Angelus on the throne currently occupied by his uncle (who had himself usurped it from an elder brother), the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo pursued the more practical objectives of financing the fleet and enriching his native city with the treasures heaped up inside the golden Greek metropolis. The fact that he was a blind nonagenarian scarcely deterred Dandolo from directing a first attack on the city, earning himself the crusaders’ praise for being ‘very wise, worthy and full of vigour’. The ensuing sack of Byzantium became – as indeed it has remained – the most notorious act of vandalism in history, a nightmarish carnival of greed and barbarity; its wounds, inflicted by Catholic Christians on their Orthodox co-religionists, have in some sense never healed.
Venice, as Dandolo shrewdly perceived, fared best in the whole inglorious venture by acquiring control of what Crowley neatly styles ‘the maritime trunk route to Constantinople’, running through the ports of the Peloponnese via the islands of Crete and the Cyclades to the Dardanelles. The entire eastern Mediterranean swiftly became a Venetian naval fiefdom, the so-called ‘Stato da Mar’, with the familiar badge of St Mark’s lion, his paws around an open book, visible over every fort and city gateway from Corfu to Cyprus.
The single stone in this imperial shoe was Venice’s mercantile rival, the Republic of Genoa. Profiting from the carve-up of Byzantine assets in 1204 and the stability
The Society of Authors
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or email: email@example.com website: www.societyofauthors.org guaranteed along Asian trade routes by the Mongol empire, the Genoese, having gained commercial ascendancy on the Black Sea coast, embarked on a ferocious armed struggle with Venice, which lasted well over a hundred years. Only with the hard-fought War of Chioggia of 1378–81, when a naval blockade brought the Venetians close to starvation, emptied their treasury and almost destroyed their fleet, was Genoa finally seen off, allowing Venice to embark on a century of unchallenged power and prosperity as ‘La Bella Dominante’.
The city itself became the vividly exotic cosmopolis whose colours, shapes and textures inspired painters such as Bellini and Carpaccio. ‘The Rialto,’ as Crowley notes, ‘like a distorted reflection of Aleppo, Damascus or Baghdad, was the souk of the world’, trading in everything from carpets, ginger and frankincense to pepper, cotton and glass. Its markets observed seasonal rhythms d i c t a t ed by t he monthly c a l endar o f voyages: t o Alexandria in August, say, to catch the spice cargoes brought from India, or to Flanders in March to bring back Cotswold wool and Russian furs. It was all fuelled by a shared sense of ‘the natural right to gain’, a central feature of the myth of Venice’s foundation. With the inexorable westward march of the Ottoman Empire, however, and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese opening fresh trade routes to the East, Venetian prosperity was doomed. ‘Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,’ gloated a Lisbon merchant. Aegean islands and Peloponnesian forts were snapped up by the Turks in rapid succession, the courage of the defenders all too often betrayed by their leaders’ cowardice or incompetence. By the time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was published in 1600, the city of Shylock and Antonio was living to a large extent on the enduring potency of its imperial image.
Superficially City of Fortune adds little of significance to the familiar story of Venice’s seaborne triumph and decline. Based solely on printed sources, it makes no claim to being an original study. Its author’s Italian is sometimes faulty and it is not clear why he has chosen to end his account with the Battle of Zonchio in 1499, rather than extending it to the 1570s and including the traumatic loss of Cyprus and the redundant victory at Lepanto. Yet this book affords a perfect account of its subject. In terms of pace, colour and fluency, Roger Crowley’s style is flawless, matched by his complete grasp of the motives – mercantile, political and ideological – dr iving Venetians across the increasingly tr icky Mediterranean waters. Read him to discover what a muda was, how a bailo differed from a provveditore, and why our modern world has at least some of its roots embedded in the Adriatic mud on which this apparently implausible empire began. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011
8 FOREIGN PARTS
S h amb l i n g Th r o u g h t h e B a l k a n s ON THE ROAD TO BABADAG: TRAVELS IN THE OTHER EUROPE
By Andrzej Stasiuk (Translated by Michael Kandel)
(Harvill Secker 255pp £14.99)
WHILE READING On the Road to Babadag I gradually came to realise that I had a fair amount in common with Andrzej Stasiuk. Apart from anything else we are among the few people to have visited the curious town of Soroca in the ‘lawless’ Republic of Moldova and to have met Artur, the eccentric Gypsy Baron with a long, forked white beard and a black Volga limousine in his front garden, its windscreen riddled with bullet holes.
