THE SPICE ROUTE
Starting from the work that is the title and godmother of this artistic-cultural project, 1602, it allows us to enter the history, and in particular the history of Venice, more than we can imagine.
In fact, the blend of spices with which it was created (coriander, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, nutmeg), contains not only precious and fragrant natural pigments, but much more: it contains the history of the relationship between the East and West, centuries of bloody wars, dominations, commercial exchanges, fashions, discoveries, fundamental socio-cultural influences.
Just think of pepper, considered so precious as to deserve the nickname of "black gold", and be used as a real currency of exchange.. or nutmeg, called the "bloody spice" precisely because its trade represented for over 200 years occasions of serious hostility between the European states, which contended for the monopoly for its exceptional culinary and pharmacological properties.
But coriander and cinnamon are no less. The first, already used by the Mycenaeans and known by the name of "Koriadono", is the spice that enters the history of the Carnival: in fact, the current confetti took its name from the sugar-coated seeds, later small balls of chalk, and today multicolored paper disks.
The second, already considered in 19th century cookbooks as one of the 4 spices (along with nutmeg, cloves and pepper), when speaking of "a pinch of spice"; but above all strongly linked to the legend of the Phoenix: in fact, it was believed that the power of rebirth of the fabulous bird sacred to the Egyptians depended on the nest that the Phoenix prepared with various spices, including cinnamon, as well as incense, myrtle, myrrh, wood of cedar.
We can therefore assert with certainty that, before the arrival of the Portuguese on the scene (end of the 15th century), who, encouraged by the infant Henry the Navigator, managed to open a new route to India by circumnavigating the African continent (the so-called "Via delle Indie”), the Republic of Venice, with its merchants, was the undisputed protagonist of commercial traffic between East and West, between Europe and the Mediterranean.
Thanks to the enormous commercial privileges that the Venetians had held in the Byzantine East, they had access to the routes to Asia and the Red Sea: in fact, precious loads of pepper arrived from the East and were carried as far as Aleppo, Damascus or Alexandria of Egypt to be picked up here by Venetian merchants and taken as far as the Rialto, where they were auctioned off by special state-appointed officials called "messers of pepper".
Thus it was that the Serenissima, thanks also to its diplomatic ability demonstrated in the choice to concentrate its supremacy exclusively on sea trades, became a real maritime power, exploiting the possibility of forming colonies close to strategic ports, such as for example Crete, Constantinople and Alexandria in Egypt.
The socio-cultural effects that Venice's domination of the spice trade has caused are also well demonstrated by its artistic heritage.
First of all we can mention the painting by Pietro Longhi - "The apothecary's shop" (oil on canvas, around 1752) preserved in the Gallerie dell'Accademia: it is the representation of an apothecary intent on visiting a woman, while two other customers await their turn . The shelves with the numerous vases that contain the spices, used in this case for medicinal purposes, form the background.
Similarly we can see in the sumptuous dinners painted by Paolo Veronese in sixteenth-century Venice, how at the center of the luxurious banquets resting on precious Venetian laces, delicacies of all kinds abounded, among which spices could never be missing, presented and consumed on those occasions in the form of sweet sugared almonds, while Murano glass and engraved silver glittered all around.
The oriental contamination has had effects of enormous proportions in many fields: culinary, pharmacological and herbal, perfumery, artistic, intellectual (many spices were also considered for their "powers" on the intellect: for example it was said that ginger brought concentration and lucidity), and not least in the field of dyes.
In fact, let us not forget that in the sixteenth century, when Venice was at the height of its greatness, the Guild of Dyers also entered its maximum splendour, organized into Arte Maggiore (specialized in treating silk) and Arte Minore (specialized in treating wool, cotton and linen). In 1560 the first treatise on dyeing chemistry "Plichto de l'arte de tentori" was published in Venice, edited by Giovanventura Rosetti, who reveals in this work not only the techniques but also the recipes for the dyes, among which we mention the mixture of turmeric and saffron to obtain the various shades of yellow.
This art takes on characters of notable importance, so much so that the Venetian painter Jacopo Robusti used a pseudonym linked to it, namely Tintoretto: his father Battista, in fact, was a dyer of silk fabrics.
Thus rethinking "The spice route" today, while we admire the works on display here, offers us the enormous privilege of feeling at the center of a multicultural dimension which, starting from India, passing through Asia and the Middle East, takes us home again, arriving once again in Venice, welcomed by the magnificence of its priceless historical, cultural and artistic heritage.
- Elena Cesca -