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
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or email: firstname.lastname@example.org 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