“M’illumino di spezie”: on Sunday at Rialto, an event recalling the ancient trade of the Serenissima 

23 September 2021

Venice, 20th September 2021 - We eat and love them because they recall mysterious lands that are far away, but we also use them as medicine and perfumes. When Venice was known as the Serenissima, the trade of spices was an essential source of its income. For centuries, the Serenissima Republic owned the monopoly in this field. It used to import them from the East, where it had colonies in every major port, and then export them all over Europe. To recall its role in the trade of spices, and the effect that they had on Venetian life and culture, on Sunday September 26th, the Comitato cittadini di campo Rialto novo e adiacenze (the Rialto Novo Citizen Committee) has organized an event called “M’illumino di spezie” at the Rialto fish market, from 10am to 8pm. The event is included in the celebrations for Venice 1600 years and is aimed at exploring the use of spices in the culinary, perfumery and pharmaceutical fields through sensory workshops, roundtables, guided tours in the topical places of spices and a trade show with ten exhibitors. Among the speakers of the roundtables there will be Carla Coco, food historian born in Sicily who has been living and studying in Venice for years.

“The idea of including this one-day event on spices in the celebrations for the birth of Venice comes from the fact that spices are among the most important goods not only for Venice, but for Europe as a whole. They defined the culture and the economy of the city during the Middle Ages, and they made Venice rich”, explains Coco, “Spices were - and still are - very important, since they were used in many fields: kitchen, dietetics, pharmacy, perfumery. They were goods - seeds, bark, flowers, tiny fruits that for the most part were dried and imported from the Far East”.

Venice, which was a commercial city, realized that this was a very important field and consequently dedicated itself to trade. “They did it in a smart way, by taking care of every single aspect”, Coco continues, “already in 1204 they had the Arsenale, where they were able to build ships. By the second half of the 13th century they already had a well structured maritime legislation. They safeguarded their merchants by organising the mude, namely armed convoys which departed from Venice on a specific date, had a travel plan, and arrived in the ports of the Far East and North Africa ready to meet other merchants, to trade and to buy spices. Such goods certainly weighed little but were very expensive, due to the high quantity purchased. Once the spices arrived in Venice, they passed through customs at Rialto and were later sold in the rest of Europe. Of course, Venice kept the amount needed for itself, but it did so in a smart way”.

The Serenissima became a leader in the production of medicines, since before the invention of chemistry, medicines were made with spices and herbs. 

“Among all medicines, Venice specialized on the production of the triaca, a sort of remedy for all illnesses made of 62 ingredients, including spices and viper meat”, Coco tells us , “Not only the city produced a great amount of triaca, it actually produced the best triaca in the world. As a matter of fact, there were pharmacies exclusively dedicated to the production of the triaca, and while producing it, they were closely monitored by the authorities. In this way, the medicine was sold everywhere in Europe”.

Another important aspect to remember is the use of spices in the kitchen, not only for flavouring foods and giving them a different taste, but also for dietetics purposes. In the medieval world, dietetics and cuisine went hand in hand. “At that time, spices were thought to be able to correct the vices of food, so they were used not only on dishes but also to make spiced wines. Moreover, species were also candies and usually eaten at the end of a meal”, she continues, “Here too, Venetians realised that the use of spices in the kitchen was a difficult thing to do, because those were not, after all, products included within the European DNA. So Venice decided to develop a very interesting marketing operation: it created a series of bags with ready-to-use spices called sacchetti veneziani (Venetian little bags)”.

There were three different types of little bags: one with black and strong spices used for meat, another with sweet and fine spices for fish, and then - since they were merchants - a universal mixture which could be used for all kinds of food. In addition, Venetians made another significant cultural operation. According to the principle that dietetics and cuisine went hand in hand, they called in a doctor-gourmet of Arab origin, "Giambonino", who in 1271 was granted with the citizenship de intus et de foris. The Serenissima Republic encouraged him to translate and revise a book written by a doctor who was very famous in the East, in order to make people aware of how spices were used, what they were used for and what illnesses they could prevent. Therefore, at the end of the 13th century, Giambonino himself wrote a book called Liber de ferculis et de condimentis, which today can be considered as the first Venetian cookbook".

“At this event, which has been organized in partnership with the University of Cordoba, we thought of bringing together every aspect of the spices. As a consequence, culture and trade will be the main character of this event - explains Coco -. There will be a sensory workshop with several experts that will guide visitors through the use of spices in the kitchen. Moreover, throughout the event, the so-called sacchetti veneziani (Venetian little bags), essential in several of the venetian ancient recipe books, will be recreated. The popular saor, that we still eat nowadays, had ancient roots that dates back to the 1300s. At that time, it used to be called “cisame di pesce” and it was cooked with spices or with the “ambrogino”, which was completely covered with spices. Indeed, back in the 1300s in Venice, at least 30 or 40 different kinds of spices were used”. 

At 4pm, a roundtable focused on the use of spices in pharmacies, liquors and kitchen will take place. Several will be the exhibition stands in which the commercial side of spices will be deepened. Pastry chefs will prepare both ancient sweets with spices, such as the pevarini, and modern pastry products, such as the babà with spices or the mostaccioli (Christmas chocolate sweets typically produced in the Campania region), in addition to liquors and distillates. Master perfumers will provide different types of scent and several will be the guided tours organized, which will reveal every corner of the market: from the ancient pharmacy of San Servolo to Palazzo Mocenigo. Later in the evening, a theatrical play with a revised version of the Million of Marco Polo will also be performed”.

Precious and really expensive, spices were used by aristocrats to show their wealth. As a matter of fact, they were used until the end of the 1500s while later, their use and importance fell dramatically. 

“Basically, when the Portuguese came back from the Americas, they filled Europe with spices. As a consequence, spices lost their importance since they were no more considered as a precious good, a status symbol. Moreover, medical knowledge had enlarged and so, although there is no specific reason to believe that this knowledge had a negative impact on the use of spices, their use and importance decreased – concludes Coco. The Venetian kitchen between the 1600s and the 1700s abandoned the use of spices whilst between 1800s and 1900s, only main spices, such as pepper and cinnamon, were known and used. Nevertheless, in the last 20 years something has changed. We have realized that spices are indeed good for our health, and that this is not a rumor. Therefore, spices are once again included within recipes, and this is also due to the growing presence of communities from the middle east. Among the spices that have been reintroduced there are: ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, coriander and saffron. Saffron, which is mainly produced in Iran and Turkey, is the only spice that can also be produced in Italy. As a matter of fact, at the event there will be two different kinds of saffron: the one produced in Italy and the one produced in Iran. In this way, we could compare two different worlds and cultures”.