The Rothschild houses in continental Europe operated a diverse number of businesses. This month we take a look at the saltworks in Venice owned by Salomon von Rothschild.
The House of Rothschild first became involved with Austrian finance through the handling of English subsidy payments to her allies after the Napoleonic wars. In 1820 Prince Metternich, Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs, entered into negotiations with the House of Rothschild for a large loan of 58 million florins. The complicated arrangements for this enormous loan demanded the presence of a Rothschild in Vienna and thus Salomon Mayer Rothschild (1774-1855), the second son of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who had been handling Rothschild affairs with Austria, moved to the city and established the bank S M von Rothschild. It is largely due to Salomon’s diplomatic skills that the Rothschild family were ennobled by the Austrian Emperor in 1822.
Rothschild business in Vienna included trade in the shipment and distribution of commodities, and investment in railways. Salomon funded the first major steam railway to be built in continental Europe when he was granted the concession to construct a railway linking Bochnia and Vienna (later known as the Kaiser-Ferdinands-Nordbahn) in 1832. In 1843, Salomon purchased the Witkowitz iron works in Moravia to provide the streel for his railways. It was through his promotion of railways that Salomon first became involved with salt, a precious commodity and an important raw material. Salomon invested in an early horse-drawn railway which, from 1825, transported salt from Gmunden in Upper Austria to Budweis (now in the Czech Republic). With the coming of steam in the 1830s, his interests extended to include a line which brought salt to Vienna from the salt mines of Wieliczka, Galicia in present day Poland. In the 1840s, Salomon established a saltworks in Burano, near Venice, with a view to supplying the whole of Lombardy.
Austria and Venice
The Venetian merchant explorer Marco Polo travelled the silk route between Venice and the East in the thirteenth century. Venetian merchants established links between the Mongol Empire, Persia, Armenia, the Caucasus, and Asia Minor. During the 18th century, the Republic of Venice became perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe. The Republic lost its independence when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Venice in 1797 during the First Coalition. Venice became Austrian territory when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797. The Austrians took control of the city in 1798; however Venice was taken from Austria by the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 and became part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy, before being returned to Austria following Napoleon's defeat in 1814, when it became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. In 1848 the Austrians were driven from Milan and Venice. In 1866, after the Third Italian War of Independence, Venice became part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
Trade in salt
Venice is situated across a group of 117 small islands located in the shallow Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay that lies between the mouths of the Po and the Piave Rivers. Salt production was established in the lagoon during the Roman period, and was historically a very profitable business, and salt was one of the major goods used for bartering and trade with the mainland. Early salt production was carried out by the Benedictine monasteries scattered around the lagoon area. Venice's control over the production and sale of this "white gold" gradually extended across the Adriatic and the Mediterranean (including the Puglia coastline, Sicily and Sardinia, Crete and Cyprus), and its salt monopoly and trade was the early basis for Venice’s commercial success. In the 1840s, the site chosen for the Rothschild saltworks was an island then known as Motta di San Felice, near the Adriatic in the Marshes, the site of an ancient monastery. In 1844, the island, abandoned for centuries, was chosen by the French expert and entrepreneur Charles Astruc as the site of a large factory for the production of sea salt. The major works were completed by 1857 and during the work, the foundations of the old monastery were excavated. Salt production on the island ceased in 1913, and the island was largely abandoned. This large map shows the extent of the saltworks, c.1860.