City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled The Seas

  • Roger Crowley
  • Random House
  • 480 pp.

A gripping story of how Venice became a sea-based empire with material wealth and luck -- and then lost both.

Reviewed by Alice Padwe


Armchair travelers can find plenty of books presenting the glories of Venice in beguiling, colorful pictures, but Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune is the book that tells you how Venice got the wherewithal to create and collect those treasures. With almost no land, Venice depended on trade for her existence. By dominating the seas, she created a Stato da Màr — a sea-based empire with ports, colonies and trading posts ranging from the Black Sea to Egypt.

The book is divided into three main parts, focusing on the years from 1000 to 1500. The first section describes the city of Venice, the significance of its location and its success in dominating the Adriatic Sea, essential for further growth, by clearing out pirate strongholds. The major narrative of these chapters, however, is an account of the infamous Fourth Crusade. Instead of attempting to recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, the Crusaders proceeded to sack two Christian cities: Zara, on the Dalmatian coast, and, most notably, Constantinople.

In agreeing to transport the Crusader armies across the sea, Venice had made a substantial investment, devoting men and material to the building and fitting out of ships. When it became clear that the Crusaders could not pay, Venice sought other means of recouping her outlay. Unlike Shylock, who had to forgo his pound of flesh lest he shed one drop of Christian blood, Venice felt no such constraint. The result of that bloodshed and looting was not just the acquisition of material spoils of war but the establishment of Venice as a colonial power, dominant from the Adriatic, through the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.

The second section of the book deals with how Venice managed and defended her maritime empire. It gives an overview of how she ran trading ports and governed colonies, what she traded, how she coordinated trade routes and had her ships manufactured. One Venetian business was a transportation service to the Holy Land. Roger Crowley quotes from pilgrims’ diaries, justifying his statement that the five- to six-week one-way trip “was a form of purgatory ― and at times, a glimpse of hell.”

Part of this section deals with putting down a serious revolt in Crete, but the bulk of it is devoted to destructive wars with Venice’s rival for maritime supremacy, Genoa. The author’s account is grim. Both Genoa and Venice were accused of bringing the Black Death from the Black Sea to Europe. Their repeated wars sapped victor and vanquished, and allowed the advance of Ottoman power. Venice, Crowley writes, survived to rise again “through the durability of her institutions, the social cohesion of her people and their patriotic adherence to the flag of Saint Mark” while “Genoa imploded.”

The final section of the book deals with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the resulting loss of Venice’s sway. Crowley describes the spectacular capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II, who went on to seize the rest of Byzantium. Even more devastating for Venice was the loss of her stronghold off the coast of Greece, Negroponte. Venice had met her match in Mehmet, who was as skilled in diplomacy as he was in war. During his reign, the Turks raided Friuli, 30 miles from the Venetian lagoon, and invaded Italy itself, sacking Otranto on the Italian mainland in 1480 and occupying it until Mehmet’s death the following year.

While control of more and more of the eastern Mediterranean passed to the Ottomans, Venice faced a different threat to her trade from the west. With heavier ships and larger fleets, the Portuguese followed the path of their countryman, Vasco da Gama, sailing around Africa to buy spices directly from India. Thus, they were able to offer much lower prices than Venetian merchants, who had to pay taxes to various governments as they passed through different territories.

The leading personality of the City of Fortune is Venice herself. Crowley describes some of the doges and naval commanders, but no single one comes as alive in these pages as does her nemesis, Mehmet. It speaks to the image of the civilization the Venetians created that when they negotiated for peace with Mehmet, he made it a condition that a Venetian painter come to paint his portrait — hence the visit of Gentile Bellini to Constantinople.

Crowley’s narrative is a pleasure to read. When he provides details of how trade was managed, he gives just enough details so one can marvel at the efficiency of the Venetians but never enough to distract from the thread of the story. Some useful maps are provided; more would have been welcome.

Although Crowley gives unblinking accounts of the results of Venice’s desire for economic mastery of the Mediterranean, he finds much to praise, such as the extent to which the republic worked to keep her merchants and governors incorruptible.

Roger Crowley has accurately titled his book City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas. He deals with Venice as a sea power, giving next to no attention to the city’s relationship with the Italian peninsula. Fortune can mean material wealth or luck, and the author describes Venice in terms of both. One traditional symbol for fortune is the wheel whose turning indicates the rising and falling of fortunes. The book opens as Venice’s fortunes rise high, and closes as they wane. Fortune has also been personified as mistress of the seas, with the billowing sails of her ship indicating that the winds of fortune are inconstant — a most suitable image for the story of the five centuries covered in this book.

City of Fortune tells a gripping story. You may be repelled by descriptions of some of the barbarous practices of Venice and her foes, you may agree with the popes who castigated the city for its focus on worldly gain, but you can’t help admiring her efficiency and daring. Keep turning the pages — it’s well worth following the tale.

Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction and memoirs and has edited all kinds of books, from college texts to spy thrillers.



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