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

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

Venice was not mentioned once in my formal schooling in America. And that’s terrible because in many ways, Venice foreshadows the rise of the commercial maritime republic of the USA. When every other state was ruled by the divine right of kings, Venice held itself to be a republic and an essentially secular “commune” focused on commerce. The Republic played a pivotal role in the Renaissance and in the creation of the modern world.

Crowley’s "City of Fortune" is an excellent overview of the Venetian republic’s entire history - from humble lagoon origins to its eventual decline at the hands of the Ottomans and Iberians. He brings to life some of the more colorful characters of Venetian history (there were many!) like Enrico Dandolo, Carlo Zeno, and Niccolo Pisani. Sometimes it feels like he gets bogged down in geographic details, but overall the pacing is good and the content is extremely well researched. Not a reference book by any means, but a great intro for a popular audience.

Some of my favorite passages below.

Above all, the story of the Stato da Mar is a saga about trade. Alone in all the world, Venice was organized to buy and sell.

Orseolo’s campaign could almost serve as the template for subsequent Venetian policy: a mixture of shrewd diplomacy and the precise application of force… If there is a single moment that marked the start of the rise to maritime empire, it was now, with the doge’s triumphal return to the lagoon. The breaking of the Narentine pirates was an act of great significance. It signaled the start of Venetian dominance of the Adriatic, and its maintenance became an axiom for all the centuries that the Republic lived. The Adriatic must be a Venetian sea; nostra chaxa, “our house” in the local dialect, and its key was the Dalmatian coast.

In the 1080s the Venetians defended the empire in the Adriatic against powerful Norman war bands, intent on taking Constantinople itself. Their reward was sumptuous. With all the imperial pomp of Byzantine ritual, the emperor affixed his golden seal (the bulla aurea) to a document that would change the sea forever. He granted the city’s merchants the rights to trade freely, exempt from tax, throughout his realms… The Golden Bull of 1082 was the golden key that opened up the treasure-house of eastern trade for Venice.

Many of the great families of Venetian history began their ascent to prominence during the boom years of the twelfth century. The period heralded the start of commercial dominance.

Venice defined itself as a commune, in which all the people theoretically had a say in the major decisions of the state.

Constantinople was on a scale quite beyond their experience. It was the largest metropolis in the Christian world; the capital of an empire which, although shrunken, controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean, from Corfu to Rhodes, Crete to the shores of the Black Sea, and much of Asia Minor and continental Greece. The city’s population numbered four or five hundred thousand; Venice’s was perhaps sixty thousand, Paris the same.

After the mosaics that commemorate the body of Saint Mark sailing to Venice, this is the single most iconic image in Venetian history—the blind doge, standing erect at the prow of his ship with the red and gold lion banner of Saint Mark fluttering in the wind as his ship grounds beneath the menacing city walls; battle rages around him, but the wise old merchant Crusader stands unmoved, urging his fleet on.

There are no contemporary Venetian accounts of the Crusade that was intended to take Jerusalem via Cairo but ended up in Christian Constantinople.

By the treaty of October 1204, the Partition of the Lands of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, Venice became overnight the inheritor of a maritime empire.

While the feudal lords of France and Italy went to construct petty fiefdoms on the poor soil of continental Greece, the Venetians demanded ports, trading stations, and naval bases with strategic control of seaways… Wealth lay not in exploiting an impoverished Greek peasantry, but in the control of sea-lanes along which the merchandise of the East could be channeled into the warehouses of the Grand Canal.

This empire was almost an accidental construct. It contained no program for exporting the values of the Republic to benighted peoples; it had little interest in the lives of these unwilling subjects; it certainly did not want them to have the rights of citizens. It was the creation of a city of merchants and its rationale was exclusively commercial.

The places where the flag of Saint Mark was raised and his lion carved on harbor walls and castle gates existed, in the repeated phrase, “for the honor and profit of Venice.” The emphasis was always on the profit.

The implosion of the Greek empire shattered the world of the eastern Mediterranean into glittering fragments. It left a power vacuum, the consequences of which no one could foresee—the irony of the Fourth Crusade was that it would advance the spread of Islam, which it had set out to repel.

