John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice — October 11, 2015

John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice

A map of Venice in the form of a painting -- maybe from the 1200s or so?

There’s a lot about European history from, let’s say, the fall of Rome up to the French Revolution that I don’t really have a good handle on. I mean, I know a few individual events, but that’s never helped me to keep a history in my head. To understand history, I need to be able to place events in a coherent story. Without a story, for instance, I was never able to remember the order of U.S. presidents; with the story it becomes a lot more straightforward. After Washington you’ve got Adams, during the Federalist era (see the book The Age of Federalism, which is really quite extraordinary). Washington’s Secretary of State was Thomas Jefferson, who became the third president after an extremely contentious first few years of the American republic (see the Alien and Sedition Acts); the fighting between Jefferson’s men and Adams’s men is why Jefferson’s inaugural contains the line “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Jefferson’s Secretary of State was then James Madison, who was then president right after Jefferson. And so forth. With a coherent story, I can remember a good solid chunk of history.

Well, it turns out that the history of Venice is an excellent view into a single coherent story of European history. The lagoon, in John Julius Norwich’s telling, has always sat on the boundary between the Eastern Roman Empire — which became the Byzantine Empire, and eventually the Ottoman Empire — and Western Europe. Its existence has always been tenuous, and it has always relied on its seafaring prowess to keep it alive. As long as it was able to dominate the Adriatic, and as long as it maintained good relations with Constantinople, it did well; as soon as the Ottomans took over and sundered Venice’s eastern lifeline, the writing was on the wall. The miracle is that it survived as long as it did. (Napoleon fired the coup de grĂ¢ce.)

In the most remarkable part of the story that Norwich tells, Venice seals its own eventual death warrant. It led the Fourth Crusade, which was supposed to go to Jerusalem around the year 1200 but which stopped at Constantinople on the way, sacked it, and fatally weakened the Byzantine Empire. Thus weakened, the Byzantines couldn’t effectively resist the Ottomans, who finally took Constantinople 250 years later. The ascent of the Ottomans destroyed the Venetian connection to the East.

I expected to see the formation of modern Western European states as a reaction to the rise of the Ottomans, but it didn’t happen. I expected all the little Italian city-states — Genoa, Milan, Venice — to put aside their differences and fight off the “Arabic menace”, but perhaps that was expecting too much. Instead, the story seems to be that Italy remained disunited until soon after Napoleon swept through. In the meantime, city-states seemed to be united only so long as their immediate interests demanded it. From the perspective of someone like Norwich, who clearly loves Venice in his bones, this is a great tragedy.

I do love the coherence that Norwich brings to European history, but that coherence comes at the cost of glossing over the lives of ordinary Venetians. Instead, we get an endless parade of doges, no matter how inconsequential. Venetian doges were usually elected to the role after a lifetime spent honorably serving the Serenissima Repubblica (Most Serene Republic, which is an awesome title); hence very often they’re in their 80s when elected; hence very often they’re dead within a few months. Yet I’m pretty sure Norwich discusses every single doge. He also discusses most every naval battle, seemingly regardless of whether that battle had any lasting importance. I would have liked, instead, to have understood what we would now call the social history of Venice. What did most people do for work? How did the government treat its poor and its sick? How was Venetian sanitation? (When we went on our walking tour of Venice, the guide stopped briefly at one of the city’s public wells and noted how much disease they spread.) Norwich writes a lot about how “the people” would cheer this or that doge or admiral; which people is he referring to? The gentry, or the landless masses? And Venice was in many ways a melting pot, it seems, again because of its status both as a gateway to the East and as the commercial capital of the world; so I’d like to hear about whether these various ethnicities lived together harmoniously. The plague struck Venice repeatedly, and sharply reduced its population; what was the lived experience of the plague? How did they dispose of so many bodies?

Finally, all the shifting alliances and invasions and changes of fortune make me wonder about the lived experience of, say, those who lived in Padua. I quickly stopped being able to keep track of how often Padua and Ravenna changed hands. Maybe it’s easy for a European author to envision what it’s like when your town is repeatedly bombarded and sacked, but it’s not easy for an American — living, as we have, with basically no threats to our domestic tranquility for our entire history. “They lay siege to it, and 3 months later [or whatever] it fell” appears countless times throughout The History of Venice. What’s it like to live in a besieged city? If the siege is successful, does it basically end when the residents are starving to death?

A subset of this book would be extremely useful for tourists. Whenever a doge dies, Norwich writes — usually in a footnote — about where that doge’s body is now buried; 90-plus percent of the time, the doge seems to be buried in one of Venice’s innumerable churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, and maybe most often in the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo or St. Mark’s. If you were to take the subset of this book that explains the artistic and historical backdrop to Venice’s countless churches, tombs, and paintings, it would dramatically improve every tourist’s experience of the city.

I know that I need to go back. Norwich says in the introduction that walking through Venice at night is one of his favorite things; I need to do that, and I need to do it fearlessly. The first time I encountered Venice, I was overwhelmed by the city’s, well, Byzantine layout, and it took me a few days just to feel comfortable with it in the daytime. Braving it at night requires an extra bit of courage. The city is almost incomprehensibly mysterious, and Norwich’s book only adds depth to the mystery.