Born in the late 7th century from a collection of communities banded together for mutual defence from the Lombards, Huns and other invaders coming from the northern Italy, the Republic of Venice (at those times known as Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta) lived for over a millenia, raising from a simple city to a powerful and vast maritime empire.
In the 8th century the city of Venice, unique territory of the Republic at that time, began to establish its military might. This great military power brought La Serenissima to expand its control in the northern part of the Adriatic sea, over the Balkans coast during the Early Middle Ages.
Taking part in the Crusades from the very beginning the Republic managed to expand its territories to the Levant, in Syria from Damascus down to Jaffa reaching the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Over the centuries and during its prosperous years the power of Venice reached its peak in the 13th century when the continuous battle against the rival maritime empire of Genoa it slowly took control increasing its economic power and its trades in the whole Mediterranean Sea.
With no real inland territories except for the ones around Venice, La Serenissima was just a collection of isolated outposts separated by hundreds of miles and culturally very diverse called Stato da Mar (Domains of the Sea). Outposts that were enabling Venice to extend its commercial dominion in whole Mediterranean Sea and in the Black Sea, and outside toward the northern europe, in the Flanders.
With a very advanced fiscal system Venice was used to keep track of all the commercial journeys, from the private ones with commercial purposes, to the public ones, more militar and political.
It’s exactly from these documents that the project started, with a simple set of maritime journeys tracked in the renaissance in some handwritten database containing information like the year in question, the destination, the owner of the fleet, the captains, the path and some other information. However being the database incomplete in a big portion of the records, filled with abbreviations and using very often specific notation the formulation of an initial research question and the whole process of working with the data and extracting actual information from it has been a lot harder than expected.
While at first there was no clear idea on the question that could be answered using this database the first step was actually to propose different ideas and dive deeper in the data and in the history of Venice to distinguish proper questions, plausible questions and the one we could possibly answer with the data at our disposal. Because of the hard process in understanding the data, digitizing them and analyzing them, the research question kept changing throughout the whole project untile the very final steps, spanning a lot of possibilities and shifting direction toward the most interesting questions and the easier one to answer.
Some examples of the initial questions were:
- build a maritime map of the commercial trips starting from Venice;
- build a wind map and how the routes were planned considering this;
- build a maritime current map and how the routes followed the currents;
- develop a timeline and study the innovation in the maritime technology;
- analyze the social structure of the ship owners (related to noble houses and names).
In order to understand which questions were then developed and which one discarded and why let’s focus more on the whole process of research that has been used.
While the research question was being developed the practical aspect of the project was also under design, defining how to proceed with the data and of course the first step was the digitization.
The digitization process starts with the input file in analogic format (handwritten catalogue of maritime trades) and consists in translating the information in digital format in order to ease the access and manipulation of the information. Although usually this process corresponds to running an OCR program on digital images of the paper sheets, the data provided at the beginning of the project were both the images of the scans and the result of the OCR process in textual format (csv file). This step is very delicate since the quality of the result is highly dependent on the quality of the images and luckily in our case the process was quite successful recognizing most of the characters correctly with just a few mistakes.
The next step and the first actual step was to take care of these mistakes where possible. A few Python scripts have been built specifically to detect the inconsistencies, whether in some of the cases a manual comparison was required in other automatic fixing could be implemented.
Inconsistencies and accidental errors introduced by the digitization process weren’t the only problem, in fact a consistent portion of the data was incomplete, lacking information on the trades (e.g. in some cases only the year and destination of a journey were registered) and this made the process of understanding the data a lot harder especially because it wasn’t possible to use any tool to reconstruct missing data (other than speculating on them). This whole process of getting to know the database and fixing the mistake took a quite big part in the project but it was essential to start working on the cleanest possible data in order not to affect the outcome of the research.
The last portion of this initial step was to port the database from a simple textual file, kept for usage in future script for analysis of data, into a more complete database using Sqlite3 . The porting once again has been done using a Python script.
The step that followed was in fact the analysis of data, spanning from simple statistics aimed at understanding what was the direction to point at in the research, to more complex analysis that wanted to help answering these questions.
In parallel the historical research started, getting to know better the history of the Republic of Venice, fo the Stato dal Mar, and understanding its birth, its expansion toward the control of the Mediterranean Sea, and the decline of its economical power until the fall of this empire. This part in fact revealed itself as being essential in the choice of research question, helping in explaining what couldn’t be answered with the available data (see Results).
The last part of the project was the actual interpretation of results, associating historical background to the results obtained and creating a small website that represented in an interactive way some of the interesting results while giving a small background on important facts related to the research and to the history of the republic.
Before presenting any result let’s now get deeper in the reasons that led to the removal of some of the research question and than try to answer and have a perspective on some of the actual results of the project.
This historical analysis was not only important to better address the research question but also to better understand and interpret the data. As previously introduced in fact between the 13th and the 15th centuries, Venice gained a key role in the world trade keeping with strong economical and maritime power. The Republic remained prosperous and stable until the tensions with the Ottoman empire slowly fell into a series of battles that saw the decline of the Republic’s power.
A few different analysis has been done on the data for starter, among these the distribution of the recorded journeys per year. This showed us how the main portion of the data were distributed between the 1330 and the 1440.
A timeline was built to analyze the changes in routes during this years but, probably for the short timespan and the extended control of Venice already in the 1330, nothing came up as relevant concerning either the routes or their frequency.
Because of this the time dimension was dropped and we only focused on the actual routes and destinations common in the journeys, analyzing the distribution and the most common routes traveled by the sailors. This particular task was very hard since routes were actually the hardest information to understand in the database, very often including peculiar abbreviations (most of them still unknown and uncomprehensible).
In the end the outcome of the destination distribution was an interesting graph similar to the one below, where we could notice that Venice registered a lot of trades in the Black Sea (Tana and Trebizond), in Alexandria, in Syria (Beirut and Jaffa, most of them headed then to Jerusalem), in the biggest isles of the Mediterranean (Cyprus, Crete, Modon, …) and even in northern Europe (Flanders and London).
This are rough estimate only showing the final destination of the journeys but of course there were always trades with the colonies along the route to the destination.
For what concerns the routes, an interactive map has been built (available as a webpage for the demo) showing year by year (and globally) the most common registered routes from Venice to all the destinations and all the stops along the way.
Another analysis that has been done was on the typology of the ships used in every trip and the result were quite interesting. Considering also the few record lacking this information more than the 95% of the trades were made using a Venetian Galley.
The galley was in fact the most common type of ship used both for commercial and military purposes, With a long and slender hull, a shallow draft, low clearance between sea and railing and rowings on the sides, the galley was in fact the most common type of ship used both for commercial and military purposes. While the small sails could be used to take advantage of the wind the main system of propulsion was human strength, which guaranteed precision and speed in the movements and independence from any wind or maritime current. The peculiar shape also influenced the whole sailing technique, usually keeping the routes along the coasts instead of facing open sea.
In this specific case the historical background together with a simple analysis let us remove from the research questions the possibility of reconstructing wind maps or maritime current maps.
A final interesting analysis pursued in the last days of the project was related to the owners and the captains of ships but even in this case the result was not satisfying. It wasn’t easy to connect names of the captains because of their sparse distribution and lack of documentation on them.
It still remains open however some sort of analysis on the owners. In a Republic highly based on commercial trading from Venice to the different colonies only the nobility was rich enough to afford to take part in this commerce and a lot more document exist on noble and illustrious people .
While the work should be done with a deeper analysis and a longer historical study on the nobility of Venice, already in the first steps was possible to notice recurring names over the years, especially family names. This could be a promising and interesting topic to research better in future works.