Roger Crowley’s new book, “City of Fortune – How Venice Ruled the Seas” (Random House, New York, 2011, 432pp.), is a stunning narrative history of Venice’s Empire, the Stato da Mar, Territory of the Sea.
His history of this incredible place looks outward to and across the sea, as did Venice, the place of those who fled and turned their back on the land to chart a new history. “City of Fortune” charts it across along each of the four “compass points of Venetian life”, “Departure, Risk, Profit, Glory” from humble and desperate trading beginnings in 1000 to a humbling and desperate ending of trade domination — and a lot more — by 1503.
He saves us from the Republic’s following two hundred years of slow and decadent self-denial and decline in this book, but I would encourage such a venture in his inimitable style to enlighten readers with a “no holds barred” completion of this singular saga.
Of course, there are too many parallels to other nations that have risen and declined, including perhaps some around today, that May make us too uncomfortable.
Crowley has subdivided a millennium and a half into three overarching historical eras, 1000-1204 building the story of “Opportunity: Merchant Crusaders”, 1204-1500 reaching zenith through “Ascent: Princes of the Sea”, and 1400-1503 descending into “Eclipse: The Rising Moon”. The narrative is accompanied throughout by excellent contemporaneous quotations, meticulously cited, and an extensive Bibliography of the source materials utilized in its development.
This book is a milestone achievement in the crafting of a comprehensible, non-pedantic understanding of how a now almost physically invisible Empire came to be, bracketed by the powers, skills and virtues that nurtured it, and…
The powers, ennui and vices that destroyed it.
As Roger Crowley observes, Venice was the first “virtual city”, the only Italian city not Roman in origin, founded within creation myths seemingly as nebulous as the fog on the Lagoon, then constructed upon the labor, enterprise, profit, loot and blood of its people, its dominions and its implacable enemies. No jewels, gold, spices, timber or stone was produced in Venice, only imported, transformed and claimed as its own. Its Saints were, for most of its history, Levantine and Greek, their bodies or remnants thereof, gifted, purchased or purloined from the previous owners.
Its greatest victories, expansions and enrichments came via several Crusades, but Crusades that were hijacked and diverted from reclamation of the Holy Land to the savage destruction of other Christian cities and nations, particularly the remnant of the mighty Roman Empire in Byzantium. Ironically, its greatest defeats came also through its imports – of, plague and covetous rivals eager for its demise. The Venice you see today is not only of another time, but…
A Venice of many other places.
Beware Your Friends
The story of the siege and investiture of Constantinople solely for riches and power may be the foremost demonstration of betrayal, murder, rape, pillage, plunder, enslavement and devastation in the name of avarice and greed in world history – by far. Constantinople was a city of wealth, art, history and elegance that put Venice to shame, and Venice resented it. For much of Venice’s centuries of rise, Constantinople was in a long decline most likely as a result of simply being worn out by its gross – even morbid – obesity of wealth and privilege.
The more youthful, ambitious and cunning vice of its offspring Venice, along with other warring, murderous “trading states” and their allies that gutted out their friend Byzantium, brought it to morbidity in preparation for its final destruction and possession by the foes of all its European coveters.
“I call the things to keep them with me to the last” G. Celati
Many are familiar with names for places still existing today that ring of wealth and adventure in Venetian times: Constantinople, Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, Alexandria, Beirut, Corfu and Trebizond, for example. Some were the locations of trading enclaves for hundreds of years, some – like Crete – were “owned” by Venice for 500 years. Other places, names that were dear to and legendary for Venice, have been changed by later waves of conquerors with their own languages, or returned to familiarity for those whose land the Venetians had invested a toe-hod, or have faded from memories and maps. Tana, Kaffa, Modon and Coron (The “Eyes of Venice”), Lepanto, Negroponte, Rovigno and Ragusa to name a few. Roger Crowley brings us knowledge of each, from gain to loss including those who oversaw both, and opens our minds to a more inquisitive examination of the City of Venice itself when invested with that knowledge.
A Purposeful and Creative Collage
As we look at all of those riches embossed into the fabric of the City of Venice today — that we think are Venice’s — and see them anew in the light of how they came to be there across the bravery, cowardice, carnage and grace of so many centuries because of “How Venice Ruled the Seas”, our awe and wonder must now always be tempered by how “virtual” an assemblage — a very purposeful and creative collage — La Serenissima ever really was throughout its history.
Very Small Place, Very Large Ambition
Venice was a place run by never more than a few hundred entitled merchant families, with usually no more than 100,000 to 150,000 people, yet still the largest City in Europe for many of the centuries of empire. The populace was usually much smaller due to colonial adventures, many of which were punctuated by the wholesale slaughter of the Venetian colonists abroad by even more bloodthirsty enemies. Whole Seas were subdued except for ever-present pirates, and nations placed in economic servitude — although many held their belief that Venice was the one in servitude to them. The City sustained massive losses in warfare, and the unspeakable horrors of repeated plagues that decimated its population by 33% to 75% per occurence and eliminated scores of families in toto within a fortnight.
The glory that was – that is – Venice remains, the physical City that is the creation of that Stato da Mar and not of the later, substitute land empire that was created when the sea and the lands bordering it became the ally of others. Venice remains a very, very small place, one that can be walked from end to end or side to side in an hour.
That is all of it.
The Paradox of Virtual Reality
Evidence of its existence across the far reaches of the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas through its armed merchant empire is – and always was – limited to a few jewels and scattered ruins hugging the rugged shores. Crowley is right. This beautiful and enigmatic place is, paradoxically, La Serenissima with never-ending rivers of blood on its hands. It was and is still today the first “Virtual City”, possessor of and possessed by an ephemeral empire..
All and always at the mercy of the Sea.
I highly recommend “City of Fortune: How Venice Rules the Seas”, not just for lovers of Venice but for all interested in gaining a better understanding of how the geo-political world we inhabit today came to be. That is an essential education. As you absorb it, think of its people, its leaders, and consider that,
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.” T.E. Lawrence