Such is the beauty of Venice and the mystique of its glorious past that it is easy to forget the sheer illogicality of the place. There are good reasons why Venice is the only one of today’s great Italian cities not in existence in Roman times. The Romans liked to build on pre-existing settlements but, on the alluvial islets of the Po delta, there were none.
The first Venetians were refugees from the rampages of Attila the Hun in the mid-sixth century and they chose a site with its feet in the sea. It may have been defensively secure but it had hardly any drinking water, no land holdings, no natural resources, no agriculture and it produced nothing. Like the camel, Venice is a creature designed by a committee and by rights it shouldn’t exist.
Of course, Venice has done more than simply exist. For some 500 years until the early 16th century this amphibious city-state was a global superpower. Squatting on its wooden pilings in its marshy north Italian lagoon, it could tally possessions that stretched from the home waters of the Adriatic across the Mediterranean into the Black Sea and beyond; its golden ducats were the international currency of the age; and the world’s goods were unloaded at the Rialto. Just how Venice achieved this unlikely dominance is the subject of Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune.
This book is an extension of Crowley’s previous histories of the fall of Constantinople and the 16th-century battle for the Mediterranean. Those works were notable for their lucidity and assurance and proved Crowley to be one of the best narrative historians currently writing. City of Fortune is of the same standard.
His explanation for Venice’s success is that it was not so much a state as a company. From the start, La Serenissima was a corporate enterprise: the lion of St Mark was its brand logo; its workplace was the sea; the doge was its chief executive; the 2,000 noble families registered in the Golden Book were its board members; the populace provided the shop-floor workers and all were shareholders. Citizens, however far-flung they might be, remained first and foremost Venetians, “flesh of our flesh, bones of our bones”.
The Venetians were proud of their separateness: as one 14th-century churchman put it: “They are a quintessence and will belong neither to the Church nor to the Emperor [in Constantinople], nor to the sea, nor to the land.” Profit and honour were the republic’s watchwords and it grew fabulously rich by making itself the entrepôt of the world.
Off to the east went Venice’s ships laden with Flanders wool, Baltic timber, Balkan slaves and German metals and back they came heavy with cotton, silk, spices and precious stones. The “marsh frogs”, as the Bishop of Salonica dismissively tagged them, would trade anything with anyone, even, much to the disgust of other Europeans, with the Muslim world.
The event that transformed Venice’s fortunes was at heart another bit of astute business, although it masqueraded as holy war. In 1201, Venice, under the sage and ambitious leadership of Doge Enrico Dandolo, agreed to transport the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade (4,500 knights, 20,000 foot troops plus horses and accoutrements) to the Holy Land to recapture Jerusalem. For its services it charged a fee of nearly 100,000 marks, the equivalent of the entire income of France. Partly to service this staggering debt, the crusade made first for the Orthodox Christian treasure city of Constantinople and in 1204 sacked it. It was “the scandal of the age” and the destruction visited on Christian by Christian was appalling; Crowley vividly describes berserk crusaders looting and burning as “buildings exploded, marble shattered, [and] iron bubbled and melted like water hissing on fire”.
Once the smoke had cleared, Venice claimed not just the four bronze horses that were taken home to grace the portico of the mother church, St Mark’s, but a string of ports and islands around the Aegean that, as refuelling stops and trading colonies, were to become the foundation of the republic’s future prosperity. The Venetians were not interested in swathes of land, says Crowley; they wanted places that controlled the sea and they “picked their plunder like connoisseurs”. Their new territorial possessions – Crete, Negroponte, Corfu and a share of Constantinople itself – formed its Stato da Mar or maritime empire.
Like any good company, Venice refined its business practices and built a peerless bureaucratic machine (the archives run to 45 miles of shelving) to ensure maximum profitability. The governors of its provinces, for example, were all from noble families and were elected involuntarily and punished if they refused to serve. Opposition in the form of local uprisings, such as those that erupted periodically in Crete, was bloodily suppressed. In 1416 a Venetian commander, Pietro Loredan, wrote matter-of-factly that he had captured a Greek rebel, already badly wounded: “I had the honour to hack him to pieces on my own poop deck.” Pirates might expect to be roped to an oar and roasted alive. Hostile takeover attempts were resisted with equal to-the-death determination.
Crowley is at his best with set-piece scenes such as the War of Chioggia (1378-1380), the culmination of a running conflict with the Genoese, when the enemy penetrated beyond the Lido itself; or the Battle of Zonchio in 1499, when a Venetian fleet suffered a “collective funk” and humiliated itself in the face of an Ottoman force. In the long aftermath, the Venetians had to watch as the sultan, Bayezid II, methodically rolled up the Stato da Mar outpost by outpost. Crowley’s accounts are spare but thrilling and he makes it clear that wherever Venetians sailed there was blood mixed with the sea water.
The rise and fall of Venice’s empire is an irresistible story and Crowley, with his rousing descriptive gifts and scholarly attention to detail, is its perfect chronicler. For centuries, he notes, the republic’s sailors returned home with “gold, spices, plague and grief” and in this compelling book, like a scrupulous Venetian merchant, he weighs out full measures of each.
Michael Prodger is the art critic for Standpoint magazine
City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire, by Roger Crowley, Faber, RRP£20, 405 pages