Venice and statistics

Jacob Burckhardt wrote The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860. The original work was in Italian but an English translation by C G C Middlemore was published in 1878. Chapter VII of Part I is on "The Republics: Venice and Florence" and includes a description of an early passion for statistics:-

A power whose foundations were so complicated, whose activity and interests filled so wide a stage, cannot be imagined without a systematic oversight of the whole, without a regular estimate of means and burdens, of profits and losses. Venice can fairly make good claim to be the birthplace of statistical science, together, perhaps, with Florence, and followed by the more enlightened despotisms. The feudal state of the Middle Ages knew nothing more than catalogues of signorial rights and possessions; it looked on production as a fixed quantity, which it approximately is, so long as we have to do with landed property only.

The towns, on the other hand, throughout the West must from very early times have treated production, which with them depended on industry and commerce, as exceedingly variable; but, even in the most flourishing times of the Hanseatic League, they never got beyond a simple commercial balance sheet. Fleets, armies, political power and influence fall under the debit and credit of a trader's ledger. In the Italian State a clear political consciousness, the pattern of Mohammedan administration, and the long and active exercise of trade and commerce, combined to produce for the first time a true science of statistics. The absolute monarchy of Frederick II in Lower Italy was organised with the sole object of securing a concentrated power for the death-struggle in which he was engaged. In Venice, on the contrary, the supreme objects were the enjoyment of life and power, the increase of inherited advantages, the creation of the most lucrative forms of industry, and the opening of new channels for commerce.

The writers of the time speak of these things with great freedom. We learn that the population of the city amounted in the year 1422 to 190,000 souls; the Italians were, perhaps, the first to reckon, not according to hearths, or men able to bear arms, or people able to walk, and so forth, but according to animae, and thus to get the most neutral basis for further calculation. About this time, when Florentines wished to form an alliance with Venice against Filippo Maria Visconti, they were for the moment refused, in the belief, resting on accurate commercial returns, that a war between Venice and Milan, that is between seller and buyer, was foolish.

Even if the Duke simply increased the army, the Milanese, through the heavier taxation they must pay, would be worse customers. "Better let the Florentines be defeated, and then, used as they are to the life of a free city, they will settle with us and bring their silk and woollen industry with them, as the Lucchesi did in their distress." The speech of the dying Doge Mocenigo to a few senators whom he had sent for to his bedside is still more remarkable. It contains the chief elements of a statistical account of the whole resources of Venice.

I cannot say whether or where a thorough elucidation of this perplexing document exists; by way of illustration, the following facts may be quoted. After repaying a war loan of four millian ducats, the public debt still amounted to six million ducats; the current trade reached (so it seems) ten millions, which yielded, the text informs us, a profit of four millions. The 3,000 navigli, the 300 navi and the 45 galleys were manned respectively by 17,000, 8,000, and 11,000 seamen (more than 200 for each galley). To these must be added 16,000 shipwrights. The houses in Venice were valued at seven millions, and brought in a rent of half a million. There were 1,000 nobles whose income ranged from 70 to 4,000 ducats. In another passage the ordinary income of the state in the same year is put at 1,100,000 ducats; through the disturbance of trade caused by wars it sank about the middle of the century to 800,000 ducats.

JOC/EFR March 2006

The URL of this page is: