The Salt Merchant of Venice

The Salt Merchant of Venice

To be at the whim of the shaker on our kitchen table.
The Salt Merchant of Venice

Two men loitered in a Genoese prison, cowering in a dark corner away from a dribbling pool of rainwater in their cell's centre. One man, a stern-eyed and sallow-skinned pontificator, mused aloud with twisting wrists that looped in exaggerated circles, telling of fantastical stories in faraway places. The other, a timid observer with a balding crown and spidery moustache, watched his cellmate weave tales ranging from the laughably alien to the numbingly mundane.

This storyteller was the legendary adventurer Marco Polo, and his cellmate was the infamous writer Rustichello 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 da Pisa took mental notes, structuring them in a space that would one day fill a stack of blank pages. 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 was the Chinese salt industry. With salt being culturally relevant to many Venetians, Polo - a Venice native - passively made notes of the eastern salt production and trade, thinking that his Venetian followers would find them riveting. These ambivalent tellings - resembling footnotes rather 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 a millennia.


The Mythology of an Edible Rock 

The crystalline mineral is found in almost every single house on this planet. Despite this and our respect for salt's ability to improve food and our health, the mineral has remarkably transitioned from a 'white gold' commodity to something utterly commonplace.  

Found in almost every mythology, the reverence surrounding salt was not localised to a specific time, place or people. It plays a pivotal role in fables, customs, covenants and rituals worldwide. 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 - famously enamoured with the rock - used 'Salax' to describe someone in love, which translates as 'in a salty state.' The words Soldier and Salary supposedly derive from Sal, so interlinked were the three; Roman soldiers were often 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 language above can be easily disregarded as pointless etymology or antiquated idioms, language does shape how we think, and so derivatives of sal might 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 - or sodium - is essential to bodily functions, but the harvested mineral was also used to preserve foods and create medicines, a pairing that upheld 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. [Kulansky, 2002.] To be at the whim of the shaker on our kitchen table. 


A Historical Overview of Salt

While salt is technically abundant, only modern geology allows us to find and harvest it easily. Even in places where salt was readily available - say, any oceanic body of water - it used to take a remarkable amount of energy to extract 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 argue 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. [Kulansky, 2002.]

In Polo's and da Pisa’s prison cell, the dripping roof pooled into a murky puddle on the hewn stone floor. Polo reached out and allowed the rainwater to collect in his palm before sloshing back a mouthful through cracked lips. Behind him, da Pisa was sleepy and exacerbated, frustrated that his cellmate patronisingly told him the importance of salt; he knew this well as he was a central historical character during Venice's salt empire. With his thirst quenched, Polo turned to face his Pisan co-conspirator and - apparently able to predict the future - began to cavalierly tell tales of romantic wars waged in the name of salt. 

The lack of access to salt was believed to be a significant 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 to march to the coast to collect saltwater. This act broke British laws and instigated civil disobedience en masse by millions of Indian people, and was one of the initial pushes toward Indian independence. [Kulansky, 2002.] And while Polo didn't know of these first-hand, he did, however, know one particular conflict intimately. 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 Euro-centric historical pantheon, the Venetian Republic's reign outlasted that of the Romans, with a staggering 1100 years compared to a meek millennia. 

Venice was untouched by Rome as it wasn't a city at their time of reign. While no official records exist, it is understood that La Serenissima - the traditional name for the Venetian Republic that translates as Most Serene Republic of Venice - was founded in the wake of the fallen empire as a trading post beside the Adriatic Sea, a landscape of lagoons and sandbars vastly different to the Venetian coast of today. 

The Adriatic Sea is a strip of water atop Italy's north and eastern shoulder, running along the country's length toward its boot heel, separating it from Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. The Venetian Republic had rivals in saltworks along the Adriatic that were governed by monks and kings alike, most of whom 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. 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 subsidise whatever losses it took, making this small republic on the wing of Italy and Southern Europe an almost unrivalled trade power in the west.  

While this process began as a necessity due to the 13th-century storms that battered navies and choked supply chains all along the continent, Marco Polo’s swashbuckling return in 1295 propelled more conscientious action from the Venetian nobles. With the help of Rustichello da Pisa, 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. [Kulansky, 2002.] Marco Polo’s observations on the Chinese salt industry were practically synonymous with revenue in his memoirs. So when the merchants of Venice read his words, their thoughts were consumed by promises of salt-flavoured riches.

Debate certainly exists regarding the legitimacy of Polo's adventures and the motivations for detailing them. With such frequent and precise commentaries on salt, many believe Polo always intended to collect insights that would make the Venetian Republic dominate the trade. But some translations are so flippant in their notes on the same topic they suggest that Polo was fairly indifferent to Venetian prosperity and was instead far more preoccupied with the romanticisation of his own adventures. Either way, Kulansky [2002] 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.

Regardless, the tête-à-tête between Polo and da Pisa creates a fascinating bardic backdrop to one of our favourite ingredients.

Though Marco Polo's tales played a profound role in the greater story of La Serenissima, the Republic gradually fell under the continuing toil of war and Austria's eventual conquest. The city was then ceded to France in 1797 and returned to Italy in 1866. The great irony, perhaps, is that now Venice is slowly sinking 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.