on 6 February 2014
I've read a number of Jan Morris's books with great enjoyment, including her three-volume history of the British Empire, but no-one could call her a serious historian.
She adopts a cheery tone and prefers descriptions of people and places to historical events and social development and her jaunty style ensures a good read.
While this approach can be successful in short bites - short magazine articles or the unlinked separate chapters of the British Empire books - it can become tedious when stretched over a whole book.
This is the case here as Morris sets out on a journey throughout the areas controlled by Venice when it was one of the world's most enterprising and dynamic republics.
She takes us down the Adriatic through former Yugoslavia, the isles of Greece and across to Istanbul and yaks away like a tourist guide whose style arouses as many yawns as glimmers of interest as she pads out her narrative with lots of dull, irrelevant details.
One of the main failings is that many of the places no longer have any cultural connection with Venice or even physical remains so we have to listen to Morris imagining how things would have been hundreds of years earlier. Much of what she says is also superfluous and superficial.
Another failing is that my edition (Penguin) does not even have a map showing the extent of Venice's influence so I had to follow Morris's voyage with an atlas by my side.
It's not a bad book but I would recommend taking it in small doses.
The title of this review comes from Wordsworth's sonnet `On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic' that is quoted in Jan Morris's splendid introduction. Subtitled "A Sea Voyage", Jan Morris's book will undoubtedly and inescapably be compared with the more recent book (and TV series) by Francesco da Mosto. (Francesco's book on Venice itself in my opinion won hands down over Jan Morris's own.) But the two books also compliment each other too, not least in the fact that each covers areas that the other leaves out.
Originally published in an illustrated edition in 1980, this is a review of the Penguin edition of 1990, that has no illustrations whatsoever beyond the engravings (courtesy of Venice's Naval History Museum) of the towns and forts that the Venetians ruled and built. Alas, their reproductions are too small to be useful. There also is a map of the journey that Morris takes, but that of Venice itself is hopeless and requires a magnifying glass to view properly. This is all a great shame, because if this edition had had the same sumptuous plates that adorn Francesco da Mosto's book, then it would merit the full five stars. This is because it is so well written; one feels that one should breathe in deeply at each comma, to take time and savour the wonderful descriptions and the vivid tales. She has a marvellous way with words, such as Venice's own Saint Mark's Square, "Napoleon's finest drawing-room in Europe", being "really a lobby for the eastern Mediterranean."
At the start of the introduction, Morris writes that hers "is a traveller's book, geographically arranged, but space and time are jumbled in it and I have wondered at will from the landscapes and sensations of out day into events, suggestions and substances of the past." Morris points out that the Venetian empire was built purely on trade, "and was accordingly pragmatic to a fault ... The Venetians were exporting no ideology ... They had no missionary zeal."
The first chapter sets the scene with Venice poised for empire in 1202. Chapter two takes us straight to Constantinople and the Venetian attack of the succeeding two years. Today, "all life has gone though from old Byzantium: too many layers of history have been piled on top." The third chapter considers the Aegean islands with interesting tales to tell of conquest and neglect.
The arrival in, occupation of, and final expulsion from Crete is the subject of the fourth chapter; the same outline of history is told about Cyprus in the fifth. Cyprus is called the `bitter-sweet island', and Morris writes that the Venetians "were seldom happy" there. The Pelopennese of chapter six leads into the island of Corfu of chapter seven, "by general consent ... the most desirable station of the Venetian colonial service". It served as Venice's own Gibraltar, "this Hellenic island in the less of Islam".
The Dalmatian coast is the final destination, where Morris meditates on the profound cultural interconnectedness between Venice and its closest of maritime neighbours. A final chapter brings Morris back to Venice from her travels, bringing also the Venetian story up-to-date: "Much in this city falls more easily into place once you have travelled the imperial routes".
There are some errors that could have been corrected for the new edition; thus, for example, we have the French king Henry III arriving in Venice in "1374", two hundred years too early. And when she writes of the prospect over the Piazzetta from the Doge's Palace being "eastward", should it not be "westward"? But these are minor niggling points.
At the end, Morris has included a handy gazetteer since "so many of the Venetian possessions have changed their names", some more than once. A brief chronology is also provided as well as a short bibliography, but her "original research for this book consisted in the main of a protracted and indolent potter through the Venetian seas". Rarely has mere pottering produced such a fruitful bounty as this book.
on 27 October 2015
Magnificently written, with a wonderful feeling for the subject. A very readable account of the Venetian colonial experience, without any attempt to idealise those involved. The description of Constantinople before the fourth Crusade is probably the best evocation of a city that I have read.