Is there any city that evokes as much ardour as Venice? Its magnificent imagery and otherworldly pageantry transport you into a work of fantasy where you must pinch yourself to disbelieve that the surreal panorama of arches, bridges, palazzos and water bodies is the contents of a dream. At least, that is my conjecture of what things will be like when I visit the eternal city. I know that I won’t be the first naive tourist to pretend to discover its hidden places but even if it is only for a moment that camera clicks stop, footsteps fade and I find myself all alone, I will feel like I am a part of the city, its history, splendour and decay. It’s so easy to forget that Venice was not created to be a museum of mouldering and sinking buildings or a romantic’s theme park. That the Venice of today, a depopulated showpiece for the tourists of the world was a superpower in its age seems hardly credible. But, Richard Crowley’s brilliant work showed me just that.
I was very irritated with myself when I received this book because for some odd reason, I was under the impression that I had ordered Peter Ackroyd’s book on Venice. As a result, I began City of Fortune begrudgingly. How wrong I was! At one point, I almost got the feeling I was reading a Clive Cussler bestseller. Crowley brings all the action to life in the most convincing and canny way. The first part of the book pertains to the rise of the city and is almost entirely devoted to the fourth crusade. I was perplexed at first. I’ve read enough about the fourth crusade and the sacking of the Hagia Sophia disturbs me every time whether in historical accounts or fictional work like Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. Only as this section ends do we learn the pivotal role the fourth crusade plays in propelling Venice to its dominance of the eastern Mediterranean.
Each year, the doge, the elected ruler of the most serene republic would toss a golden ring into the city’s lagoon in a symbolic act of marrying the sea. The sea was everything to Venice and it determined the city’s destiny. This explains why subsequent chapters of The City of Fortune don’t focus on the physical city at all. “To its inhabitants Venice was less a few finite miles of cramped lagoon than a vast space, vividly imagined, extending ‘wherever water runs’, as if from the campanile of St Mark, distance were foreshortened and Corfu, Coron, Crete, Negroponte, the Ionian Isles and the Cyclades were plainly visible, like diamonds on a silk sea. Damage to the Stato da Mar was felt like a wound; losses like an amputation.” Hence, the book is dominated by events elsewhere, within the imposing walls of Constantinople, in rebellious Crete and in far-flung Tana on the northern shores of the Black Sea.
Venice was different from all of its contemporaries. Here was a city that had a unique contract with its citizens built on the promise of profit and prosperity in return for cooperation with state campaigns. Citizens regularly forwent individual gain for the greater good of the city, a stark contrast to its arch-rival Genoa. They had little choice because the city had no resources of its own save the fish that lived in its brackish waters. Venice’s real strength lay in the strategic use of its manpower which it mobilized to execute enterprising mercantile projects as well as plans of a more devious nature.
“Outsiders attempting to grasp the meaning of the place at the end of the fifteenth century found it impossible to match to their known worlds. Everywhere they were confronted by paradox. Venice was sterile but visibly abundant; running with wealth but short of drinking water; immensely powerful yet physically fragile; free from feudalism but fiercely regulated. Its citizens were sober, unromantic and frequently cynical, yet they had conjured a city of fantasy. Gothic arches, Islamic domes and Byzantine mosaics transported the observer simultaneously to Bruges, Cairo and Constantinople. Venice seemed self-generated. The only Italian city not in existence in Roman times, its inhabitants had created their own antiquity out of theft and borrowings; they manufactured their foundation myths and stole their saints from the Greek world.”
From swamp and mud they may have arisen, but that was not going to stop them from aping and superseding far greater states. We see this immediately after the fourth crusade when Venice takes control of Constantinople and the doge, Jacopo Tiepolo “proposed moving the centre of Venetian government to the city. Venice, once the puny satellite of the Byzantine Empire, idly contemplated replacing it.”
It’s the men who created this history that I have the most admiration for, each more colourful and unusual than the next. From the geriatric but heroic Enrico Dandolo, the ninety-year-old doge who personally led Venetian forces in the siege of Constantinople to the valour and tragedy of Pisani, Venice’s most famous sea captain. A scene that remains in my mind is when Alexius (usurper to the Byzantine throne and helped on to it by the Venetians) double-crosses his sponsors, he receives a visit from Dandalo.
“Dandolo, from the perspective of his ninety years, decided to make one more personal appeal to Alexius’s better nature. He sent a messenger to the palace, requesting a meeting at the harbour. Dandolo had himself rowed across in a galley, with three more galleys packed with armed men to guard him. Alexius rode down to the shore. The doge opened abruptly: ‘Alexius, what are you thinking of? Remember that it is we who dragged you out of misery and then made you lord and crowned you emperor. Will you not honour your commitments and not do anything more about it?’ The emperor’s response was firmly negative. Fury overcame the doge. ‘No? Contemptible boy,’ he spat, ‘we hauled you out of the dung heap and we’ll drop you back in it. And I defy you. Be fully aware that from now on I will pursue you to your utter destruction, with all the power at my disposal.’ With these words the doge left and returned to camp.”
Crowley’s wonderfully wry observations of the hypocrisy of the times attest to both his skill as a writer and a researcher. This particular incident from the fourth crusade had me in stitches.
“Abbot Martin of Pairis learned that the Church of the Pantocrator Monastery housed an extraordinary collection of relics. Hurrying there with his chaplain, he entered the sacristy – the depository of the most sacred objects – where he encountered a man with a long white beard. ‘Come faithless old man,’ bawled the prelate, ‘show me the more powerful of the relics you guard. Otherwise understand that you will be punished immediately with death.’ The trembling monk showed him an iron chest, containing a trove of treasures, ‘more pleasing and more desirable to him than all the riches of Greece’. ‘The abbot greedily and hurriedly thrust in both hands, and as he was girded for action, both he and the chaplain filled the folds of their habits with sacred sacrilege.’ With their robes stuffed with religious treasure, the two men waddled back to their ship, with the old monk in tow. ‘We have done well … thanks be to God,’ was the abbot’s laconic reply to passers-by.”
I enjoyed The City of Fortune so much that I want to overlook this tiny flaw but I would also want Crowley to fix it in reprints. “Like the Venetians they were everywhere; by the start of the fourteenth century Genoese traders could be found from Britain to Bombay (p.138).” I don’t think it’s worth risking an anachronism for the sake of alliteration.
Despite all their desperate efforts, the Venetians knew they were fighting a dying cause. With the rise of the Ottomans and Vasco da Gama finding a route to India, their beloved Stato da Mar and the commercial enterprise it supported, buckled. “The lintel of more than one collapsed Venetian house on Crete bears the Latin motto ‘The world is nothing but smoke and shadows’. As if they knew, deep down, that all the imperial razzmatazz of trumpets, ships and guns was only a mirage.” Only, could they have predicted that the lasting impression they would leave on the world would be of decadence and romance, not empire and enterprise?
City of Fortune is undoubtedly the best work of non-fiction that I've read so far this year.
Flickr cc image Venice by lpsychik