MAGISTRATO AL SAL NERO
VENICE DESIGN BIENNIAL & VETRALIA COLLECTIBLE ~ 2023
Historically, Venice is known for its role as a trading port, connecting the centres of Northern Europe, including France and England with Eastern markets in Byzantium and Persia, but one of the earliest commodities to be farmed and traded in the Venetian Lagoon was salt.
Salt works were operating in the Lagoon as early as the first half of the 6th Century, consisting of rudimentary dams constructed from logs and branches, and large evaporation pools where the water would crystallise to form sodium chloride. Salt was used as a sort of currency in these early years of life on the Lagoon (Preziuso et al).
The preindustrial importance of salt cannot be overstated. Salt was the easiest and most reliable way to preserve food, and those who possessed salt were far less impacted by the earth’s natural cycles dictating food procurement. A large catch, for example, could be preserved and used to nourish a community for many months, instead of spoiling within days. Salt was essential to survival (G. Cecconi, personal communication, December 2, 2022).
The Venetians understood this and were known to use military force to maintain their advantage, in 932 and 1578 they destroyed rival salt producing communities Camacchio and Trieste to further their control (Warren, 2015). From the 12th Century Venice actively set about creating a monopoly of this crucial commodity. They began to import salt from the Adriatic and Mediterranean in 1240. In 1281 all Venetian merchants were ordered by the ‘ordo salis’ (the salt rule) to bring home a load of salt when returning to Venice. An administrative body known as the ‘Magistrate Al Sal’ (Magistrate of Salt) was established to manage this monopolisation and soon the Venetians had gained control over so much salt that they were supplying the entire Po Valley, Tuscany, the Puglia coast, Sicily, Sardinia, Crete and Cyprus (Preziuso et al.) – salt became ‘il vero fondamento del nostro stato’ (the true foundation of our state) (Beinart, 2011).
In the 1400s the Venetians built monumental ‘Magazzini del Sale’ (salt warehouses) called ‘Saloni’, with structures strong enough to hold 4500 tons of salt at any one time. They hoarded salt in their vast stores to create shortages and then increased the price to feed the demand and maximise profits. By 1590 they were making an 81% mark-up on salt sold inland. Some of these profits were used by the state to build sculpture and architecture, attracting many Renaissance artists to profit from this booming commodity (Warren, 2015). Venice is often introduced as one of the birthplaces of capitalism. The history of salt in this region is a clear demonstration of early capitalist values in action.
Today in Venice, salt plays a very different role. Due to the rising sea-level, the ocean regularly reaches above the limestone foundations used to insulate the city’s brick walls from the sea. These bricks are porous and when they come into contact with the canals capillary action draws the sea water upward as high as 8 meters inside the bricks and mortar (G. Cecconi, personal communication, December 2, 2022). When the tide drops again and the walls dry out the water evaporates, but it leaves the salt behind, captured within the walls of the city. Within a cubic meter of wall in Venice there is likely to be 70-80kg of salt (Piana, 2021).
When the salt dries it crystallises and expands, resulting in countless tiny explosions inside the ancient bricks and mortar and causing these walls to disintegrate from the inside (G. Cecconi, personal communication, December 2, 2022). Evidence of this can be seen throughout the city, from salt secretions leaking out through the brickwork to crumbling facades disintegrating into the canals and alleyways.
In an ultimate piece of dark irony, it is the uncontrollable acceleration of capitalist practices, beginning in part with salt in Venice, that have contributed substantially to the burning of fossil fuels, to produce and transport energy and products that might satisfy our insatiable taste for consumption. Emissions from these fossil fuels have warmed the globe, begun to melt our ice sheets and glaciers, and caused the water in our oceans to expand. These rising oceans and seas are now flowing into the Venetian lagoon, impregnating the walls of the city with salt – the substance at the foundation of Venetian prosperity now works to undermine the literal foundations of this ancient civilisation, threatening to return it to the salty Lagoon that it rose from centuries ago.
This project was developed during the Venice Design Biennial Residency, hosted in Venice, Italy in December 2022.
Production – Venice, Italy
Makers – Vetralia Collectible
Image Credit – Vetralia Collectible, Giacomo Gandola and Veronika Mutulko
Magistrato Al Sal Nero Cabinet:
Materials – Granulated Murano glass and cirmolo