City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire

We asked readers to quiz Roger Crowley on his latest offering

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City of Fortune tells the story of the Venetian ascent from lagoon dwellers to the greatest power in the Mediterranean; an epic 500-year voyage that encompassed crusades, sea battles, trade, plague and colonial adventure.

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In Venice, the path to empire unfolded in a series of extraordinary contests, including the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, the fight to the finish with Genoa and a desperate defence against the Turks.

As part of our new reader book club, BBC History Magazine asked a few people to read City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire and put their questions to author and historian Roger Crowley. Here’s what they had to say…

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I was interested by the comparison of the running of Venice to the workings of a modern corporation, and I wondered how far you might take that idea?

Megan Palmer, Oxford

Roger says: Venice certainly thought of itself as a brand with clear economic objectives and business strategies for monopolising markets and commodities as a modern corporation in fierce competition with rivals (such as Genoa) might do. It operated on recognisable business principles such as consumer choice and just-in-time delivery but there are limitations to this comparison: Venice was also a state, empowered with fixing the framework within which such a company might operate, for example by creating a stable currency and rational taxation. At this level I sometimes think a second analogy might be with modern Singapore – another self-contained island state with no natural resources, forced to live on its wits. The shared features are the existence of strongly self-disciplined populations with an unusually clear consensus of what constitutes the common good and the willingness to forego certain individualistic freedoms in pursuit of centrally planned economic goals.

It seems that it was the absolute defeat and humiliation by the Ottomans that triggered the demise of Venice’s fascination with and dependence on the sea, and from that point onwards they looked increasingly landwards. Do you think there was a shift in the Venetians’ self-image/national psyche?

Megan Palmer, Oxford

Roger says: 1500 was the symbolic moment in a perhaps more gradual but perceptible shift in Venice’s self-image. Rich Venetians started to think more about investing in land than in overseas trade, in industry rather than shipbuilding and in the politics of mainland Italy. The merchant culture became less risk-taking. Their attachment to the sea remained strong but it started to have a nostalgic and romantic feel to it. In the 16th century they commissioned a whole new set of paintings for the Doge’s Palace depicting the great moments of their imperial past – including the storming of Constantinople in 1204 – as if they realised it was slipping away from them. Venice shifted from a republic of risk-taking merchants to industrialists, landowners and brokers of cultural life.

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Out of Saladin and Dandolo (fourth crusade), which do you feel was the better leader and why?

Brooke Sheldon, London

Roger says: I can’t make any judgement on Saladin’s leadership qualities, but it is clear that Dandolo, despite his great age (over 90) and his complete blindness, was uniquely talented in steering Venice’s ship of state during the last decades of the 12th century and ensuring that Venice was the winner – indeed the only winner – out of the disastrous fourth crusade. He provided continuously sage advice as the crusaders flirted with disaster during their extraordinary progress across the Mediterranean which ended with the sacking of Christian Constantinople. The one mystery surrounding his judgement is why he’d signed Venice up to the crusade in the first place. The contract to ferry the crusade to the Holy Land was highly risky. It was the largest commercial contract in the Middle Ages and involved putting all Venice’s resources into one single project for two years. It was the failure of the crusaders to pay up, hence pushing Venice towards bankruptcy, which was the root cause of everything that followed.
 

  

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What made you choose to conclude the account in 1500 rather than later, as the epilogue suggests the decline of Venice was not instantaneous.

Gemma Nimmo, Cumbria

Roger says: Its decline certainly was gradual rather than a sudden, total collapse but 1500 seemed to be a natural break point in its history. The two iconic events of that time – the loss of maritime supremacy to the Ottomans and Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India – were evidence that the writing was on the wall – rather like the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 marked a death knell for the power of the British empire. Everything after that has something of a post-imperial feel to it.

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If I was going to spend a weekend re-reading your book in Venice where would you suggest I put myself to fully appreciate it? The Doge’s Palace? The Grand Canal? Somewhere else?

Steve Slack, London

Roger says: I’d read a few chapters in a café near the bustle of the Rialto fish and vegetable markets (if you can concentrate) to catch a vivid sense of the energy of Venetian trade. I’d then certainly move on to a spot by the Grand Canal to catch Venice’s great waterside spectacle and the extraordinary flamboyance of its buildings; follow this up with an expensive cup of coffee in St Mark’s square, where, among the tourist hubbub, you can gaze up at the basilica of St Mark and remind yourself that so much of what you’re looking at was plundered during the fourth crusade. Then on to another café in the square by the forbidding Arsenal gates to conjure up the formidable maritime war machine that secured the sea for Venice. And to finish off, a vaporetto to the Lido to read on the beach – the republic’s last line of defence against invaders and floods. 

Next month we’ll be looking at Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44, by Anna Reid (Bloomsbury 2011). If you’d like to ask Anna something about the book, please email Charlotte Hodgman with your question. We can’t promise to publish every question, but we’ll do our best.

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It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at www.historyextra.com/reader