enrico coverOur book today is another recent Brattle find: Enrico Dandolo & The Rise of Venice, a 2003 study of medieval Venice (and its most remarkable citizen, whose life spanned almost the whole of the twelfth century) by Thomas Madden, who has a wonderful way of scraping away the romantic veneer of post-Renaissance Venice and showing his readers the decidedly less glamorous city two centuries before:

In the eleventh century Venic was a different place. Dirt and mud abounded. A boat ride down the Grand Canal was anything but spectacular. Venice’s central waterway was flancked, not by gowering palazzi, but by piers buzzing with workers loading and unloading merchant vessels, wooden buildings ranging from large warehouses to tiny hovels, and, most of all, land. Yes, open areas were still plentiful in Venice. A traveler on the Grand Canal could watch farmers cultivating vegetables, fishermen netting their catch in closed-off rivers, and men and women tending vines and inspecting their grapes. Many Venetians also scratched out a living in the lagoon’s plentiful saltworks. The city’s landscape was dotted with marshes crossed by tributaries flowing out of the Grand Canal. On the banks of the canal, where one day masterpieces of architecture would stand, cows grazed and pigs ate at the trough.

Madden chronicles the contentious international relations of the time and the rise of powerful new mercantile families like the Dandolo clan. There are plenty of drawn daggers between these clans (perhaps inevitably, Madden has written a particularly violent book), but the main villains of the piece are the marauding Normans muscling in on Venetian trade routes and land bases. “The Normans were wild and warlike,” Madden writes, adding wryly, “in other words, bad for business.”

In 1147, when the Normans invaded the Adriatic and conquered the Byzantine island of Corfu, threatening those trade routes, the Venetian patriarch (of the Polani family) announced Venetian participation in a naval war to repel the Normans, but the Dandolo family objected – a puzzling step Madden duly interrogates:

Although in keeping with reform thought, Dandolo’s decision to oppose the alliance with Byzantium is an odd one, suggesting that he and his supporters had become overly zelous in their goals. Having already captured Thessalonica, the Normans were gunning for Constantinople itself. It was in everyone’s interest, both in Venice and in Rome, to stop them. Control of Corfu already gave the Normans an opportunity to close off the Adriatic Sea, thus strangling Venice’s access to eastern markets. Few Venetians could accept such a state of affairs, least of all the Dandolo, who derived much of their wealth from trade.

At the heart of all these dangers and intrigues is Enrico Dandolo himself, old as the hills and sharp as a tack despite many personal tragedies and the loss of his eyesight. In most histories of the Fourth Crusade, Dandolo is an arch, almost cartoonish planner, a figure trusted by nobody. Madden has to deal with this figurelucy reads about enrico dandolo before he can develop his much more complex and nuanced picture:

A word should be said at the outset about the character of the doge. A great many accounts of the crusade rely heavily on the harsh words of Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine senator who never met Enrico Dandolo. To this is added the shopworn stereotype of “Venetians first; Christians afterward.” The result is a rather grotesque caricature of the doge, based on little knowledge of the man or his world, which is then pressed into service to explain the outcome of the crusade. Dandolo in these accounts is portrayed as a conniving and clever trickster who beguiled the naïve northerners into a web of confusion so as to pervert their pious crusade into a war of Venetian profit and revenge. He kept his designs secret, mulling them over in the dark recesses of his black heart, where they apparently can be discerned only by the sharp eyes of contemporaries who never met him and by various modern historians.

“Needless to say,” he writes, “this colorful character will not receive another airing here.”

It’s the groundwork to the more famous Renaissance Venice that’s being laid in these fascinating pages. I read the book in one eager gulp, and I still scratch my head a bit that I missed it when it originally appeared. But catching omissions like that is part of what Stevereads does, so here it is at last!

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