Soroca s i t s on t he edge o f t he Dniester River on the border between Moldova and Ukraine, and its Gypsy quarter is, as Stasiuk writes, ‘unlike anything else in Moldova’. I would say it is unlike almost anything else anywhere. Glittering Gypsy palaces cluster upon a bank above the river – one of them, with four full-size statues of rear ing horses atop a classical pediment, is a copy of the Bolshoi Theatre. Others, more Indian in inspiration, have ogee arches and onion domes. As I walked a round admir i ng Baron Artur’s palace he played, with rippling arpeggios, the Russian folk song ‘Oci Ciornie’ on the piano, which seemed appropriate, although a little surreal – but then life in Eastern Europe is like that.
Despite our common bond, when I fir st opened Stasiuk’s book my heart sank to see that it was written in what might be called a stream of consciousness. I suppose the title should have given it away. So I searched for Kerouac’s On the Road on my bookshelves, in order to compare the two books, but it was nowhere to be found. Then I dimly remembered lobbing it into the bin a few years ago having given up on it. The omens for On the Road to Babadag were not good.
As I turned its pages, however, my initial misgivings faded away. I allowed myself to settle back and enjoy being taken on this alternative mystery tour to the farthest reaches of Eastern Europe. ‘I love this Balkan shambles,’ he writes. It is indeed a shambles, and I love it too. Then I read descr iptions like that of Romania’s first locomotive being pulled over the hills by twelve pairs of oxen, the riveted demon proceeding through the countryside to the crack of whips, while the Romanian villagers ‘stood dazzled, made the sign of the cross, spat on the ground in disgust, fear and awe’. The drivers’ hearts were uneasy and they drank themselves senseless at night by the camp fires, as ‘flames flickered in the dark-blue eyes of the oxen’.
‘After a life in which I saw many nations and read many books, I reached the conclusion that the one who is right is the Romanian peasant,’ wrote the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. Stasiuk, too, feels that it is the simple, rural life way of life of the peasants and poorer Gypsies that is, or should be, eternal. The old men and women ploughing with horses are to him of ‘biblical poignancy’, the Gypsies are of ‘an ancient and unsettling beauty, not encountered today’. It is those who keep to their old ways of life – working the l and, tending animals – who will endure because our throwaway culture is by its very essence impermanent, and even now ‘trembles at the imminence of its demise’. The train was indeed something of which to be afraid, as the precursor of greater evils.
For me this book has a peculiar charm and power, and it may well have the same effect on anyone who has t r ave l l ed f rom one cor ner o f Eastern Europe to the other, steering their way through the ‘shambles’ and passing the obscure towns and villages he mentions. Stasiuk has witnessed the mess wrought upon these unfortunate places by their Communist past, and then, adding insult to injury, by the blundering intrusion of what he calls ‘the rotten West’. His images are powerfully incisive, but you must go with the flow of the stream of consciousness, revel in his turns of phrase, and not expect too many facts and figures; indeed there is often a vagueness about where Stasiuk is at any one time, or when he was there. The Gypsies, he points out, are not interested in such precision, but in legends and folk tales which begin vaguely with ‘once upon a time’. Stasiuk, like the Gypsies, is interested in impressions, and that is what will remain when you have finished this book: a lyrical impression of a troubled land, plunged headlong from an almost medieval way of life into the maelstrom of the modern world in the space of a few years. To order this book for £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011