Who doesn’t love Venice? Its masked carnival, its romantic alleys and canals, its film and art festivals ... All of it makes the charming north Italian city one of the most romantic cities on earth.
But Venice wasn’t always a romantics’ favourite. It was once the mercantile capital of Europe, and one of the mightiest naval empires in the world. What can we learn from the rise and fall of Venice, and how does it apply to our own lives?
1. Your weakness can be your strength
Just as presidents and CEOs were once young and inexperienced, Venice wasn’t always a beautiful city with palaces and canals. As a matter of fact, when it was founded some 1,600 years ago, the Venetian lagoon was not much more than swampland leading out to sea. Its inhabitants had originally lived on the Italian mainland, but had been threatened by the belligerent Lombards. Finding refuge in the lagoon off the coast, they slowly built a city of pole houses and connecting waterways. Lacking land, their economic activity mainly consisted of fishery.
Over the centuries, they slowly but surely built their weakness (living on an island in the sea) into a strength: they built a commercial and military fleet, and started trading with sea ports across the Mediterranean, eventually becoming a hub for many spices and other goods coming from the Arab world. Their savviness and survival instinct ultimately made them masters of the Mediterranean, colonizing territories in modern-day Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and beyond. At its height, the Republic of Venice was a commercial empire and one of the richest and most powerful trading nations in the world.
2. What got you here won’t get you there
Around the 15th century, the Venetian empire was at its zenith. Its traders had a de facto monopoly on spice trade. Its colonies across the Mediterranean secured a second flow of income for the Doge and his naval fleet. And its status as a trading market also caused Venice to become a major financial centre in Europe, including the development of futures, credit letters and early bank notes.
But its wealth, greed and monopoly were also powerful incentives for other nations to circumvent the Venetian traders. Countries such as Spain, Portugal and later the Netherlands and England wanted their own access to spices from the East. The Venetian lockdown of the Mediterranean led those countries to explore other routes, and start the great Age of Discoveries.
The Portuguese discovered the route to Asia around Africa, and a discoverer from Venice’s old foe Genoa accidentally discovered America for the Spanish crown: Christopher Colombus. Portugal and Spain divided the newly found ports and colonies in Africa, Asia and America among themselves. Venice, locked into the Mediterranean and clinging to the increasingly obsolete rowing vessels, began a steady but certain decline. Its role as an empire and trade monopolist would gradually come to an end. What got it to dominance in the earlier centuries earlier didn’t get them to dominate in later centuries.
3. You can reinvent yourself throughout your career
Even as Venice’s role as a mercantile empire was largely played out by the 18th century, the Venice we know today stems mostly from tales and habits from exactly that period. Venice, still a majestic city, in later times became more of a centre for culture and arts, which it remains today. The world-famous Casanova lived in Venice and roamed its high society in the 1700s, including its masked balls and carnival.
Nowadays, we know Venice also from renowned art festivals such as the Biennale for arts and culture, its film festival, and of course its many tourist attractions. Late in its career, Venice once again reinvented itself, no longer mourning for its lost status as naval empire, but rather celebrating its heritage and cultural richness.
Its lessons can also be applied to people and their careers. If early in your life, you were cornered and forced to focus on just one specialty, remember that specialty might one day make you uniquely placed to build a career. If you are the height of your career and have reached everything you could ever dream of, remember you will need to keep learning to keep your status and income. And finally, if you experience a drawback and get fired or demoted, remember it is never too late to reinvent yourself.
Venice, a truly inspiring city indeed.