Trade became very important during the Renaissance because Italy had few natural resources. During this time period there was a great demand for products that were not produced in Italy or were produced in insufficient quantities. The most important commodity at this time was grain, and there were always grain shortages. The shortages often resulted in famine. Grain was widely grown, but it was in short supply because of repeated crop failure and the demand created by the heavily populated cities. These cities often needed more grain than could be produced by local farmers. Before long, the constant shortages forced Italy to develop long distance trade. Unfortunately, it took up to a year to transport grain from eastern to western Europe.
Spurred on by the enormous demand, the Italians were forced to go as far away as Scandinavia for grain. The Scandinavian (Baltic region) grain was controlled by the Hanseatic(Hansa) League, which was an organization of trade cities in northern Europe. The Hansa also had control of all of the agricultural fields of Germany and Poland. In addition to grain the Italians acquired lumber, honey, furs, and iron from the Hansa. In return, the Hansa imported ships loaded with the finest of Italian textiles. At this time the textile manufacturing centers were in Flanders and northern Italy. Cotton that were needed by these centers were supplied by England, Ireland, and Spain.
From the 10th century onward, Mediterranean Sea trade was controlled by merchants in Genoa and Venice. These merchants transported goods from Asia by way of overland routes that led directly to Byzantine ports. After arriving in Byzantium, the goods were sent by ship to Italy and other countries. As time passed the Venetian merchants took control of the Byzantine ports militarily. Soon afterward, these merchants made a fortune by importing spices, silk, and other luxury items.
The Ottoman Empire controlled the trade routes to Asia, and they insisted in collecting taxes from each passing caravan. Great expenses, steep taxes, and the constant fear of bandits fueled the demand for a sea route to Asia. In 1492, Christopher Columbus, was in search of shorter trade routes when he discovered America. Then just six years later, world trade broadened even further when Vasco de Gama reached India. These two discoveries gave the ports on the Atlantic Ocean a huge advantage over the Italians.
From the Americas, Europe imported Native American slaves, potatoes, sugar, tomatoes, corn, tobacco, and chocolate. Europe also imported huge amounts of gold and silver from the Americas. These enormous amounts of gold and silver were squandered by Spain on numerous futile wars. This constant pumping of precious metals fueled inflation across Europe. As a result prices soared in Renaissance France and Italy.
During the 16th century Renaissance trade expanded to every corner of the world. At this time Venice had an enormous merchant fleet that supplied all of Europe with items from Asia and the Middle East. Venice also became a huge manufacturing center. Among other things, they made fine silk textiles and glass. They also became the largest ship manufacturing center in the world. Their enormous shipyard was called Arsenale. Arsenale was where ships were both repaired and constructed. More than 16,000 men worked here.