Tourism in Early Modern Venice

18th Century Venice by Canaletto

The 17th and 18th centuries in Venice saw the gradual decline of the Republic. Venice lost its status of a Mediterranean power as well as its prominent position in international trade and politics. Its maritime activities and once prosperous industries stagnated or fell prey to foreign competition, especially to the Dutch and the English, who gradually surpassed Venice in shipbuilding, in navigation, and in the spice trade. Nevertheless, Venice retained most of its cultural and social vigour throughout the period, and, in the eyes of the foreign visitors who flocked into the city in ever growing numbers, it remained a powerful symbol of freedom and prosperity as well as the cultural hub of Europe. Although Venice had always attracted visitors from around the world, the city evolved from a stop for medieval pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land into a tourist destination in the early modern period, offering rich culture and lavish entertainment virtually all year round. Venetian tourism greatly benefited from the newfound foreign interest in the city and developed considerably throughout the period. Yet, when exploring this phenomenon, most scholars have focused solely on the cultural and social aspects of the tourist industry, and, in most cases, they have completely disregarded its economic implications. Nonetheless, this essay will attempt to evaluate the impact of tourism on Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries, and especially to determine whether its boom was a response to or a symptom of Venetian economic decline. Firstly, it will provide an overview of Venetian tourism in this period, focusing on the motives foreigners had for visiting Venice and the impressions it left on them. Then, it will explore signs of decline manifested by the tourism industry before examining the possible economic advantages of the influx of visitors into the city.

Foreigners always had many different reasons for venturing into Venice, ranging from religious, commercial, and political interests to the admiration of arts and culture. However, from the 1600s onwards, the city became predominantly a tourist attraction with foreign visitors coming for entertainment rather than business or politics. Above all, the number of tourists from France, Germany, Holland, and Britain increased considerably as travelling for pleasure grew more fashionable among European elites. This wave of mass movements transformed the Venetian economy, contributing to overall economic growth and consumer spending. By the 18th century, Venice became a compulsory stop on the so-called Grand Tours, during which the young sons of wealthy European, and predominantly British, families spent a year travelling around Europe, and especially around Italy, since, as Edward Gibbon noted while taking the Tour in 1760s, it was believed that ‘foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman.’ Although Venice had no classical ruins to offer and its humid climate was deemed unhealthy, visitors were interested in its art, music and spectacles, while its reputation as a city full of gamblers, prostitutes and libertines also provided a source of fascination. Most tourists visited during the long Carnival season from Epiphany until the beginning of Lent, although the masquerading period was often already underway in October., They also came for the Festa della Sensa, the festivities of Ascension Day, in order to attend the annual ceremony of the Marriage to the Sea. The population of Venice increased dramatically during these festive periods. The French writer, Maximilien Misson, claimed in 1687 that ‘Seven Sovereign Princes and Thirty thousand other Foreigners’ came to Venice for the Carnival, a figure confirmed by modern scholars including Elizabeth Horodowich and Ellen Rosand.

Festa della Sensa, 18th century Venice

Visitors to Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries left numerous accounts of their time in the city, including memoirs, letters, and guidebooks, intended not only for other prospective travellers, but also for the wider public back home. Their conception of the Republic was not only based on personal experience, but also on the rhetoric of the myth and anti-myth of Venice, which were becoming increasingly popular and propagated. For some, especially the admirers of the republican government, the city still remained a model of political stability and social harmony in the 17th century, although Rosemary Sweet argues that, by the 18th century, the prevailing image of the city shifted to that of a place of corruption, secrecy and economic decline. Others saw Venice as the capital of luxury, excess, and vice, renowned for its courtesans, gambling, and other hedonistic pursuits. Above all, the Carnival fed the imaginations of foreign visitors, who thought themselves entering a strange world of endless masquerades and lavish spectacles when social order was temporarily suspended and the anonymity of masks was an excuse for licentious behaviour. Misson observed that, during the Carnival, ‘the entire town is disguised,’ while another French writer, Saint-Didier, remarked that the ‘Carnival is the true harvest for love affairs, when it becomes possible to pluck the fruit of all the intrigues planted during less favourable seasons.’ Moreover, such visions of Venice were embodied by the famous 18th-century lover and adventurer, Giacomo Casanova, a native Venetian, whose libertine lifestyle and writings affirmed Venice’s reputation as the most decadent city in Europe filled with unlimited pleasure and games. Many people from the UK visit Venice every year, contribute millions to their ecomony in casinos. But, why? We have companies like, and other betting sites back at home?

