Vasco da Gama returned from India in September 1499, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic dispatched an ambassador to the court of Lisbon to investigate; it was not until July 1501 that his report came in. The reality of it fell on the lagoon like a thunderclap. Terrible foreboding gripped the city. For the Venetians, who lived with a particularly intense awareness of physical geography, the implications were obvious. Priuli poured his gloomiest predictions into his diary. It was a marvel, incredible, the most momentous news of the time:
… which will take a greater intelligence than mine to comprehend. At the receipt of this news, the whole city … was dumbfounded, and the wisest thought it was the worst news ever heard. They understood that Venice had ascended to such fame and wealth only through trading by sea, by means of which a large quantity of spices were brought in, which foreigners came from everywhere to buy. From their presence and the trade [Venice] acquired great benefits. Now from this new route, the spices of India will be transported to Lisbon, where Hungarians, Germans, the Flemish, and the French will look to buy, being able to get them at a better price. Because the spices that come to Venice pass through Syria and the sultan’s lands, paying exorbitant taxes at every stage of the way, when they get to Venice the prices have increased so much that something originally worth a ducat costs a ducat seventy or even two. From these obstacles, via the sea route, it will come about that Portugal can give much lower prices.
Cutting out hundreds of small middlemen, snubbing the avaricious, unstable Mamluks, buying in bulk, shipping directly: To Venetian merchants, such advantages were self-evident.
There were countering voices; some pointed out the difficulties of the voyage:
… the king of Portugal could not continue to use the new route to Calicut, since of the thirteen caravels which he had dispatched only six had returned safely; that the losses outweighed the advantages; that few sailors would be prepared to risk their lives on such a long and dangerous voyage.
But Priuli was certain: “From this news, spices of all sorts will decrease enormously in Venice, because the usual buyers, understanding the news, will decline, being reluctant to buy.” He ended with an apology to future readers for having written at such length. “These new facts are of such importance to our city that I have been carried away with anxiety.”
In a visionary flash, Priuli foresaw, and much of Venice with him, the end of a whole system, a paradigm shift: not just Venice, but a whole network of long-distance commerce doomed to decline. All the old trade routes and their burgeoning cities that had flourished since antiquity were suddenly glimpsed as backwaters—Cairo, the Black Sea, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Smyrna, the ports of the Red Sea, and the great cities of the Levant, Constantinople itself—all these threatened to be cut out from the cycles of world trade by oceangoing galleons. The Mediterranean would be bypassed; the Adriatic would no longer be the route to anywhere; important outstations such as Cyprus and Crete would sink into decline.
The Portuguese rubbed this in. The king invited Venetian merchants to buy their spices in Lisbon; they would no longer need to treat with the fickle infidel. Some were tempted, but the Republic had too much invested in the Levant to withdraw easily; their merchants there would be soft targets for the sultan’s wrath if they bought elsewhere. Nor, from the eastern Mediterranean, was sending their own ships to India readily practical. The whole business model of the Venetian state appeared, at a stroke, obsolete.
The effects were felt almost immediately. In 1502, the Beirut galleys brought back only four bales of pepper; prices in Venice steepled; the Germans reduced their purchases; many decamped to Lisbon. In 1502, the Republic dispatched a secret embassy to Cairo to point out the dangers. It was essential to destroy the Portuguese maritime threat now. They offered financial support. They proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But the Mamluk dynasty, hated by its subjects, was also in decline. It proved powerless to see off the intruders. In 1500, the Mamluk chronicler Ibn Iyas recorded an extraordinary event. The balsam gardens outside Cairo, which had existed since remote antiquity, produced an oil with miraculous properties highly prized by the Venetians. Its trade symbolized the centuries-old commercial relationship between Islamic countries and the West. That year, the balsam trees withered away and vanished forever. Seventeen years later, the Ottomans strung up the last Mamluk sultan from a Cairo gate.
Tome Pires, a Portuguese adventurer, gleefully spelled out the implications for Venice. In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, the market for the produce of the Spice Islands. “Whoever is lord of Malacca,” he wrote, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.” It would be a slow and uneven pressure, but the Portuguese and their successors would eventually squeeze the life out of the Venetian trade with the Orient. The fears that Priuli expressed would in time prove well-founded; and the Ottomans meanwhile would systematically strip away the Stato da Mar.
The classical allusions of de’ Barbari’s map already contain a backward-looking note; they hint at nostalgia, a remaking of the tough, energetic realities of the Stato da Mar into something ornamental. They perhaps reflected structural changes within Venetian society. The recurrent bouts of plague meant that the city’s population was never self-replenishing; it relied on immigrants, and many of those from mainland Italy came without knowledge of the seafaring life. It was already noticeable during the Chioggia crisis that the volunteer citizens had to be given rowing lessons. In 1201, at the time of the adventure of the Fourth Crusade, the majority of Venice’s male population were seafarers; by 1500, they were not. The emotional attachment to the sea, expressed in the Senza, would last until the death of the Republic, but by 1500, Venice was turning increasingly to the land; within four years, it would be engaged in a disastrous Italian war that would again bring enemies to the edge of the lagoon. There was a crisis in shipbuilding, a greater emphasis on industry. The patriotic solidarity that had been the hallmark of Venetian destiny had been seen to fray: A sizable part of the ruling elite had demonstrated that, though still keen to recoup the profits of maritime trade, they were not prepared to fight for the bases and sea-lanes on which it depended. Others, who had made fortunes in the rich fifteenth century, stopped sending their sons to sea as apprentice bowmen. Increasingly, a wealthy man might look to reinvest in estates on the terra firma, to own a country mansion with escutcheons over the door; these were respectable hallmarks of nobility to which all self-made men might aspire.
It was Priuli again, acute and regretful, who caught this impulse and pinpointed the declining glory it seemed to imply. “The Venetians,” he wrote in 1505, “are much more inclined to the Terra Firma, which has become more attractive and pleasing, than to the sea, the ancient root cause of all their glory, wealth, and honor.”