It's a real testament to the skill of the author that this emerges as a fascinating and exciting read as well as a comprehensive and authoritative account of such a wide swathe of history. It chronicles the Republic's changing fortunes from beginning to end through eleven centuries, conveying a real sense of its spirit and character, with major players and battles leaping from the pages. The inevitable fall, when it comes, is all the more poignant for all that has come before, and casts the modern depopulation and disintegration of Venice in a new light. It's a great story whatever your interest in the subject, and this version must be pretty close to definitive.
on 6 June 2001
A comprehensive, elaborate and engaging account of the rise and final, swift fall of the Venetian republic. Norwich manages to bind even complex and intricate side-plots and parallel historical events into an involved and vivid narrative. Occasionally oddly judgmental, and in the typical style of English historians, i.e. sceptical and a little afraid of personalities and events which are difficult to classify. Sometimes events and ages suffer a little from being embedded in this sweeping narrative. Yet it stands as a remarkable work of involved historianship, which continues to put many of the more fragmented and specialized academic works that followed in the shade. Erudite, fluent and stimulating.
on 10 August 2005
A superbly written gallop across more than 1,000 years of history, charting the rise and fall of one of Europe's greatest city-states. This is an epic narrative which sweeps along through major historical events, but never fails to remember the human beings on the way: sad or humourous, poignant or whimsical, always entertaining glimpses of the real people who made history happen. From dashing military leaders to subtle politicians to everyday citizens who turned the course of empires with grand stratagems, bold manouevres or well-aimed pots, Norwich's book makes their stories live and breathe. If you plan to visit Venice, this is a must-read book. If you don't plan to visit Venice, what's wrong with you?
This review refers to the 2003 Penguin edition, which consists of what had been two separate books issued in 1977 and 1981 respectively, namely "Venice: The Rise to Empire" and "Venice: The Greatness and Fall". Both books had been combined into one volume by Penguin in 1983. (For those wanting details of the city's history after 1797, John Julius Norwich has produced a quasi-successor volume, "Paradise of Cities: Venice and Its Nineteenth Century Visitors", but, as its title indicates, this is as much concerned with prominent outsiders than with the city itself.)
Since the one-volume history was published in 1983, there has been no revision of the text; neither has there been an update of the bibliography nor the writing of a new introduction. That said, the introduction that remains is a marvellous piece of personal writing in itself, presenting to us in an engaging manner the author's initiation into Venetian world, of which he is now probably the most senior and most knowledgeable English member. He writes in his introduction that this book is an attempt to fill the gap in the market for an up-to-date general consecutive history of Venice that tells "the whole story ... from her misty beginnings to that sad day" in 1797 when the final Doge passed removed his cap for the last time. But how can "the whole story" ever be told? In fact, and surprisingly so, this book's story is extremely partial.
The scope of this work is immense, not only in terms of time - from the origins of Venice in the dark days of the late Roman Empire up to the ending of the republic by Napoleon in 1797 - but also in terms of place. For what this volume is not, is a history of Venice as a city; rather it is the history of the Venetian Republic as a diplomatic entity and its relations with other powers. We spend less than half our time in Venice itself; more likely, we are in Milan with the Sforza dukes, or in Rome with the Pope. The French, the Spanish, the Germans also make regular appearances on the Lombardy plain of northern Italy. However, even this area is often a sideshow to the main theatre that is the eastern Mediterranean: Corfu, Crete, the Peloponnese, Cyprus, and, of course, Constantinople are at the heart of this story. The writing is full of what the author describes as those "sudden shifts of focus which make the history of the Mediterranean so bewildering to writer and reader alike". The book contains a number of maps gathered together at the beginning. Make a good perusal of the first, for it is the one that you will need to refer to time and time again. It shows the greatest geographical coverage, from Genoa in the west to Jerusalem in the east, and from Vienna in the north, to Cairo in the south.
So, to some extent, this book is not the book I expected or wanted to read. I often felt as if I was reading a displaced version of A.J.P. Taylor's "The Struggle for Mastery of Europe, 1848-1914". Less time is spent in the lagoon than in Lombardy and the Levant. I wanted to read about the development of a very special city. Whilst there is much here about the politics of the place, its Doges, its councils, its political (and, to a lesser extent, economic) development, there is precious little about how the landscape of the city developed, how the buildings were constructed, how the canals were dug, how the people lived and worked and spent their spare time. For these, you must go elsewhere. (Indeed, beware the opening chapters that tell the story of the origins of Venice. Since they were written, new archaeological discoveries have radically reshaped the story, so that we are now aware of a heavier Roman presence than was first thought, and we can see more clearly that the city's streets and canals often derive from a grid-plan of agricultural estate boundaries.)