Despite the undeniable allure of Venice as the capital of decadence and vice, many visitors in this period considered this reputation of the city as a certain sign of its moral decay and economic decline. For instance, the French philosopher, Montesquieu, deplored that Venice had ‘no more strength, commerce, riches or law; only debauchery there ha[d]…liberty.’ Just like these contemporaries, historians usually describe the 17th and 18th centuries in Venice as a time of decadence and decline. The sorts of activities and spectacles that drew a multitude of foreigners into the city each year can, therefore, be seen as symptomatic of the economic recession and the imminent doom of the Republic. Venice was in denial of its problems, basking instead in its former glory and carelessly spending vast sums of money on lavish feasts and an image of wealth and prosperity. Maurice Rowdon remarked that while the national debt rose up to 80 million ducats at the beginning of the 18th century, Venice was spending more than ever before on its annual celebrations, and its Carnival festivities featured fireworks, bull sacrifices, exhibitions of wild animals (a rhinoceros in 1751) or a display of a gas balloon in 1784, just one year after the first successful flight of the Montgolfier brothers in France. Similarly, the Sensa had gradually become more of an elaborate tourist spectacle than a traditional civic ceremony. Nevertheless, some visitors noticed that Venice was losing its status of a Mediterranean power. The English churchman John Moore, who attended the Sensa in the 1770s, remarked ironically that, although ‘the sea, like a modest bride, assents by her silence, and the marriage is deemed valid and secure to all intents and purposes… the time has been, when the Doge had entire possession of, and dominion over, his spouse’ and ‘for a considerable time past her favours have been shared by several other lovers.’

In addition, many visitors regarded the behaviour of Venetian patricians as excessive, careless and morally corrupt. This was attributed especially to the changes in the mentality and lifestyle of the formerly mercantile patriciate, which was, from the 16th century onwards, shifting its interests from maritime activities and commerce to land acquisitions in the terraferma, the Venetian mainland empire. Consequently, the patricians were gradually adopting more aristocratic manners, focusing increasingly on consumption and leisure. The prevailing foreign view of the patrician corruption and debauchery was also shared by native Venetians like 18th-century poet Giorgio Baffo:

Anyone seeking a noble amusement
Comes to St. Mark’s every evening at dusk.
Here you will find high society eager
To show off its riches and wallow in lust.

The patricians were eager to spend an excess of money on festivities and other luxuries, but they were also heavily implicated in gambling and prostitution. These alluring elements of Venetian social life greatly appealed to foreigners in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both gambling and prostitution can be considered as indicators of economic decline, since they posed a heavy burden on the economy and caused the ruin of many Venetians. Macroeconomic factors, including increased competition in the Asian spice trade and an overall decline in the Eastern spice trade facilitated an inopportune economic collapse. However, internal factors played a much larger role in instigating a Venetian decline. The growing popularity of gambling, and especially of gambling in the public gaming houses, called ridotti, was linked to the newly acquired mentality of the patriciate and its focus on consumption, although Rowdon argues that gambling, in fact, replaced the thrill from risky engagements in maritime trade in the minds of the patricians. While this claim may be contested, it is possible that gambling was a form of pouplar entertainment for individiauls who wanted to make profits during an economic recession. The Council of Ten, a governing group of individuals who managed legal issues and enforcement in Venice, was concerned that the citizens were gambling away their family fortunes, and it tried, although in vain, to restrict the existence of casinos and ridotti by legislation. Most of the authors of contemporary travel guides recommended other visitors to avoid the Venetian ridotti, which were described as dangerous and swarming with ‘loose women’. Nonetheless, the oldest trade, thriving in Venice ever since the Middle Ages, expanded greatly in the period to meet the increased foreign demand. Now-a-days, gambling isn't much of an issue in Venice thanks to online casino games. But, of course there's still a few casino houses about!

