January 31, 2012

A modern look at medieval Venice

By Roger Crowley
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We moderns often view the past through the warm mists of over-idealization or the dark clouds of easy condemnation. The past is either impossibly great or astonishingly primitive. In either case it is hard for us to recognize it as human experience, as complicated and as bafflingly rational and irrational as our own.

One of the outstanding virtues of City of Fortune, Roger Crowley’s wonderful new history of 500 years (1000 AD to 1500 AD) of Venice’s rise and decline as a commercial, seafaring empire, is that he sees Venice as “almost shockingly modern.” He writes vividly about Venice’s remarkably sophisticated management and trading systems and their skillful diplomacy in an era when the Venetian republic struggled—often violently—against economic competitors like the Byzantine Empire, the Genoese and the Ottoman Empire to control and profit from worldwide trade, especially trade with China and India.

Venice was a city of the water, rather than the land. It was, Crowley writes beautifully, “a city grown hydroponically, conjured out of marsh.” As such, it organized itself communally, with a modern, rather than feudal, desire to dominate international commerce. And that commercial instinct made it an open society, very willing to bend or evade the religious proscriptions of the Pope and to deal with so-called infidels. Still, it was the Venetian willingness to underwrite Pope Innocent III’s Fourth Crusade that led to its early dominance, fascinatingly detailed in the opening section of City of Fortune. But Venice’s economic interests unhappily shifted the focus of the Fourth Crusade from conquering the Islamic-controlled Holy Lands to extracting concessions from the Christian Eastern Orthodox empire headquartered in Constantinople. As Crowley writes, “the sack of Constantinople burned a hole in Christian history; it was the scandal of the age and Venice was held deeply complicit in the act.”

That, of course, is only the beginning of the story of Venice’s remarkable rise, triumph and downfall. But in that early victory Crowley sees the seeds of the republic’s tragic demise: Venice’s subjugation of Constantinople opened space for the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would eventually rein in—sometimes brutally—Venice’s commercial empire.

And, as Crowley, who also wrote the New York Times bestseller Empire of the Sea, points out near the end of City of Fortune, there were other contributing factors at work. Portugal’s success in sending ships around the Horn of Africa to Kolkata, for example, was a paradigm shift in international trade that undermined Venice’s position in the inland Mediterranean and Black Seas.

The “lessons of history” are often not as obvious as we would hope. But Roger Crowley’s vivid City of Fortune offers a contemporary reader a compelling narrative and many lessons to think about.

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City of Fortune

City of Fortune

By Roger Crowley
Random House
ISBN 9781400068203

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