City of Fortune

The only Italian city not in existence in Roman times? Anybody?

Those of you who follow my Instagram feed (a real multitude) will have of course no difficulty in guessing the answer…


Or at least so says the British historian, Roger Crowley in his highly entertaining book titled City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire.

The only Italian city not in existence in Roman times, its inhabitants had created their own antiquity out of theft and borrowings; they manufactured their foundation myths and stole their saints from the Greek world.
It was, in a sense, the first virtual city: an offshore bonded warehouse with no visible means of support – almost shockingly modern.

This paragraph occurs towards the end of the book, a sort of summary of what the reader learned about Venice in the previous 350 pages. The comment about the Venetians creating their antiquity “out of theft” struck me as particularly appropriate after I had taken a surreptitious photo of the four horses of Constantinople on the loggia of St Mark’s Basilica last week. The very basilica of St Mark’s itself, with its Byzantine icons and gold mosaics strikes one as a Byzantine church rather than an Italian one.

The Venetians get a bad name historically for the way they so ruthlessly focused on their trade, to the exclusion of every other consideration; and Crowley’s book is unlikely to shake anybody’s prejudices about Venetian double-dealing, repeated betrayals of Christendom and stony-faced indifference to the plight of others. This is not to say that the book is prejudiced against Venetians; not at all. The Venetian psyche, formed by their utter dependence on the sea and trade for their very survival, is explained very clearly and ultimately, these merchants of the Levant come across as… well, as hard-working, patriotic and, dare I say it, quite likeable people.

More or less.

The history of Venice as written by Crowley is truly fascinating. And it reads well, always a plus when reading non-fiction. Crowley doesn’t share Ernle Bradford’s wide-eyed, boyish enthusiasm for heroes but there are plenty of stirring tales of derring-do nevertheless. What I liked best about the book was how Crowley chose, infallibly, to quote eye-witness accounts by gifted story-tellers. From Petrach to the French crusader Villehardouin and the Byzantine nobleman, Nicetas Choniates who lived through the sack of Constantinople… from the pilgrim Felix Fabri to war galley captain Domenico Malipiero, these men’s words captivate you so that you go on straight to the bibliography at the end of the book and start tracking down their original chronicles. I have long ago learned to disregard the recommendations on the back cover of books – there seems to be always a newspaper review or some famous name to recommend the s***tiest book in glowing terms. But on the back of my paperback edition the blurb reads:

Drawing on first-hand accounts of crusaders, sea captains and merchants, as well as the state records, renowned historian Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune is a rich narrative about commerce and empire, seafaring and piracy, which ranges across the Mediterranean from the Adriatic to Alexandria, from Crete to Constantinople and the Black Sea.

Spot on.

This book is not the entire story of Venice, the city, from its earliest beginnings to the end of the Venetian Republic; it concerns only the years from 1000 to 1500 – the years, like the subtitle says, of their building and then losing a naval empire. But these are the years in which Venice, the Serenissima Repubblica, the city of traders and the ruler of the Eastern Mediterranean, in short Venice as we came to understand it, was formed. It’s about their trading ventures and their endless fight for supremacy against the rivalling Genoese. It’s about the Turkish advance into the Mediterranean and the Venetian response to this advance.

The lion of Venice above the gates of the Arsenal
The lion of Venice above the gates of the Arsenal

The tragedy of Venice was that after they betrayed the crusading spirit for the sake of a missing down-payment and were instrumental in letting the Turks into Europe, after they spent centuries dilly-dallying with the people of the Prophet Muhammad and in defiance of the Pope in pursuit of profit, after they stood idly by while Greeks, Hungarians, Serbs and others fought the Turks attempting in vain to halt their progress through the Balkans… in the end, when the Turks turned against their own highly prized colonies of Negroponte, Candia and Lepanto, the Venetians were left to fight their battles alone. When Venice finally understood its danger, Europe remained deaf to all their warnings and all their requests for help were ignored. The power of Venice was a naval power, like that of the British Empire in the centuries that followed; and could only be maintained by a string of fortresses built at strategic locations to provide shelter and supplies to merchant shipping and war galleys alike. To this day you can see what’s left of the impressive fortifications and lighthouses the Venetians built all over the Aegean Sea, with the winged lion of Venice set into the walls and above gateways. These fortresses were meant to be able to defend themselves against the Turks long enough until a naval relief force could be sent. And despite some heroic acts of defence, Venice ultimately lost – like everybody else did in those first blood-soaked centuries of the Turkish wars.

I wrote last Sunday that if you ever go to Venice, don’t begrudge the five euros for going up to the loggia of the Basilica di San Marco. I will now add: if you ever go to Venice, read this book first. You will understand, if not condone, how and why the more than ninety-year-old blind Doge Enrico Dandolo turned the crusader army against the city of Zara and to the destruction of Constantinople. You’ll see the sailors clamouring for the release of Admiral Pisani on the Molo, hammering on the doors of the Doge’s Palace. You’ll remember the furious sweep of the plague through the town and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, of Saint Mary of Health, the newest of the so called plague-churches with its still continuing yearly procession, will be more than a pretty addition to the Venetian skyline. Those amazing palazzos on the Grand Canal… the Bridge of Sighs… the Rialto and the Arsenal, gilded with history, which remain just stones for many of those tourists who seek the thrill of Venice in a half-hour, eighty-euro gondola ride, will be real places thronging with people whose lives and passions make sense.

Landfall brought all the vicissitudes of life. People returned with gold, spices, plague and grief. Failed admirals came clanking in chains, triumphant ones with trumpets and cannon fire, trailing captured banners in the sea, the gonfalon of St Mark streaming in the wind. Ordelafo Falier stepped down the gangplank with the bones of St Stephen. Pisani’s body came packed in salt. Antonio Grimani survived the disgrace of Zonchio and became a doge; so did Gritti, the spy. Marco Polo, wild-eyed and anonymous, burst through the door of his house like Ulysses returned – and no one recognised him. Felix Fabri came on the spice fleet of 1480 with the weather so cold that the oars had to break the ice in the canals. He arrived in the dark, just after Christmas. The night was clear and bright; from the deck the snowy tops of the Dolomites glimmered under a large moon. No one could sleep. As dawn rose, the passengers could see the golden roof of the campanile glinting in the sun, topped by the angel Gabriel welcoming them home. All the bells of Venice were ringing for the fleet’s return…


Comment is free...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s