Wordsworth got it wrong. Venice never held “the gorgeous East in fee” as he declared in his sonnet “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic,” published in 1807. Although Venetians grew rich from import-export business with the Levant and ruled part of the former Byzantine Empire for half a century after leading the sack of Constantinople in 1204, they obtained no more than concessions for trading posts on Islamic territory.
Nor was Venice an effective “safeguard of the West,” as Wordsworth wrote. Venetians were primarily concerned with maintaining profitable relations with the sultanates and fighting off European competitors, especially the Genoese, knocked out by the Venetian forces in 1380 after a century of warfare as brutal as that between Crusaders and Muslims but without any pious motives. The involvement of Venetians in the Crusades was opportunistic: they supported the Latin kingdom in return for privileges and, after the Muslim reoccupation of Jerusalem, exploited a virtual monopoly in operating package pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Wordsworth, in this beautifully constructed elegiac sonnet, gave tragic significance to myths current in England since the seventeenth century when James Howell had described Venice as Europe’s “greatest rampart against that huge Eastern Tyrant the Turk,” and as “a Maiden City, so called because she was never defloured by any enemy.” The words “gorgeous East” came from Milton’s description of Satan’s throne.
Venetians were middlemen in a trade nexus extending over Asia and Europe. Their so-called empire was mainly a string of ports which their ships (and no others) could use as harbors on their way across the eastern Mediterranean, carrying timber, metals, and gold ducats, to return with cargoes of spices, aromatics, dyes, and cottons that had been imported from India. Merchandise, acquired wherever they had been allowed to establish a fondaco (a combined warehouse and lodging, called in Arabic a fondaq), was sold on the Rialto to buyers from the Italian mainland and Central and Northern Europe, who had similar premises in Venice. With hard bargaining at both ends, a successful voyage could yield a profit of 30 percent to 50 percent in about twelve months. Wealth thus generated was diffused among the patrician families that, by the early fourteenth century, constituted a jealously closed oligarchy whose members advertised their riches and status in the decoration of their palaces.
While Venice grew rich, Egypt and Syria were ruled by the luxury-loving Mamluks, descendants of slave soldiers from central Asia. And as sultan after sultan in his pomp built palaces (about which we know little) and founded the vast religious and charitable complexes which still survive, Cairo was developed as the most magnificent city on the Mediterranean rim. Damascus was little less imposing with its mosques, madrasas (theological colleges), bazaars, and bathhouses. Here Venetians had a fondaco from which an unidentified, but probably Venetian, painter carefully recorded the cityscape, showing the Mamluk emblem repeatedly displayed on the walls, the Great Mosque’s eleventh-century dome, and the elaborate minaret erected for the …