pivotal role in fables, customs, covenants and rituals across the world. Greek idols such as Homer and Plato considered it a divine substance and dear to the Gods, marrying couples in the Pyrenees carried salt in their garments to protect against impotence, and Christian baptisms were initially used with saltwater. Japanese theatre used salt to ward away evil spirits whereas Afro-Caribbean cultures would avoid eating salt in holiday meals so as not to ward away the presence of their deceased loved ones.
Even language was affected by Salt. Romans - who were famously enamoured with the rock - used the term Salax for someone in love, which translates as ‘in a salty state.’ The words Soldier and Salary supposedly derive from Sal, so interlinked were the three, soldiers often being paid their wages in salt. A partial truth is equated with a ‘grain of salt,’ and humble and respected people are considered ‘salt of the earth.’ The list goes on and though the aforementioned language can be easily disregarded as pointless etymology or antiquated idioms, language does shape how we think, and so perhaps derivatives of sal do imbue us modern folks with a subconscious admiration that resembles older cultures.
In purely pragmatic terms salt was considered so valuable because of its simultaneous necessity and scarcity. We know salt is essential to our health and the health of animals, but the harvested mineral is also used to preserve foods and create medicines, a pairing that creates a background pillar that upholds societies. Incredulous? Polo-like in embellishment? Unlikely, there are documents of remote communities that detail being on the verge of collapse when denied access to salt. To be at the whim of the shaker on our kitchen table.
A Historical Overview of Salt
While salt is technically abundant, it is only modern geology that granted us the ability to find it. And even in places where salt was readily available -say any oceanic body of water - it took a remarkable amount of energy to evaporate the salt from it. This meant saltworks and hot coastal regions were major resources and prioritised tactical conquests. Indeed countless cities were built near large salt deposits. One could make an argument that few things had as much of an impact on some cultural trajectories as salt. Another incredulous claim? Buffalo, New York would beg to differ. The entire city was named after a salt lick near Lake Erie that roaming buffalo had discovered and frequently migrated toward. Most of Buffalo’s inhabitants have a salt lick to thank for their locality.
In Polo’s and Rusticello’s prison cell, the dripping roof pooled into a murky puddle on the hewn stone floor. Polo reached out his hand and allowed the rainwater to collect in his palm before sloshing back a mouthful through cracked lips. Behind him, Rusticello was sleepy and exacerbated, frustrated that his cellmate was patronisingly telling him the importance of salt; he knew this well, he was a major historical character during the time of the Venetian salt empire. With his thirst quenched Polo turned to face his Pisan co-conspirator and - apparently with the ability to predict the future - began to cavalierly tell tales of romantic wars waged in the name of salt.
Putting aside the not-insignificant but contextually irrelevant skirmishes such as the El Paso Salt War, salt was a key factor in some conflicts and movements that shaped the modern world. The lack of access to salt was believed to be a major motivation for the proletariat’s discontent before the French Revolution. The American Revolution was greatly inspired by the need to break away from the crippling salt monopoly of the British. Gandhi protested against that same monopoly in India, leading a group on a march to the coast to collect saltwater, an act that broke British laws and instigated civil disobedience en masse by millions of Indian people. This was one of the initial pushes that built momentum for gaining Indian independence.
While not knowing of these conflicts first-hand Polo did, however, know one particular conflict very well as it was the primary reason for his incarceration: the Venetian-Genoese wars, waged in the name of trade dominance and, you guessed it, salt.
The Venetian Republic
While the Roman Empire tends to dominate the pantheon of euro-centric powerhouses, Venice was the single Italian city untouched by Roman influence; a facetious observation considering Venice did not exist during the Roman Empire. While no official records exist, it is understood that the city was founded in the wake of the fallen empire as a trading post established beside the Adriatic Sea, a landscape of lagoons and sandbars vastly different to the Venetian coast of today. La Serenissima, the traditional name for the Venetian Republic that translates as Most Serene Republic of Venice, might not hold the historical weight of the Roman Empire but it not only was an economic powerhouse unto itself it also outlasted the Roman Empire with a staggering 1100 year reign, compared to the Roman’s meek millennia. And it was the ‘white gold’ that made Venice the trading superpower of Southern Europe.
