Book Review: The Venetians
by Paul Strathern
Pegasus Books, 2013
Readers of Paul Strathern’s energetic but frustrating 2008 book Napoleon in Egypt might be dismayed by the line from Strathern’s prologue to his new book The Venetians that declares, “We have much to learn from the historical parade of varied characters who so reflected Venice’s rise and long, long decline.” It might seem an invitation to further frustration. What much, they might rightly ask, do we have to learn from Strathern’s characters, figures such as Petrarch or Vivaldi or Marco Polo or Galileo, as they play out their lives against the backdrop of the Serene Republic’s thousand-year history? That such republics feature good and bad men? That genius can flourish even in the midden heap of commerce and distraction? That people do things with their days?
Fortunately, sane people seldom feel much compunction about ignoring prologues, and beyond this one’s thin banalities, there are dozens and dozens of first-rate stories told with Strathern’s signature brio. There are dramatic re-animations of those headliners and others – he’s delightfully entertaining not only on Titian and Casanova but even on the Sultan Mehmet II, who never rode a gondola in his life – and the broader history of Venice is draped rather gracefully over the tent-poles of the famous and infamous. Strathern hits all the usual narrative notes, here writing about the city state’s vast commercial spider-web, there leading things up to the Battle of Lepanto. Naturally the Black Death, brought back to Venice by the very merchant fleet that was her life’s blood, gets plenty of attention – and provokes our author’s tendency for fervent blather:
The first recorded death from plague in Venice occurred on 25 January 1348. The putrid waterways provided and ideal breeding ground for the black rats, which quickly spread. By the coming of the heat and stink of spring, officially designated barges had begun plying the canals crying out for ‘Corpi morti (dead bodies). Corpses were transported to be buried on remote islands of the lagoon. Soon there were so many that they were simply tossed ashore to rot. By the height of summer it has been estimated that there were 600 people dying each day. The streets were littered with suppurating bodies, the canals bobbed with bloated corpses; the stench was almost unendurable. Commercial activity, and even the city’s renowned bureaucracy, had come to a virtual standstill.
If you can squint your way past barges calling things out and canals bobbing, that’s good stump-speech stuff, far more vivid than usually shows up in narrative histories of the Queen of the Adriatic. Strathern works to understand the mind of Venice, the roots of its glorious peculiarities, and one happy result of this work is that his book is studded with well-phrased points. “In Venice all citizens lived cheek-by-jowl, its population being the most concentrate and urbanised in Europe,” he writes at one point, for instance, “As a result, no class of citizen was to be spared the scourge of this pandemic.”
But the book’s most entertaining chapter, “Father and Son,” leaves aside showboaters like Casanova and delves very interestingly into the long premiership of Doge Francesco Foscari, a remarkable, polarizing autocrat who became doge in 1423 and held onto power for an unprecedented thirty years. Strathern risks inducing giggles when he writes, with almost charming naivete, that Foscari was “the first doge to have secured his election by deception and widespread bribery,” but he’s right back on his firmest ground when describing the wedding festivities of Foscari’s son Jacopo to Lucrezia Contarini:
All this took place in the middle of the long war with Milan – hence the marriage and its celebrations were held in January and early February, during the winter lull in the campaigning season. And despite the city’s near-bankruptcy, all the indications are that these celebrations were popular. They were certainly well attended: 30,000 spectators at a jousting competition represented almost one-third of the city’s entire population, and that on a chilly winter’s afternoon. Indeed, the daytime temperature is unlikely to have risen much above 45F (7C), while it may well have fallen below freezing at night; and contemporary sources mention some events being postponed because of heavy rain. Yet the Venetian poor and artisan classes would for the most part have delighted in such a prolonged holiday of free entertainments, with tables of free food and wine customarily laid out in front of the major palazzi … This was a matter of patriotism: no other city in Italy, or even Europe, could have stage such a display at this time.
Of course the end of Strathern’s story is an intensely sad one: Napoleon’s thuggish troops marching through the prostrate city, the heirs of the proudest, most free oligarchy’s leadership being forced at bayonet-point to cavort around the roaring flames of their own auto-da-fe, the wreck of the best experiment in government that the world had yet seen. Mercifully, Strathern rings down this curtain fast enough so that the most vivid memories his readers will take away will be those of the republic’s long gaudy and tawdry carnival of getting on. In his prologue (that thing again!), Strathern dutifully invokes that brigadier of Venetian historical studies, John Julius Norwich – but in his The Venetians, he’s produced something far more quicksilver than anything Norwich wrote on the subject – a quicksilver, flashing poinard of a book. A very Venetian book.