Solid, informative survey, emphasizing La Serenissima’s stature as the world’s longest-lived republic and a great commercial power.
“The first Venetians were Romans,” writes Madden (History and Medieval and Renaissance Studies/St. Louis Univ.; Empires of Trust: How Rome Built—and America Is Building—a New World, 2008, etc.), “proudly refusing to cooperate with a world in collapse.” Fleeing fifth-century barbarian invasions of the Italian mainland, they rowed into a lagoon off the Adriatic Sea where they could fish and trade in peace. Its location made Venice a crucial nexus for commerce between Europe and the East, and its leading families valued political stability and a broad-based ruling class. In the post-Roman world of agrarian feudalism, Venice was an urban commercial republic. Its complicated political system would remain unique to Venice, but its financial innovations, from deposit banking to double-entry bookkeeping, were the foundation of modern capitalism. Venice stood at the forefront of world commerce until newly aggressive nation-states like England and France established colonial empires that overshadowed its older, merchant-oriented economy beginning in the 16th century. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 didn’t help; Venice had always been a loyal ally of the Byzantine Empire, and the city stood at the front lines for over a century as the Turks repeatedly threatened to invade Europe. Madden admires Venice’s conservative elite and defends it as being no more oppressive than any other pre-Enlightenment state. Once the 1,000-year-old republic was forced to surrender to Napoleon in 1797, Madden loses interest and whips briskly through the next two-plus centuries of decay and tourism.
Plenty of books focus on Venice the romantic ruin. This one offers a welcome reminder of its historic role over a millennium in the development of a modern economic system and the maintenance of the global balance of power.