The Adriatic Sea is a strip of water atop Italy’s north and eastern shoulders, running along the length of the country toward its boot heel, separating it from Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. Along the Adriatic, the Venetian republic had rivals in saltworks that were governed by monks and kings alike, most of which were conquered by the republic via trade or military conquest. Mark Kulansky, an American writer and journalist, summarised the Venetian salt policy in his 2002 book Salt: A World History; a book that inspired this piece. He wrote:
After a series of floods and storms [in the thirteenth century] destroyed about a third of the ponds in Chioggia [a large Venetian producer of fine-grained salt], the Venetians were forced to import even more salt. That was when the Venetians made an important discovery. More money could be made buying and selling salt than producing it. Beginning in 1281, the government paid merchants a subsidy on salt that landed in Venice from other areas. As a result, shipping salt to Venice became so profitable that the same merchants could afford to ship other goods at prices that undersold their competitors. Growing fat on the salt subsidy, Venice merchants could afford to send ships to the eastern Mediterranean, where they picked up valuable cargoes of Indian spices and sold them in Western Europe at low prices that their non-Venetian competitors could not afford to offer.[…] This meant that the Venetian public was paying extremely high prices for salt, but they did not mind expensive salt if they could dominate the spice trade and be leaders in the grain trade. When grain harvests failed in Italy, the Venetian government would use its salt income to subsidize grain imports from other parts of the Mediterranean and thereby corner the Italian grain market.[…] Enriched by its share of sales on high-priced salt, the salt administration could offer loans to finance other trade. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, a period when Venice was a leading port for grain and spices, between 30 and 50 per cent of the tonnage of imports to Venice was in salt. All salt had to go through government agencies. The Camera Salis issued licenses that told merchants not only how much salt they could export but to where and at what price.
Essentially, the control of the salt trade made Venice so wealthy it could afford to use its salt profits to dominate other industries and subsidize whatever losses it took, making this small republic on the wing of Italy and Southern Europe an almost unrivalled trade power on the continent and indeed the west.
And while this process indeed began as a necessity during the storms of the late 13th century, it was Marco Polo’s swashbuckling return in 1295 that propelled more conscientious action from the Venetian government. With the help of Rusticello, he penned his memoirs that detailed - among many fable-like stories - journeys to pure salt deposits that protruded from the ground like crystalised sunsets; the plentiful brine springs of Karazan; how both the Chinese public and private sectors benefited from the creation of salt in Changli, and how the emperor derived profit from the micro and macro salt producers throughout China. Marco Polo’s observations on the Chinese salt industry were practically synonymous with revenue in his memoirs, and so when the merchants of Venice read his words, their thoughts were consumed by promises of riches.
Debate certainly exists regarding not only the legitimacy of Polo’s adventures but also the motivations for detailing them. With such detailed and frequent notes on salt, many believe it was always Polo’s intention to bring home the policies that would make the Venetian Republic dominate the Mediterranean. But some translations, so flippant in their notes on the same topic, suggest that Polo was far more indifferent about such things and was far more interested in the romance of adventure. Either way, Kulansky concluded:
The extent of Marco Polo's influence is difficult to measure, but it is clear that Venice, like the Khan, did extend its salt administration and derive great wealth and power from it.
Perhaps the intention was not discussed in the jail cell between the two men. Regardless, it does create an interesting story and a backdrop to one of our favourite ingredients. But as we all know stories do not exist in stasis. Though Marco Polo’s storytelling played a profound role in the greater story of La Serenissima, the Republic’s story did eventually come to an end through the continuing toil of war and eventual conquest of Austria, and then its secession to France, which was given back to Italy in 1866. The great irony perhaps is that now Venice slowly sinks into its home lagoon on the Adriatic, the sea that once heralded its formidable wealth. A melancholy metaphor, any storyteller would insert, for the transitory nature of riches and that even the greatest empires must come to an end.