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.