The Reign of Venice
By NIGEL CLIFF
Published: January 27, 2012
Medieval travelers were overwhelmed by Venice’s affluence — the sacks of spices! the bales of brocades! — and driven to distraction by its seeming paradoxes. The city was surrounded by sand and mud, yet its markets dazzled with variety. Since there was no land to speak of, it had no feudal system, yet its councils handed down orders like holy writ. Its people reveled in their republican freedom, yet bowed undemurringly to the collective good. Even the physical city defied logic: a wooden settlement perched on piles in a swampy lagoon had turned into the densest urban area in Europe, its brick bell towers jostling for airspace, its stone palaces squatting on reclaimed land.
CITY OF FORTUNE
How Venice Ruled the Seas
By Roger Crowley
Illustrated. 464 pp. Random House. $32.
Travel Guide: Venice
How, the rubberneckers wondered, to make sense of it all? The answer, as Roger Crowley persuasively recounts in “City of Fortune,” lay in the Venetians’ remorseless determination to build and enforce a monopoly over their maritime trade routes, at any cost.
The cost to Venice, in lives lost and reputations ruined, was high. The republic fought hard for its ascendancy, not least during an intermittent 150-year war with Genoa, its rival in ambition and seamanship across the Italian peninsula. Galley oarsmen, confined and sometimes chained to their benches, died of frostbite during winter skirmishes of cat-and-mouse with enemy fleets. Defeated commanders were slung in jail, exiled or beheaded in St. Mark’s Square. Venetian justice, if brutal, was at least consistent.
Those who stood in the way of Venice’s pursuit of profit paid a greater price. In 1201, the republic contracted to ferry 33,000 crusaders to Jerusalem, which Saladin had retaken for Islam 14 years earlier. When just 12,000 showed up and Venice’s merchants faced imminent ruin, they diverted the army to Constantinople, the Christian capital of the Byzantine Empire. The desperate scenes that followed — half the city in flames, nuns raped in their convents, a prostitute cavorting on the patriarch’s throne — were the low point of the entire Crusades.
Venetians were always fair-weather Christians; successive popes excommunicated the city en masse. It was naturally drawn to the East, where Arab traders provided the luxury goods on which its prosperity rested. The humbling of Constantinople would open the doors to the Ottomans, who would humble Venice in turn until Vasco da Gama’s discovery of an oceangoing route to India left both powers becalmed in the same boat. In the interim, Venice commandeered the Byzantines’ best sea bases, built a maritime empire around them and fought, intrigued and bullied its way to dominance of the eastern Mediterranean.
Crowley, the British author of two previous books about epic conflicts between Muslims and Christians, has a fine eye for a set piece. He writes with a racy briskness that lifts sea battles and sieges off the page, so much so that at times his sentences seem in danger of bursting their seams. In between, despite occasional slips — a misplaced sultan, a reference to Columbus’s impact on world events before the fact — he gives judicious, detailed accounts of Venice’s legal system and colonial policies, pepped up with grisly tales of enemies hacked, impaled or roasted alive.
The grand story is enlivened by a wealth of well-chosen quotations and by Crowley’s evident ambivalence toward his subjects. He admires the corporate spirit that led women, servants and priests to become small-time traders, but he cannot quite bring himself to see merchants as heroes. Venice, he writes, was a “joint-stock company” run by unromantic opportunists for a “frighteningly consistent” purpose: the ruthless pursuit of material gain. He is happier returning to the sea, its heroes and privations, and a scrappy, tight-knit “republic of wood, iron, rope, sails, rudders and oars.”