John Julius Norwich was born in 1929, and so perhaps his concentration on political and diplomatic affairs, on the wars fought on the plains of Lombardy and the naval battles won and lost in the Mediterranean, is a product of his generation's historical perspective. I say this because it is strange to see him refer to "painting and sculpture, music and architecture, costumes, customs and social life" as digressions from the history he wishes to tell. He concedes that he often found it difficult not to digress, and provides cogent reasons why he does not do it more often. All the same, it is a curious history of Venice that gives Casanova one entry in the index, but Charlemagne nine. Sure Casanova played little if any part in the city's history, but he is a metaphor for its eighteenth-century culture and his falling foul of the city authorities is a good example of how the state then treated crime and criminals.
At the commencement of chapter 45 on the long eighteenth century, the author allows that not much happened in the political arena, as the city's economy continued its decline and the most serene republic gave itself over more towards sensual pleasure than puritan commerce, and so a more episodic and less chronological approach is adopted. At the start of the book he mentions that all political historians concur in giving the eighteenth century short-shrift in their works on Venetian history. John Julius Norwich thinks that readers might feel that he is running out of steam, but this reader does think that he has been short-changed in this regard, for whilst indeed the politics of this century may have been parochial, what an opportunity arises therein to explore how and why this should be so.
Whilst the scope of the story is immense, the author is certainly aware that his version cannot even hope to do complete justice to the tale even when he is dealing with purely military or political issues. In his introduction, he admits to forsaking profound detail in the interest of keeping the story moving. He writes, "The one luxury I have allowed myself has been the occasional reference to buildings and monuments still standing today which have a direct bearing on the events described."
I learned a great deal. I learned how often the republic was saved by the sudden death of its opponents, this event occurring often enough for me to have my suspicions that the famed strength of Venetian diplomacy incorporated some clandestine, but clearly undiplomatic, skills. I learned also about the relatively benign approach to religious tolerance adopted by the Venetian government, refusing to cower to the more extreme Counter-Reformation policies of the Papacy and insisting that the crimes of the clergy be treated on an equal footing as the crimes of any other citizen. I learned how the detailed treatment in the book about the development of municipal (and imperial) government helped explain the character of her actions and of her people - and vice-versa. Indeed, I came away from this book with quite a profound admiration for the Venetian political system, with its in-built determination to prevent dictatorship or even the cult of personality. I feel we can learn much today from this refusal to endorse political celebrity, as well as from the republic's seemingly bizarre electoral system that relied on a mixture of elections and chance to appoint the Doge and other chief officers. Whilst clearly an oligarchy, it nevertheless provided internal peace and stability to enable the city and republic to face external threats. (The author also clearly betrays his sympathies for the success of the political system, but I did often wonder whether I was only hearing one half of the story.)
But I learned very little about the rise and decline of human occupation on other islands in the lagoon. For example, the island of Torcello at its greatest extent once had twelve parishes and sixteen monasteries, as well as its cathedral. Aerial shots of the area now show mostly gardens and grass, but in the surrounding mudflats can be seen channels that were clearly once man-made canals. What happened? We are not told. I also learned next-to-nothing about how the Venetians countered the effects of flooding and erosion. There is a short reference to the city employing mercenaries in the twelfth century to fight the Paduans over the latter's attempts to divert the course of the Brenta as it entered the lagoon, but there is no attempt to explain the geography behind this issue in any detail. Another area that demands more attention is the handling of the relative economic decline of the city and empire as trade routes eastwards around the Cape of Good Hope waxed at the same time as its political control of the eastern Mediterranean waned. In what ways did the merchants of Venice make their money in these new conditions?
There are five maps. This edition also comes with 59 black-and-white plates, some of use, but anyone who has visited Venice will feel hard done by not to have the vibrant colour of the city not mirrored in a book about its history. The bibliography is extremely useful for further exploration, but alas, there is nothing later than Jan Morris's "Venetian Empire" of 1980. The index appears fine at first glance, but displays deficiencies when used. For example, the index shows only one entry - page 99 - for St Mark's Campanile but misses that on page 280; the reference to legislation against the Jews is indexed at page 602, but there is nothing indexed for the information on page 273; and there are no entry for "Carnival"! (As for that entry on page 273 about the treatment of the Jews, the author's very words belie the meaning that he probably intends, and is one of the blessedly few times in which he perhaps displays a lack of objectivity in his love for the city.)
