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5.0 out of 5 stars For want of a precious oil a rich empire was lost: the Rise and Fall of the Serenissima Republic in Medieval Europe, 24 Sep 2011
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This review is from: City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire (Hardcover)
2011 is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy; the secessionist Northern League instead claims it will be Italy's last celebration, as by 2061 their federal state, Padania, will finally have become a reality. Coincidentally, following on to his earlier studies on seafaring empires, Roger Crowley has published City of Fortune, on the Republic of Venice or the Serenissima Empire, waved by the red and yellow standard with the lion of St Mark's, a great past power which the separatists noisily announce fully as part their own history for the new state's future.

Crowley takes us on an enchanting historical journey from the decline of Byzantine Empire, to its substitution by Venice, concentrating exclusively on the political-economic history and staying clear of the traditional touristy histories of fine arts and buildings represented by RuskinThe Stones of Venice (1851-53). He treated in depth the capture of Constantinople in June 1204 by Doge Enrico Dandolo, during the Fourth Crusade, depicted four centuries later in Tintoretto's large canvass in the Doge's Palace; the consolidation of its outposts down the Adriatic and the Mediterranean as far as the Black Sea; the galley battles - the Battle of Chioggia in 1379-80 - fought against its principal commercial rival, Genoa, under the banner of St George (Britain's own St George!), a red cross on a white background, until the appearance of its real eastern enemy raised its head at the end of the Fourteenth century.

Since 1000, and from the end of Eastern Empire until the early Sixteenth century the author emphasized a real felt symbiosis existed between Venice and the sea, represented annually in its religious / pagan rituals on Ascension Day, together with the four compass points: Departure, Risk, Profit, and Glory, that made up Venetian life. Its secular society was extremely modern even for present day Italian and European standards: in its penal legal system with eight distinct grades of homicide, including manslaughter, in the choice and appointment of its overseas functionaries forbidden to take advantage of its position, its attempts to stamp out nepotism; whereas its punishments were barbarous, and its obsession of racial purity, frowning against intermarriage with locals, and any signals of persons going native was the first instance of how European empires reacted in their territories until the middle of the Twentieth century.

Most interesting, all merchants based overseas acted as the permanent roving eyes and ears of the Venice, meaning they operated as an early spy service, and if necessary, with the expansion of the Ottomans, communicating home in coded messages since state documents were intercepted and held back. Readers now should reconsider the work of past persons of earlier ages in a less prejudicial light, including the work of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, the wily spymaster and loyal secretive first minister to Elizabeth I. Similarly, by the 1470s, the Ottomans with a natural gift for intrigue, deception, and double-dealing, had even succeeded in encamping themselves close to all positions of the Venice state. And yet, Venice, then, was as contemporary in its attitudes as today in some countries, since in its decadence it allowed former incarcerated traitors to be given a second chance in public office: the most notable example being Antonio Grimani, Captain-general of the fleet, who was disgraced for indecision and cowardice at the Battle of Zonchio, better known as the first Battle of Lepanto in August 1499, and despite a period of exile, twenty years later he became the Republic's Doge until his death.

The decline, Crowley stresses, was long in coming, and did not require a complete history of Venice, and explains his unexpected end of his narrative around 1500. The main changes were internal within Venetian society: the Black Death transformed the aspiring mercantile classes into risk aversive, more conservative, with a greedy eye for their future personal grandeur in landed estates on the terra firma of the Italian hinterland, much less inclined to stand and fight for Venice and glory; and external: the expansion of the Ottomans in Europe under Sultans Mehmet II and Bayezit II, the Turkish improvement in nautical skills in fifty years, greatly assisted and encouraged by Venice's envious Italian city state rivals, Genoa and Florence, gradually dismantling its outstations Constantinople (1453), Negroponte, on the island of Euboa (1470), and the ports of Modon and Coron in the Peloponnese (1500), piece by piece; the new knowledge picked up by Portugal and Spain to discover and open up sea routes to the Far East, comprising the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, monopolising the market for the produce of the spice islands, soon led to foreign traders from England, Germany and Hungary based on the Rialto, taking up sticks, and moving away to Lisbon with better favourable terms and prices.

The author, however, does underline that at first some wiser and more broader minds did try to propose for Venice some practical damage limitation schemes - even suggesting to invest in the digging of a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, over three centuries before its completion by the Ferdinand de Lesseps, but the idea left to the corrupt Mamuluks, in Cairo, went amiss. Amazingly, one chronicler Ibn Iyas, recorded in 1500 the tale of the old commercial relationship hinging on prized oil obtained from balsam gardens, and in that year the trees withered. Seventeen years later the last Mamuluk sultan was strung up by the Ottomans. For want of some precious oil an empire was lost! Fact, fiction, or just another coincidence - still it is a nice credible contemporary tale from hot, exotic, spicy orient climes.

The new Europe, thus, found Venice's business model obsolete and its suppliers over dependent on its past. Its remaining possessions, Cyprus, and Crete, existed in worthless past backwaters, ready to be pinched by Turkey in 1570 and 1669, respectively. The centre of power had moved. For centuries, Venice had usurped the industries - soap, glass, silk, paper, that had made the Levant wealthy to its own advantage; from then the cycle had changed. The Adriatic was fast becoming a geographic location taking people nowhere. Venice, thus, was transformed from a very active mover to a passive observer of European and world history. The Pope and Venice still cried out for new wars against the common enemy, but to no avail. The Italian city states were not concerned with the Turks, only their self protection, their territorial, and wealth expansion, which ultimately meant fighting among themselves. One day one rival was a friend, the next a foe.

Politics and business are still strongly linked in Italy today, as it had been centuries ago for Venice. As a supporter of the EU, the future of the Northern League depends on the development and strengthening of the federal continent of regions as demanded by the EU. Should the present financial difficulties in the Mediterranean lead to the weakening and break up of the EU, it would definitely push the League's dreams further away, making Venice, though unique, still only a very Italian city. The League seems to be historically illiterate; for even today, all the neighbouring Italian cities whether located in the north, the centre, or the south are still envious of one another. It is unlikely that a new Italian federation, Padania, of the Twenty-first century will unify the divided cities any better than a national state formed in the Nineteenth. The cities, including Venice, only agree that they each would function better without the interference from the capital in Rome.

Using secondary works, principally in English and Italian, Roger Crowley has written a brilliantly analysed account, well illustrated with maps, sketches, engravings, and coloured photos. It is recommended for students of history, economics and geography, or anyone interested in the past, present, and future of Europe. Italians knowledgeable of their country would find it useful, too. If the Northern League is not interested in the country's past to prevent such errors in the future, I'm sure others are.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Dec 2011 10:19:49 GMT
Reviewer says:
How about we spend the time wasted on reading your review on actually reading the book?

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Dec 2011 14:41:27 GMT
Last edited by the author on 28 Dec 2011 14:43:08 GMT
I sincerely hope reading my review was not a waste of time. It should first stimulate an interest in reading the book, and afterwards act as a rounded complement to it, never a wasted substitute.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2013 17:30:45 GMT
A churlish comment; the time/trouble taken on this review should be respected.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Feb 2013 17:57:36 GMT
Thank you. Even if one doesn't accept my opinion respect the trouble and effort taken. I feel my immediate response in hindsight to one who had not signed was a wee too churlish, but I felt I had received a kick in the pants simply for being too enthusiastic
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