The cardinal points of the system were the twin ports of Modon and Coron (so frequently linked in Venetian documents as almost to constitute a single idea), Crete, and Negroponte.

Crete was Venice’s full-blown colonial adventure, which would involve the Republic in twenty-seven uprisings and two centuries of armed struggle.

After 1381, when the practice was banned in Venice, Crete became the illicit hub of the Republic’s slave trade.

The saga of the Venetian Aegean was colorful, violent, and, in places, surprisingly long-lasting. The Duchy of Naxos did not expire until 1566; the most northern island of the group, Tinos, remained faithful to Venice until 1715.

As early as 1291, two Genoese brothers sailed out of the Gates of Gibraltar to seek a route to India. It was no accident that it should be the Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) who touched the New World in 1492. Intrepidness, creativity, risk-taking, innovation—these were hallmarks of the individualistic genius of Genoa.

They were enthusiastic slavers — there were more slaves in Genoa than any other city in medieval Europe.

Across the barriers of holy war, the Crusades had given Europeans a taste for oriental refinement. Spices were the first manifestation of a world trade and its ideal commodity. They were lightweight, high in value, low in bulk, and almost imperishable; they could be readily transported over long distances by boat or camel, rebagged into smaller lots, stored almost indefinitely.

With the fall of Acre and the papal ban on Islamic trade, the Black Sea became the displaced center of world trade—the axis of a series of long-range routes for exchange from the Baltic to China—and the epicenter of the commercial rivalry between Venice and Genoa. It was an opportunity that would enrich and wreck medieval Europe.

Both Kaffa and Tana were active centers of slave trading. The Mongols raided the interior for “Russians, Mingrelians, Caucasians, Circassians, Bulgarians, Armenians, and divers other people of the Christian world.” … they were sold on in an illicit trade, expressly forbidden by the pope, as military slaves to the Mamluk Islamic armies of Egypt. Candia, on Crete, formed one hub of this secret business, where the final destinations of the “merchandise” were usually suppressed. Most of these Black Sea slaves were nominally Christian.

By the time the plague had burned itself out, possibly two-thirds of the Venetian population had perished; fifty noble families ceased to exist.

The plague had left its survivors better off. They had inherited considerable wealth and the scarcity of labor forced up its asking price... The ordinary seamen began to feel that they were not sharing the same risks and conditions as their aristocratic commanders... The solidarity, the discipline, the sense of shared life among the citizens was starting to fray, with long-term consequences for Venetian sea power.

The worst day’s work the Genoese ever did themselves, or the rest of Christendom, came in November 1354 when they ferried an Ottoman army across the Dardanelles into Europe. They charged a ducat a head. It was a handsome rate but a terrible bargain. Once established in Gallipoli, the Turks became impossible to dislodge. They were in Europe for good—a fourth snake entwined in the politics of Constantinople and its hinterland.

The Republic had always pursued a strict policy of segregation between subject peoples and Venetian colonists and administrators, whom it hedged about with restrictive clauses and prohibitions. Its watchword was “ethnic purity”; its deepest fear, assimilation.

Venice had outlasted Genoa less through military supremacy than through the durability of her institutions, the social cohesion of her people, and their patriotic adherence to the flag of Saint Mark. After the humiliation of Chioggia, Genoa imploded.

Venice had been taken to the limit by the slogging contest in its own lagoon. For two years, all trade ceased. The fleet was ruined, the treasury emptied; naval supremacy of the Adriatic was formally gifted away to Hungary in the Treaty of Milan in 1381. The Genoese wars, plague, Cretan rebellion, and papal trade bans had made the fourteenth century a testing time. Yet the Republic had survived.

If its techniques were patient and variable, the Republic’s underlying policy was frighteningly consistent: to obtain, at the lowest cost, desirable forts, ports, and defensive zones for the honor and profit of the city. “Our agenda in the maritime parts,” the senate declared in 1441 like a corporation setting out its strategic plan, “considers our state and the conservation of our city and commerce.”