Some will think me unfair in my criticisms. For, if truth were told, the volume as a whole is a magnificent achievement, and has rightfully been praised as an accessible introduction to Venice's history for the general reader. The author's style is engaging and down-to-earth. He carries the reader along with him, to Milan and Ferrara, down the Adriatic to Albania and Ancona, across the seas to Tyre and Constantinople. His is an assured and often breathless journey and it is a pleasure to accompany him. It is just a shame that so little time is spent on San Giorgio Maggiore, or in the Arsenale, or in the markets of the Rialto. But even within the confines of the city, there are still some incisive and wonderful glimpses of the city to be had, for example the author's brilliant critique of the Rialto Bridge at the end of chapter 38: "Only very occasionally do we suddenly, unexpectedly and momentarily see it for the mediocrity it is." With this mixture of fine writing combined with a flair for vivid story-telling and an eye for historical argument, the reader of this book will reach the end intellectually enriched and have his or her curiosity for further exploration kindled.
on 3 June 2006
Id previously read his book on byzantium and was hoping this would be in a similar vein. Thankfully i wasnt dissapointed this is a superbly written, erudite and very readable history of the Venetian Republic. It covers a huge period of time and a great many different areas yet never gets bogged down by minutiae (as a number of other books on the subject do- you can only read about so many doges with the same name before you lose track). Easily the best book ive read this year (so far)
This is a dazzling history of a unique political entity - an oligarchic republic surrounded by feudal autocracies, religiously moderate hundreds of years before toleration developed anywhere else, and a highly profitable form of public-private capitalism. In this splendid book, the reader is treated to the entire arc of rise, reign, and fall, in luminously beautiful prose and plenty of fascinating stories.
In the beginning, Venice was a stronghold for Roman citizens seeking refuge from waves of barbarian invasions, 2.5 miles off the coast, a backwater as the Western Roman empire crumbled. Then, as a client under the protection of Byzantium, Venice slowly rose to become the premier commercial power of the Mediterranean. As a small island, everyone knew each other, so had to act in a relatively trustworthy manner in a time that piracy was indistinguishable from trade. It helped that Venetian merchants stole the body of St. Mark, using it as the basis for cosmic legitimacy and lending a kind of ideological coherence to their community - they acted in concert in unique ways for over 1,000 years.
The Venetians developed effective laws, the greatest seamanship in existence, and amassed capital that it could use for further investment, mercenaries, and bribes. Its trading partners appreciated these attributes, i.e. that Venice was relatively more trustworthy than its competitors. Together, these attributes enabled Venice to establish a number of exceedingly profitable monopolies over centuries, in particular that on spice for Europe (transport via the silk road over Asia). Though it fought many brutal wars with competitors Genoa and Pisa, Venice emerged triumphant for a time.
About 1200 a.d., Venice became an empire and reached its apogee, controlling a vast land and sea empire, often under the dangerous control of condottieri (knight mercenaries). It also moved into a unique public-private domain, in which the state had a strong hand in organizing the economy, in particular setting standards for sea vessels but also trading practices, maintaining the rule of law, and taking over the arsenal, which could produce fully functional war galleys in a matter of hours, with strategic cutting-edge technology for the time. These attributes made it an even more dependable trading agent for its allies and partners - they knew where the ships were, what their quality would be, etc .It is during this period that the Doge, Enrico Dandalo, led the warriors of the 4th Crusade to sack Byzantium, the most shameful despoliation of a civilized capital in the history of Christendom.
But already, as the Renaissance was beginning to flower, the seeds of Venice's decline were sown. Most important, mastery of trade slipped from Venetian hands once the Portugese discovered the cape route around Africa - the Mediterranean was no longer the center of the world, immediately consigning Venice to backwater status in the Adriatic. It never recovered. Second, the Ottoman Empire was also challenging Christendom, a force against which the disunified West could not compete. After Constantinople fell, Venice was the only true bulwark against the Ottomans. Third, with its haughty distance, pragmatic cynicism, and naked self interest, Venice had made innumerable enemies in Europe, and faced a series of wars against huge coalitions such as the league of Cambrai.
