CultureWatch Reviews: City of Fortune
Reviewed by Julia Sneden
CITY OF FORTUNE
How Venice Ruled the Seas
by Roger Crowley, ©2011
Published by Random House Inc., New York; 464 pp
Anyone who is interested in the history of the Mediterranean will find this book, with its detailed recounting of the political, economic, and religious power struggles during a period of about five hundred years (c. 1000 AD to the 1500’s), quite fascinating. So will anyone who has ever fallen in love with Venice, and has wondered about the history of that amazing, improbable city.
Roger Crowley describes its people as “… carriers and suppliers of other men’s needs.” Early on, he says, “[it] was a city grown hydroponically, conjured out of marsh, existing perilously on oak palings sunk in mud ... Beyond the mullet and eels of the lagoon, and its salt pans, it produced nothing — no wheat, no timber, little meat … its sole skills were navigation and the carrying of goods. The quality of its ships was critical.”
“… Without land, there could be no feudal system, no clear division between knight and serf. Without agriculture, money was its barter. Its nobles would be merchant princes who could command a fleet and calculate profit to the nearest grosso.”
After a brief introduction, Crowley begins his history by clumping his chapters into three overlapping time periods:
“Opportunity: Merchant Crusaders, 1000-1204”; “Ascent: Princes of the Sea, 1200-1500”; “Eclipse: the Rising Moor, 1400-1503”
Each section has many chapters explaining the main events of the period. By the time period of the first section (the years 1000 to 1104 AD), Venice was already well-established as an accomplished trader and purveyor of supplies that linked the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant with countries to the west. “It lived,” as Crowley says, “between two worlds: the land and the sea, the East and the West, yet belonging to neither.” It dealt with the Byzantine Empire and the Christian world, as well as with Muslim traders in Syria. Various Popes excommunicated the entire city from time to time, for defying the various mandates of the Catholic Church which included constraints on trading with non-Christian peoples.
By the 900’s AD, Venice was trading in anything of interest to the peoples of the Mediterranean, things like grain from the countries along the Black Sea or the Dalmatian coast; spices brought overland from the Orient; the rare purple cloth made in Syria; foodstuffs like lemons and oranges and sugar cane from the Levant; silks from Tripoli; and even rhubarb from the banks of the Volga. In turn, it traded out items like timber from Europe, furs from northern Europe and Russia, as well as slaves.
Unlike most of its feudal contemporaries, Venice was a republic, headed by a doge (duke) who was apparently elected or chosen by successive lotteries within the City Council.
The driving ethic of Venice was essentially just to make a profit, “without fear or favor,” and this purpose remained steady throughout the five hundred years covered by Crowley’s book.
Painting: 1730: Canaletto (II) La storia del Bucintoro: Bucintoro del 1727 [The History of the Bucentaur: The Bucentaur of 1727]; Wikipedia
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