The story of Venice, as told in this book by Roger Crowley, is a fascinating tale of how trade and commerce (often organically) gets tied to the creation of empires.
Centuries before the Portuguese landed in Kerala or the East India Companies were chartered, early examples of European colonial empires were being set up through the merchant networks of Italian city-states – the most notable being those of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa.
Together, they fought for control of trade routes between Europe and Asia. Then, beginning with a simple contract to build ships for soldiers of the fourth Crusade, Venice went on to establish colonies, maritime districts, and puppet governments across the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
Crowley does a great job in painting contrasts – between Venetian merchants focused on honouring contracts and crusaders anxious for glory; the rigid class-consciousness of Byzantine aristocracy and the aggressive competitiveness of Italian traders in Constantinople; the communal state-led enterprise of Venice and the privatised individualism of Genoese business.
At the same time, he regularly refers to the complex political and economic relations in the region at the time – such as when Venice demanded a right to trade with Muslim merchants in Egypt in return for supporting the crusades; or when the rival Venetians and Genoans forged a hasty alliance to fight Mongol raids against their Black Sea ports.
Overall, a fascinating read. One of the blurbs on the book cover (by Stella Tillyard of The Daily Telegraph) recommends that as a reader, you should “take it [the book] there with you this summer!”. Apart from the practical difficulties of travelling to Venice from India, I would like to provide potential readers with the following advice – if you’re the sort who sees Venice as this quiet, romantic getaway where you can enjoy love and life from a gondola, then this is not a book for you. If, on the other hand, your idea of romance can handle war, conflict, rivalry, colonialism and the deep complexities of power which are rooted into the buildings and streets of most cities, then this might be a good choice.
Link to the book on Goodreads.
Link to the book on Amazon.in
PS – I recommend pairing this book with Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. The Great Game, among other things, is also a story of empire-building on the backs of commercial interests, although it is set in a very different time and place. The similarities and differences between the two stories make for some interesting comparisons.