Bookshot #174: City of Fortune

I have always been fascinated with Venice. Whether it was watching Indiana Jones and the Last

Crusade as a kid or losing myself in the Times Atlas of European History that haunted the bookcases of my parents, I've always been curious about the place. Watching history go by in that Atlas, it seemed that Venice was its own Republic for centuries. It had Crete, Cyprus, islands up and down the Aegean, and then, suddenly, it was gone, extinguished by Napoleon. What was the place? How did it work? There were Doges and an electoral college?

Happily, for me, Roget Crowley came along with City of Fortune and scratched that itch and then some.

Venice, as a concept, seems a bit ridiculous on the face of it. How did a city build, not on the shoreline of a swampy brackish lagoon, but on the lagoon itself- manage to survive, thrive and create a powerful empire that dominated European trade for a good stretch of time until was eventually swamped by the rising Ottoman Empire?

What impressed me most about this book was just how directly Crowley sets out to answer this question. There was a highly efficient bureaucracy that kept track of everything- those log books that the traders used helped Crowley paint a picture of just how efficient the Venetian state could be. Officials working for the state had strict boundaries they had to follow and not trusting them, the folks back home sent people out to investigate everything to ensure compliance with the rules they laid down.

It had its drawbacks though- it was a far-flung empire, held together by a string of carefully designed outposts and when one pin was pulled out, it ended up being very bad news for the rest of the Stato di Mare, as it was called. By the early 1500s, when Portugal made the first runs around the Cape of Good Hope to get to India and claim direct access to the spice markets, suddenly, Venice's monopoly on the spice trade was under threat and its entire business model had to be rethought- again- kind of a drawback if you're going all in on highly efficient but lucrative trade with the Islamic world when no other European/Christian power was at the time. 

But, that being said, I also appreciated the pragmatism that Crowley relates. Venice found itself on the wrong side of multiple Popes down the centuries and carefully (and sometimes pointedly) ignored restrictions on trading with the Islamic World because there was money to be made. And you see pragmatism repeat itself over and over again throughout the centuries. Many a city wanted the protection of Venice, but Venice was going to do what was good for Venice, which meant that some cities just didn't make the cut. When the Ottomans broke into Europe, Venice, even though it was very much on the back foot, played the diplomatic/spying/trading game while resorting to military engagement when it had to. Pragmatism, sometimes brutal amounts of it- they were shy about executing people who crossed them- was the order of the day in order to maximize everyone's profits.

And there were a great many profits over the centuries. 

If I'm going to ponder two 'what ifs' for Venice, I think it would be the 4th Crusade and the Black Death. The former- though they didn't know it at the time- was more or less the death knell of Byzantium, though it would take a couple of more centuries and the Ottomans to put it out of its misery once and for all in 1453. The 4th Crusade made Venice insanely rich though and as much as I'd like to imagine a world where Venice isn't in on that, I don't think I can. I think they wanted the money they were owed by the Crusaders and unfortunately, Constantinople was the Venmo they were looking for, as it were.

The Black Death was far more damaging to Venice over the long run because I think the sheer people shortage they suffered from as a result made things difficult for them. That, combined with ongoing wars with their great rivals, Genoa that made them avoid focusing on the bigger picture which was the rising Ottoman threat. With the Ottomans on the march and European powers largely indifferent, Venice was left to fight alone and did their best, but couldn't hold back to the avalanche.

Overall: Crowley does an amazing job at bringing the astonishing rise of Venice to life- I flew through this book. It's a page-turner, but more importantly, it's an informative one. If you're curious about the Serene Republic of Venice or just curious full stop, this is the book to read. (Also, I think I might need to get more books by Crowley. He's a seriously good writer.) My Grade: **** out of ****


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