Book Review: Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City


by Dennis Romano

New York & Oxford,: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. xx, 775+. Illus., maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $41.95. ISBN: 0190859989

The City and the Sea

Until recently, the most accessible one-volume history of Venice was A History of Venice by the late British aristocrat, John Julius Norwich (Vintage, 1989). That excellent work now gives pride of place to this splendid volume. The author, Dennis Romano, an emeritus professor of History at Syracuse University, has written or edited numerous books on the subject.

More than any other city on Earth, Venice is the product of its unique physical environment, at a precarious interface between land and sea, a situation that now increasingly threatens its survival with rising sea levels, despite a complex and massively costly barrier system.

The story unfolds in four Parts:

I. Medieval Venice (9 chapters)

II. Renaissance Venice (5 chapters)

III. Old Regime Venice (3 chapters)

IV. Modern and Contemporary Venice (3 chapters)

With only salt and fish as natural resources, Venetians had to rely on their native ingenuity, courage, persistence, and a bit of treachery to build a powerful seaborne Mediterranean empire.

For centuries, Venice called itself La Serenissima (“the most serene Republic”) but serenity was often in short supply: “of the twenty-nine doges who ruled between 742 and 1032, only eight died of natural causes” (p. 47). “Doge” is Venetian dialect for dux the Latin word for “leader,” which comes into English as “duke.” Over the ages some 120 men held this office, which gradually became elective, through a complex electoral process restricted to the merchant aristocracy. The same family names (Morosini, Dandolo, Contarini, Ziani…) appear repeatedly in the list.

A defining event was the theft by two Venetian merchants of St. Mark’s remains from a church in Alexandria in the year 828. To keep Muslim port authorities from inquiring too closely into their cargo, the canny merchants covered the precious relic with sides of pork. “By acquiring the body of one of the four Evangelists, the Venetians were nearly able to match the prestige the pope enjoyed by virtue of his possession of St. Peter’s body” (p. 50). On their silver and gold coinage, which became a standard trade currency in the Western world, Venetians placed the figure of St. Mark handing a banner to a kneeling doge. The saint’s emblem, a winged lion holding a book (or in wartime, a sword) became the flag of Venice.

In 1204 Venice diverted the Fourth Crusade to sack and occupy the Orthodox Christian city of Constantinople (today Istanbul, Türkiye). The four gilt bronze horses that adorn the entrance to St. Mark’s cathedral were just a few of the ancient art treasures looted by Venice. Damaged by air pollution, the actual “Horses of St. Mark” were moved to a climate-controlled museum in 1974, and replaced by replicas.

The wealth accumulated by Venice’s trade with the East helped to fuel an enormous outburst of cultural creativity during the Italian Renaissance (c. 1300 - 1600). Venice abounded in world-class art, music, architecture, and publishing. The Venetian republic was abolished by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796. After a period of Austrian rule, it was absorbed by the kingdom of Italy in 1866. Fragile and vulnerable under the onslaught of millions of tourists and rising seas, Venice today faces an uncertain future.

Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City is well illustrated with black and white photographs, a few color plates, and some good maps. For its size, it is reasonably priced. It will be read with enjoyment by lovers of history.


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews in modern history include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler’s "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort, Governments-in-Exile and the Jews During the Second World War,Admiral Gorshkov, Comrades Betrayed: Jewish World War I Veterans under Hitler, Rome – City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation 1943–44, A Raid on the Red Sea: The Israeli Capture of the Karine A, Strike from the Sea: The Development and Deployment of Strategic Cruise Missiles since 1934, 100 Greatest Battles, Battle for the Island Kingdom, Abraham Lincoln and the Bible, and From Ironclads to Dreadnoughts: The Development of the German Battleship, 1864-1918.




Note: Venice: The Remarkable History of the Lagoon City is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz    

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