Venice, the serenely unclassifiable city

  • Themes: History

Venice is the product of such a complex blend of factors, forces and circumstances, it can no longer serve as an exemplar for anything other than itself.

Engraving of Venice from the 15th century.
Engraving of Venice from the 15th century. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City, Dennis Romano, Oxford University Press

I scarcely ever use the word ‘masterpiece’ in reviews for fear of overusing and therefore devaluing the word’s currency, but in this case the term applies. Romano’s history of the astonishing, inspiring, awful, vibrant, bawdy, dynamic, brutal, and pugilistic lagoon city of Venice fully warrants praise at this level. Normally, when I read a book covering such a wide span of history – stretching from the Classical era all the way through to the present day – it’s actually fairly clear which sections connect to the author’s real expertise; in this case, however, Romano’s exceptional knowledge remains monolithic from start to finish.

Structurally, this study works steadily through Venice’s history, chapter by chapter, era by era. It begins with the myth-wreathed tales surrounding its deep origins; these report that the city first came into being when refugees fleeing the Huns sought refuge on the islands scattered across its lagoon. Then the book advances into the city’s turbulent first centuries, during the early medieval period, when it became caught up in the many wars and political controversies shaping Northern Italy. With the Byzantine Empire seeking to reclaim control over Italy on one hand, and, on the other, powers such as the Lombards or Franks attempting to assert their own dominion, Venice frequently found itself at the epicentre of war and diplomacy.

In later centuries, the Venetians managed first to attain control over the entire Venetian lagoon, then much of the Adriatic, and then – commercially speaking – over a substantial chunk of the Eastern Mediterranean. Several factors assisted them in these endeavours, including their access to the trading commodities, which propelled their early rise, perhaps most notably salt and timber. There was also the Venetians’ love of the sea – a bond so strongly felt that by around the year 1000 the civic authorities devised an annual ceremony in which they symbolically married the waters surrounding their island home. The Venetians’ abilities as seafarers underpinned both their economic success as merchants and also their curiosity as travellers, while their sleek galley fleets projected their commercial and military influence many hundreds of miles from their homes.

Venetian power grew steadily during the 12th century, but the major event that transformed their trading city into an empire was their role in the Fourth Crusade, culminating in the conquest of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (1204). The Venetians’ actions on this campaign are among the most controversial moments in their history and in recent decades many scholars have attempted to explain the nature of their involvement, typically characterising them either as brutal and avaricious looters, or simply as protagonists swept up by events beyond their own control. Romano doesn’t really advance an explicit verdict on this question, but nonetheless two points come across clearly: the vital importance of the Fourth Crusade in funding and enabling the rise of the Venetian Empire, and second, the intimacy of the relationship between the lagoon city and an empire that was at times their overlord, trading partner and victim. It is very striking that, having returned to Venice, bearing plunder gathered during the crusade, the Venetians employed this wealth embellishing their city with buildings that mimicked in many ways the city and civilisation they had assailed. This troubled relationship continued in later centuries, marked by moments of trade, war and co-operation, until the final collapse of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

For much of the medieval and late medieval period, the city remained a dominant maritime power across much of the Mediterranean. Money poured in through commerce, which in turn caused families from neighbouring lands to set out for the lagoon in the hope of finding safety and prosperity; by 1300 the city’s population may have reached 100,000.

A notable and re-occurring feature in the city’s history is its awkward position on a geographical crossroads. This feature strengthened its trading position, but it also frequently caused the city to become trapped between more powerful competing empires: the Franks and the Lombards in the ninth century, the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire in the early modern period, and, later, various constellations of states. Whether by warfare, diplomacy, or commerce, the Venetians managed to weather these storms while keeping their independence intact right up to the city’s conquest by Napoleon in 1797. Venice later passed under Austrian control before its unification with the kingdom of Italy in 1866.

Thereafter a new siege began, a siege that has never ended – the arrival of mass tourism. For centuries the Venetians poured their love and talent into the creation of a magnificent and watery city filled with remarkable buildings from many periods, astonishing works or art, as well as evocative legends and festivals holding the promise of transporting participants into a different era entirely.  You reap what you sow – tens of millions of tourists began to descend on the city wishing to walk its streets, gaze in wonder at its art and architecture, and imbibe its atmosphere. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on who you ask: for many this is a source a wealth and employment, for others it is a catastrophic degradation and commoditisation of their city.

Tourism also intersects with a perennial question to which Romano returns in almost every chapter: the city’s natural environment. One of Venice’s most notable features is its precariousness. Despite surviving for almost two millennia, it remains in near permanent danger, either of being submerged by the waters of the Adriatic, or being separated from the sea entirely by the silting-up of the Venetian lagoon (the arrival of massive cruise ships hasn’t helped). In fact, precariousness in various forms characterises so much of Venice’s history, trapped as it was between rival empires, divided by competing trading and military interests, riven by rival factions in government, confronted by the perpetual threat of natural disaster, and (perhaps less perilously) split by differing interpretations of comic theatre.

This history alternates between the majestic, the brutal, and the conspicuously odd. It also contains many fascinating stories and details. We receive guidance from a 14th-century merchant’s manual on how to select good quality nutmeg (you buy large and firm nutmegs of which three quarters should be ripe, if you were wondering). We learn that the Venetians both conducted crusades and were on the receiving end of them. We learn that, during the Black Death, the city’s authorities ordered the disposal of all rotten salami from the city, fearing it was spreading the contagion. We learn that in 1846 Venice ceased to be an island with the construction of its first rail link. We learn that in the 1960s, Coca Cola scored an advertising coup by spreading corn in the Piazza San Marco in the shape of its iconic logo.

A further quality that impressed as I read Romano’s work is the uniqueness and singularity of Venice’s history. Where sociologists, anthropologists or political scientists seek out cities or states or civilisations they can raise aloft as case-studies or representative exemplars supporting ambitious over-arching theories spanning the entirety of human existence, Venice defies any easy categorisation. The city is the product of such a complex blend of factors, forces and circumstances, it can’t really serve as an exemplar for anything other than itself. This is important and valuable; it reminds us that human experience should not be lightly codified; it reaffirms the importance of complexities in culture, history, and environment in shaping the course of events. It is also fascinating, and Romano’s great achievement in this work is to draw out and splice the intricacies of these matters in an exceptionally readable work that is very difficult to put down.


Nicholas Morton