Time travel, as I have been reliably been informed again and again, has not yet been invented. Today, however, I would like to introduce you to a book that might just convince you otherwise. Jan Morris’ The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage is not an academic monograph nor is it, at only 200 pages, a terribly imposing book. Within its covers, however, Morris guides her readers across the breadth of the Mediterranean and transports them back in time to the heyday of the Venetian mercantile enterprise.
This journey begins, appropriately enough, in Venice itself. Like other Italian cities of the mediaeval period, Venice owed its prosperity to the transport trade, exploiting its position at the centre of the European economy to become one of the continent’s major entrepôts by the beginning of the 12th century. The Venetian mastery of the seas and her imperial expansion, however, truly begin with the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204, which brought many choice ports over Venetian overlordship.
It is these ports, sometimes little more than a fortress on a headland, which stitched the Venetian empire together, and their exploration fills the majority of Morris’ book. The Dalmatian coast, riddled with pirate dens, the Peloponnese, girded by castles, Crete, Cyprus, and the Ionian islands–all are described with brilliant detail. Through her evocations walk many of Venice’s most famous and fantastical figures, including the blind Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo, leader of the attack against Constantinople, and Captain Marco Antonio Bragadino, whose heroic defence of Famagusta, on Cyprus, demonstrated unparalleled fortitude.
The splendour of Venetian fleets and the scale of her military exploits, however, are accompanied by anecdotes of the city’s more ignominious political acts, like the installation and removal of Caterina Cornaro as Queen of Cyprus or the oppression of Crete’s Orthodox population. Through such tales, Morris reveals Venice as an empire at once alike, and completely different from, other empires of history. In architectural and artistic achievements, the Venetian dominions excelled through the fusion of the Mediterranean cultures with which she came into contact. In her dealings with subject populations and neighbouring states, however, Venice acted with unhesitating self-interest, happily exploiting whatever resources came to hand.
Thus, although Morris purposefully sets aside the traditional forms of historical narrative, her rich tapestry of a book nonetheless strikes at the heart of Venetian imperialism, which remained throughout its life focused upon control of the seas. Despite its merits, however, the book has a few drawbacks, largely related to the author’s own cultural sympathies. The Ottoman Empire–referred to, in a rather hostile manner, as ‘the Turks’ in most instances–is portrayed as an inevitable regional disaster falling upon various enclaves in turn, rather than as a complex historical actor. Other Venetian rivals, such as Genoa and Pisa, are likewise passed over. These biases and omissions, though, are a small price to pay in a book that immerses the reader so fully in the pomp and turmoil of mediaeval Venice.