The empire that Venice acquired in this second wave of colonial expansion was held together by muscular sea power. To its triangle of priceless keystones—Modon-Coron, Crete, and Negroponte—was now added Corfu.

The Republic was obsessed with the racial purity of its citizens. Fear of going native, particularly after the Cretan revolt of 1363, haunted their edicts.

The Republic was wary of individual aggrandizement—an aversion to personal ambition was deeply ingrained in this most impersonal of states—and intolerant of corruption.

Everyone was accountable. Everything was written down. By the time of the death of the Venetian state, its archives ran to forty-five miles of shelving.

“The honor of the Commune demands that all its rectors be excellent” was its mantra.

By the standards of the times, the Republic possessed a strong sense of fairness, which it wielded with considerable objectivity.

The Republic could and did resort to hideous punishments; they used torture readily to procure the truth—or at least a confession—and they measured their judgments relative to state interests.

With its mixed populations of Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians, the Republic was concerned above all to keep a social balance. The Stato da Mar was essentially a secular state. It had no program for the conversion of peoples, no remit to spread the Catholic faith.

The empire represented Europe’s first full-blown colonial experiment. Held together by sea power, largely uninterested in the well-being of its subjects, centrifugal in nature and economically exploitative, it foreshadowed what was to come.

There was no merchant guild in the city—the city was a merchant guild, in which political and economic forces were seamlessly merged. The two thousand Venetian nobles whose senatorial decrees managed the state were its merchant princes. The city expressed a development in human behavior that struck outsiders forcefully with the shock of modernity and not without alarm. The purity of the place was unmissable, as if it expressed an entirely new phenomenon: “It seems as if … human beings have concentrated there all their force for trading,” reported Pietro Casola.

Venice’s genius was to grasp the laws of supply and demand, based on centuries of mercantile activity, and to obey them with unmatched efficiency. The secret lay in regularity. Venetian merchants lived with an acute sense of time. The clocks in Saint Mark’s Square and in the Rialto fixed the pattern of the working day. On a larger scale, the annual pattern of voyaging was dictated by seasonal rhythms far beyond the confines of Europe.

Unlike the individualistic Genoese, the Venetian traders, all drawn from the same tight-knit squares and parishes, had a strong sense of group solidarity. They paid into a common insurance fund, the cottimo, by which the costs of extortion by Mamluk officials or fiscal penalties imposed on the colony as a whole were shared among its members. “Like pigs,” as the Florentine preacher had unflatteringly put it, they gathered together. Under the circumstances this was a virtue.

By 1417, Venice was the foremost trading nation in the eastern Mediterranean; by the end of the century they had crushed the competition. In 1487, there were only three fondaci left in Alexandria, the two Venetian and one Genoese; the other nations had withdrawn from the game. Venice beat Genoa, not so much at Chioggia, but in the long-drawn-out, unspectacular trade wars of the Levant. And the profits were huge: up to 80 percent on cotton, 60 percent on spices, when sold on to foreign merchants on the Rialto.

In this first hostile engagement, Loredan had almost completely destroyed the Ottoman fleet—and the means quickly to re-create it. The Venetians understood exactly where the source of Ottoman naval power lay. Many of the nominal Turks in their fleet were Christian corsairs, sailors, and pilots—maritime experts without whom the sultan’s embryonic navy was unable to function. The Republic’s policy was to remain unbending in this respect: Snuff out the supply of skilled manpower and the Ottomans’ naval capability would wither.

Languschi’s sharply drawn portrait was prescient of all the trouble that lay ahead. It caught exactly the truth about the new sultan’s personality: intelligent, cold, quixotic, secretive, ambitious, and deeply frightening. Mehmet was a force of nature; relentless and ruthless, unpredictably prone both to bouts of homicidal rage and moments of compassion. His role model was Alexander the Great; his ambition was to reverse the flow of world conquest; his interest in maps and military technology, supplied in large part by Italian advisers, was purely strategic. Knowledge for Mehmet was practical. Its purpose was invasion. His goal was to be crowned as Caesar in Rome.

