Published February 28th, 2012
Roger Crowley spins tales of three centuries of plunder and plague, conquest and piracy in City of Fortune, How Venice Ruled the Seas, chronicling the transformation of a tiny city of lagoon dwellers (Venice) into the richest place on earth. Crowley has also memorably written of Istanbul, Venice’s natural rival and object of envy, in 1453, The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, marking the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. As Crowley notes, “For a thousand years Constantinople was quite simply the city: fabulously wealthy, imperial, intimidating — and Christian.”
Crowley writes in City of Fortune: “…Venice always looked to Constantinople. This was the great city of the world, the gateway to the East. Through its warehouses on the Golden Horn flowed the wealth of the wider world: Russian furs, wax, slaves, and caviar; spices from India and China; ivory, silk, precious stones and gold. Out of these materials, Byzantine craftsman fashioned extraordinary objects, both sacred and profane — reliquaries, mosaics, chalices chased with emeralds, costumes of shot silk — that formed the taste of Venice.
The astonishing Basilica of Saint Mark, reconsecrated in 1094, was designed by Greek architects on the pattern of the Church of Holy Apostles in Constantinople; its artisans recounted the story of Saint Mark, stone by stone, in imitation of the styles of Saint Sophia (Hagia Sophia); its goldsmiths and enamellers created the Pala d’Oro, the golden altarpiece, a miraculous expression of Byzantine devotion to art. The whiff of spices on the quays of Venice had been carried a thousand miles from the godowns of the Golden Horn. Constantinople was Venice’s souk, where its merchants gathered to make (and lose) fortunes.”
Crowley includes a short list of books on the Venetian Empire, including Jan Morris’s The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage – “a wonderfully evocative ‘cruise’ around Venice’s Mediterranean empire” and John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice — “the best (and almost, strangely, the only) general modern history of Venice in English.” He suggests visiting, naturally, Venice, especially its lesser known Maritime Museum. He notes that “Venetian forts, harbors and architecture are scattered across the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Adriatic coast of Croatia is particularly heavily influenced by the Venetian style. Otherwise Crete, especially in its three principle cities — Heraklion, Rethimno and Hania (Chania) — contains the single most concentrated visible remains of the Stato da Mar.”
For more see the Longitude Essential Reading Guide for Venice.