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.