The Ridotto in Venice with masked figures conversing, by Francesco Guardi

Although morally questionable, gambling and prostitution brought in economic benefits for the Venetians by luring many foreigners into the city, which raises the question whether tourism could have contributed to curbing the economic decline of Venice in the 17th and 18th centuries. Richard Rapp argues that, even though the Venetian maritime power was waning, Venice did not undergo a complete economic decline in this period, but, instead, it gradually turned away from the no longer lucrative international trade and focused more on regional markets and local industries. Thus, the fast-developing tourism sector provided a great source of income duly exploited by the Venetians. Sex tourism gained popularity and even formed an unofficial part of the Grand Tour, leading Charles Baldwyn to label Venice as the ‘Brothell house of Europe.’ The city seized the opportunity to make profit by turning itself into a tourist attraction, even if it meant cashing in on its vices and immoral reputation. A Prussian visitor, Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, commented in 1785 on the increased importance of tourism for Venetian economy, noting that ‘after the great decline of trade at Venice, the visits of travellers became the greatest resource of the nation; it was therefore necessary to adopt milder laws, in order not to deter them from visiting a country which can by no means do without them.’ In order to support the city through its economic difficulties, the Venetian government relaxed some of its regulations on licentious behavior while, at the same time, placed heavy taxes on both gambling and prostitution. Although gambling had a reputation for impoverishing Venetian patricians, the government decided in 1638 to license the ridotti, which, especially during the Carnival season, were frequented by wealthy foreigners. Many visitors commented on the lucrativeness of gambling and prostitution for Venice. Fynes Moryson remarked in the late 17th century that ‘the tribute to the State from Cortizans was thought to exceede three hundreth thousand Crownes yearely’, while in the mid-18th century, de Blainville criticised the gambling practices, noting that ‘it is surprising to see how madly fond most Strangers at Venice are of bringing in their Money to those Nobles, who laugh at them when they have stript them. Sometimes… a lucky Hit happens…But… for one who wins, thousands are ruined.’

The Grand Tour, Piazza San Marco, Luca Carlevaris, c. 1709

However, gambling and prostitution did not constitute the sole means of securing revenue from tourism. Many Venetians, including innkeepers, gondoliers, musicians, professional entertainers, servants and other types of workers, could rely on considerable income from the influx of well-to-do visitors during the Carnival and the Sensa. For instance, Misson remarked ‘how much Money all this Multitude must bring to Venice’ and Saint-Didier observed that ‘the famous liberty of Venice lures in crowds of foreigners; the entertainment and the pleasures hold them there and drain their resources.’ The Venetian government also noticed this increased foreign interest in its annual festivities, and, as a result, commercialised them by prolonging their duration and by increasing investment in lavish decorations and extravagant spectacles. Furthermore, the Venetian cultural boom and innovation also appealed to tourists. One of the main cultural attractions was the opera, first introduced in 1637, that became a popular and fashionable addition to the Carnival season. Seven opera houses opened in Venice, staging almost four hundred different performances throughout the 17th century. Although opening times as well as prices of tickets and librettos were determined by the Venetian government, owners of opera houses could secure further income by renting out opera boxes, which became a symbol of status and prestige for Venetian patricians and foreign visitors alike, and thereby also earning the opera itself higher profits.

The Arrival of a Young Traveller and his Suite during the Carnival in the Piazza di Spagna, Rome, by David Allan

The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed an unprecedented influx of foreign visitors into Venice, considerably boosting the Venetian tourist industry. Wealthy European elites flocked into the city, often as part of their Grand Tour of the continent, to admire Venetian art and culture, but mainly to take part in the annual Carnival and Sensa festivities. Many were also attracted to the city’s reputation as the European capital of decadence and vice. On one hand, as the city’s maritime and commercial power was fading away, contemporaries often considered the lavish spending on spectacles and the relaxed attitude of Venetian authorities towards prostitution and gambling as unmistakable signs of moral and economic decline of the Republic. Above all, the Venetian patricians were criticised for their morally questionable behaviour, and especially for their engagement in gambling, which often led to personal ruin. On the other hand, the constant flow of tourists into the city, based on the appeal of Venetian courtesans and gambling houses, ensured economic advantages for the Venetians. The Venetian government invested more into entertainment and spectacles to increase the attractiveness of the city, and thus bring in greater profit from wealthy foreign visitors. Tourism became a very lucrative source of income for Venice, and it contributed to curbing the economic decline of the state in the 17th and 18th centuries. The fact that, to this day, tourism remains the most prosperous Venetian industry, is a helpful indicator of its growing importance for the Republic in the last two centuries of its existence.


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