Pope Pius himself, ardent for crusade, was given to the anachronistic belief that Christianity might be stirred by the force of papal rhetoric to rise up, as in days of old, and take the cross, spontaneously showering money, resources, and manpower on the holy project to retake Constantinople. In moments of pure fantasy, he even drafted letters appealing to Mehmet to convert to Christianity. The pope was hundreds of years too late. What had proved difficult in 1201 was impossible in the 1460s. Europe was too nationalistic, too divided, too materialistic, too secular.

The Battle of Zonchio had not been lost. It had just not been won. Venice had flunked the chance to stem the Ottoman advance. In psychological terms August 12 was an utter catastrophe. Cowardice, indecision, confusion, reluctance to die for the flag of Saint Mark: The events at Zonchio inflicted deep and long-lasting scars on the maritime psyche. The disaster at Negroponte could be put down to a poor appointment or the inadequacy of a single commander; the debacle at Zonchio was systemic. It revealed fault lines in the whole structure.

In 1503, Venice accepted the inevitable and signed a humiliating peace with Bayezit that confirmed everything he had won. Soon the Venetians would dip their flags to passing Ottoman ships in implicit recognition of a vassal status they were too proud publicly to acknowledge. From now on, cooperation with their powerful Muslim neighbor would become an axiom of Venetian foreign policy, and the city would turn its attention increasingly to building a land empire.

Henceforward, no Christian power could compete with the Ottomans single-handedly. They had taken just fifty years to neutralize the most experienced naval force in the Mediterranean and to turn around centuries of Christian dominance in its eastern half. Yet during this time, the Ottomans had established no real superiority in nautical matters, had fought few sea battles, and had conclusively won none. However, both Mehmet and Bayezit had grasped an essential principle of warfare in the closed sea: There was no need for dominion over the waves; it was the land that counted. By working in conjunction with a powerful army and using the fleet for amphibious operations, they had swept up the strategic bases on which galleys, with their need for frequent harbor stops, depended.

Priuli had been wrong about names, right about the deeds: not Columbus, but Vasco da Gama returned from India in September 1499, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Republic dispatched an ambassador to the court of Lisbon to investigate; it was not until July 1501 that his report came in. The reality of it fell on the lagoon like a thunderclap. Terrible foreboding gripped the city. For the Venetians, who lived with a particularly intense awareness of physical geography, the implications were obvious.

Tome Pires, a Portuguese adventurer, gleefully spelled out the implications for Venice. In 1511, the Portuguese conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, the market for the produce of the Spice Islands. “Whoever is lord of Malacca,” he wrote, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.”

The Republic’s fierce concentration on fiscal management was centuries ahead of its time. It was the only state in the world that had government policies solely geared to economic ends. There was no gap between its political and merchant class. It was a Republic run by and for entrepreneurs and it regulated accordingly. The three great centers of power—the doge’s palace, the Rialto, and the arsenal, respectively the seats of government, trade, and war—were managed by the same ruling group. Venice, before anyone else, understood the essential commercial rules: the principles of supply and demand; the need for consumer choice, a stable currency, on-time delivery, rational laws and taxes; the application of consistent, disciplined, and long-term policies. It replaced the chivalrous medieval knight with a new type of hero: the man of business. All these qualities were expressed in the emblem of Saint Mark. Outsiders had no adequate explanation for the ascent of Venice.

The merchants of the lagoon also hastened the decline of the economic power of the Islamic Middle East and the rise of the West. Over centuries, many of the industries that had made the Levant so wealthy—the manufacture of soap, glass, silk, and paper, the production of sugar—were either usurped by the Republic or undermined by its transport systems. Venetian merchants moved from buying Syrian glass to importing the key raw material—soda ash from the Syrian desert—until the superior glass of Murano was being re-exported to Mamluk palaces.

It provided something of a model to its successors, notably Holland and Britain, as to the ability of small maritime states to gain global reach. It served as a warning, too, of the vulnerabilities of far-flung possessions linked by sea power. The Venetian business model became suddenly obsolete and its supply lines vulnerable. Ultimately the Stato da Mar was as hard to defend as the American colonies were for Britain.