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Book Review: City of Fortune

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas

By Roger Crowley

Random House, 2012

Tourists and rhapsodists of the present era, fresh from the candy-colored fairy-turreted fantasy confection Venice seems to visiting eyes, will scarcely recognize the squat, resolute place by the same name in Roger Crowley’s completely captivating new history, City of Fortune. For the five centuries during which it first conquered and then ruled the merchant maritime world, the city had no inclination to etoliate into an abstraction. As Crowley puts it:

No splendid palazzi flanked the great S bend of the Grand Canal. The city of wonder, flamboyance, and sin, of carnival masks and public spectacle lay centuries ahead. Instead, low wooden houses, wharves, and warehouses fronted the water.

It was a squat, squinting, scurrying place, full of hard men intent on making their fortunes, men whose lined faces had been leathered under far distant suns. A hard and mercantile place, ruled by coin, trafficking in everything from wood and wool to slaves, a city so utterly dependent on the sea that at times it seemed like sea-born mirage itself.

The contrast is a jarring one, and Crowley invites that. His history concentrates on middle third of Venice’s very long life, the golden heyday stretching approximately from AD 1000 to 1500 – after the city’s rough-hewn beginnings as a collection of islands fitfully populated by the dregs of ten other lands, and before the city’s long and heartbreaking decline into novelty. From 1000 to 1500, Venice was a world power of virtually unequalled reach and renown – its ambassadors were in every court, its merchants were in every port, and its network of commerce became a life-sustaining web of a size and complexity the world hadn’t seen since Carthage. Crowley stresses that all such power sprang from vulnerability:

Like Rome, the growing metropolises depended on the import of food by sea. Genoa and Venice were now poised to dominate its provision. Venice, the landless city, which had always lived solely on import, had an unsurpassed understanding of food supply. It was as dense as any city on earth; by 1300 almost all available land had been built on; the islands had all been linked by bridges. Hunger, like the threat of the sea, was a constant.

It was a long heyday, thickly filled with larger-than-life Venetian doges, senators, warriors, and merchant sailors, and Crowley’s readers will delight in his discretion as much as anything else: he picks just the right stories and balances everything perfectly. For a book of only 400 pages, City of Fortune is crammed full of fascinating personal and political details. Venice’s often bizarrely eccentric internal politics are touched on many times, and Crowley has a keen ear for mood-lightening asides like the one on saints’ relics scattered throughout the city. “So plentiful was this collection of human fragments,” he tells us, “that the Venetians became hazy about what they had: the head of Saint George was retrieved from a cupboard in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore by the American scholar Kenneth Setton in 1971.”

But the bigger story here is tragic, not comic: even as we’re seeing Venice in the muscular splendor of its pinnacle, we know an ending is coming. When Crowley’s narrative reaches the year 1372, his dramatist’s flair doesn’t desert him:

The trigger was ominously familiar; the presence of rival merchants in a foreign port, then an exchange of words, a scuffle, a brawl, finally a massacre. The difference lay in the outcome – where previous wars had ended in uneasy truce, the resulting contest was fought to the finish. In the last quarter of the fourteenth century, both sides went for the jugular. The War of Chioggia, as it is known to history, brought together all the choke points of commercial rivalry – the shores of the Levant, the Black Sea, the coasts of Greece, the troubled waterways of the Bosporus – but it was decided within the Venetian lagoon.

Crowley’s war-narration is every bit as deft as his business-narration, and by the time his story progresses to the Renaissance, he’s getting plenty of opportunity to exercise it. Rival after rival begins contending with Venice for trade routes and pivotal ports of call, culminating in the mid-15th Century when the sultan Mehmet II declares war on Venice and begins a protracted process of strangulation that would eventually bring about the city’s near destruction in a war between the Venetians and the Ottomans that brought the fighting right to the doorstep of a starkly vulnerable republic:

The Ottomans kept drawing nearer. In 1477, freelance Ottoman cavalry entered the plains of Friuli, plundering and killing, burning houses, woods, crops, and farms. Captives were carried back to the sultan [Mehmet]. In Venice these strikes induced terror. From the top of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, the Venetians could see a line of flame marching across the landscape just thirty miles beyond their lagoon.

Readers of John Julius Norwich’s 1982 history of Venice will find many familiar faces and stories in Crowley’s book, but the colors are brighter here, and the flow of the drama is even more deftly controlled. In true merchantmen fashion, the Venetians were compulsive record-keepers, and the annals of their city are inexhaustible. When Crowley writes that “the sensuous exuberance of the Rialto hit outsiders like a physical shock,” he touches on the key note that unites past and present Venice: that opening-up amplitude in all things, as though to compensate for a strictly circumscribed geography. How nice it would be, if Crowley delved into that trove of records again and gave us even more of Venice’s fascinating history. There are certainly more stories to tell, and he’s got the knack.

 

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