Venice, Italy, “the Floating City,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose birth in the sea, dominion over it, and genius for commerce spawned a great trading empire, the world’s largest in its day. Over the centuries, the city created merchant princes and provided the Republic of Venice with inestimable wealth. One chronicler, writing in 1267, described the scene in the metropolis: “Merchandise flows through this noble city like water through fountains.”
Evidence of that mercantile history can still be seen along her thoroughfares: Calle dello Zucchero, Corte della Raffineria, and the Ruga dei Speziali. All are place names typical of Venice, yet they are rarely mentioned in guidebooks. But stumble on Sugar Street, the Court of the Refinery, or the Street of the Spice Merchants, and you are encountering the city’s Golden Age. These, and other related names, come largely from a time when, as a result of her vast power in the marketplace and seafaring might, Venice was dubbed Queen of the Adriatic and sugar was central to her livelihood. Here it was sold wholesale, here retail; here it was refined, here made into sweets, here purveyed as medicine. Picture ships in the harbors listing under sugar’s weight, the large warehouses heaped with it along the Zattere (begun as a loading dock in 1519), the merchants bidding for it in Rialto, once the city’s chief marketplace. Travelers commented on sugar’s presence in much the same way that Marco Polo, one of Venice’s most famous citizens, commented on the enormous quantities of sugar he saw in Hangzhou, China, during his travels.