Still, for centuries, the Venetians were able to pull together and recover in ways that awed its adversaries. It is astonishing to read how often Venice was on the edge of complete ruin, only to emerge renewed and powerful, to fight its way to survival and then dominence. A great deal of this was due to its unique political system, which allowed fresh infusions of talent into leadership circles at crucial times and institutionalized the alternance of power. However, with the loss of trade, the energy of Venice was eventually sapped, leading to a long decline and a tenuous diplomatic balancing act (of which Casanova was a part) as the forces of revolution were rumbling in 18th C France; eventually, it became a tourist pleasure spot of wild indulgences and petty intrigue. Once it fell to the young Napoleon, though looted, Venice was never destroyed - it was the first occupation by a foreign power in its 1400 year history.
This is an incredible story, in many ways as a coherent span of time equal to Rome itself. You can tell that this book was a labor of love - every page is engaging and elegantly written. The feeling of witnessing history unfold is rarely so well executed, truly it is an inspiration and source of wonder.
on 26 June 2014
This is a sweeping history of the Republic of Venice, a city central in the affairs of Europe for nearly a thousand years. Written with a light touch and with an eye for the amusing anecdote it allows both an understanding of Venice's place in the overview of European history and an insight into the city, its institutions and its personalities. I enjoyed it enormously...
...bar one thing - the quality of the Kindle Edition. It is studded with errors that presumably arise from the Kindle edition being an OCR of a print edition. These are not minor irritations. They obscure crucial dates as well as providing jarring interruptions to the flow of the writing. As examples:
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(I have not reflected this in the star rating since it seems to me an issue with the Publisher rather than the book and author. I would, however, query whether to buy the Kindle edition on this basis.)
on 9 March 2014
This long and overly detailed book should be more correctly entitled 'A Political History of Venice'.
For this reader, at least, the author paid much too much attention to political and military events at the expense of social, economic and cultural developments.
The Kindle version of this book, riddled as it is with 'typos', is shamefully bad. Given how easy it is, nowadays, to correct such errors, I cannot understand how the book is sold in such poor condition.
on 20 November 2014
Fascinating. I like the way JJN writes, I find him very convincing. The history is largely confined to the political history rather than the cultural or mercantile history. From the beginnings on the through centuries of growth and decline, to that final moment when Bonaparte's artillery had it surrounded and - for the first time - within range. The book conveys the ignominy of the end very effectively. One of those books one ought to read.
Food for thought. This book is worth comparing with Gibbon. It has been tempting recently to compare the decline and fall of Britain - which is still happening before our very eyes - with the decline and fall of Rome. But would Venice be a better comparison? Was Britain not a new Rome but a bigger Venice?
on 24 March 2016
The city- state of Venice existed as a separate and mostly sovereign entity for the best past of 1300 years. Founded in the wreckage of the western Roman Empire from refugees looking to escape the many barbarian invasions of Italy in the 400s A.D, the collection of villages on the various islands of the lagoon slowly grew into towns and eventually a city. Taking advantage of the natural defences of the lagoon, the people of Venice were able to survive in relative peace, secure from the upheavels that affected the mainland during these early times.
Over the centuries, Venice grew ever more prosperous as her people began to trade more and more, and became excellent saliors, plying their craft upon the seas. As venice grew, so to did her peoples confidence as they started to see themselves a bread apart and also played the various European powers off against each other to maiuntain her independence. Venice also began to acquire overseas territories for means of resources and to safeguard her commerce. Tons and cities were gained on the Dalmatian coastline to secure timber for her ships and building materials for the city. Privileges were gained in the Levant and the Middle east during the time of the crusaders though in the Levant, venice was the primary insticator of the blackest treachery in Christendom, when the armies of the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, sacked Constantinople, greatest Christian city on earth at that point, a blow from which Byzantium never recovered from, though Venice gained lands and treasure from it. From the late 1300s, Venice began to acquire a mainland empire as it was slowly dragged into the numerous Italian wars. The city reached it’s zenith in the early 1500s where a a large part of northern Italy fell under it’s control, however it was shortly to lose a large chunk of it as coalitions formed against it. The next two centuries would see the city continue on, with various ups and downs in it’s position until it was finally conquered by Napoleon, the first and only man to successfully do so.
The author, John Julius Norwich writes with a great love for the subject and that passion comes though in his writing. Following the usual narrative flow of events, we progress through the history of Venice with some years flying by, especially the early centuries and then with time sowing and more detail coming out from the late 1300s onwards. The book does have a number of small flaws though, the author does show some bias towards Venice and could be a little more critical about some of what she did. We also suffer from the fact that the focus is at some points to narrowly focused on Venice, several of the wars she was involved in with coalition partners, just look at Venice, whereas it would have been helpful to see what her partners were doing as well. On the whole though this was a very enjoyable work on the subject and an excellent starter point to lead into Venice and North Italian politics.