A History of Venice
by John Julius Norwich
Knopf, 673 pp., $22.95
John Norwich’s book is a competent and readable account of the Venetian Republic from its hazy beginnings in the Dark Ages to its fall at the hands of Napoleon, whom Norwich seems unable to forgive. Narrative history of this sort has never been easy to write well. It is also unfashionable, and historians who possess the necessary literary gifts do not often choose to exercise them in this particular art. Norwich had few English-language competitors when he attempted this political history, although a number of British and American scholars devote themselves to Venetian studies. The distinguished economic historian Frederic C. Lane has written a rather shorter survey of Venetian history and of a very different kind.
Thus there was plenty of room for Norwich’s book, which in a modest and well-organized way places the extraordinary history of these sea capitalists in a comprehensible scheme, and is concerned to miss none of its drama. The great set pieces of Venetian history, from the kidnaping of St. Mark’s body in medieval Egypt to the heroic defense of Crete against the Ottoman Turks in the seventeenth century, are depicted with artful economy.
There are some longueurs, mostly in mid-passage. Norwich does not conceal his distaste for “the nightmare tangle of medieval Italian politics, of Guelf and Ghibelline, Emperor and Pope, feudal baron and civic commune.” Whether or not he is right in maintaining that Venice steered clear of the rest of medieval Italy, its course was set close enough to the world of the Italian communes to make his narrative crawl rather dismally through the Italian politics of the fourteenth century. Once the tedious maneuvers that secured Venice the rule of its hinterland cities have been described, Norwich pushes briskly onward into Renaissance Italy, and shows no further sign of fatigue.
As an athletic literary performance, the book compels admiration, but much that is central to Venetian history is left out. The economic engine that supported this great and beautiful city and that brought it command of its garland of islands and fortresses in the Adriatic Sea and the Levant is condemned by Norwich to run silently and below decks. Like Ruskin, he is anxious not to dwell too much upon the avarice and cunning of the Venetian merchants. At the obligatory moments he mentions the sea contracts of the earlier Middle Ages, the building and organization of the galleys, government borrowing, Venetian money, grain, salt. But in this book the Venetian argosies plough across the seas in a manner which has more to do with poetry than with business. They work in a very thin economic climate, which at times approaches a vacuum.
Of the European and Levantine economies in which the Venetians fought desperately—and not effortlessly, as seems sometimes here to be implied—to maintain their position, hardly a word is said. Was the affirmation of Venetian political power over the neighboring Italian terra firma an attempt to compensate for deteriorating conditions of trade in the …