Venice: A New History
By Thomas Madden
Published in October 2013
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Venice: A New History is a survey history of the city of Venice from the time of its construction in the wake of the destruction of the Roman empire until the present day. I generally dislike survey histories because I find them to be vague and non-specific, but this book is awesome.
If you want to read a single book to get a basic overview of Venice, this is it. It is neither overly dumbed down nor does it go into pedantic academic detail. The writing style is clear, crisp, and simple - just the way I like it. The detail levels are perfectly balanced - enough detail to make sure that the reader has enough context to understand what is going on without drowing them in distracting information.
There are so many fascinating aspects of Venetian history. Venice starts off as a libertarian commercial paradise, but slowly devolves into a whore ridden police state - the North Korea of the renaissance. The book also covers the less known history of Venice - what happens after the renaissance but before the unification of Italy.
My favorite chapters are the ones describing how, in the 1600s and 1700s, Venice reinvented itself into a city modeled off of a touristic economy. Napoleon's conquest and partial destruction of the city is also interesting. You hear a lot about the renaissance, but never what happens after.
The other chapters that I enjoyed delved into the economics of Venice during its peak. Other strong chapters discuss the evolution of late medieval finance; the mass production of ships at the arsenal and early assembly lines; or ways that Venetians would scam British tourists in the 1700s.
One chapter that also marked me was the one giving context to the 4th crusade. When you study medieval history there is a narrative that you always get: the Venetians destroyed the Byzantine empire because they were assholes. This book tries to explain the Venetian perspective, complete with accounts of negotiations being organized prior to the crusades. I had no idea that the Byzantines had, twenty years earlier, orchestrated an anti-Venetian genocide. The way that the knights bartered with the doge, and the doge claimed he lacked authority to negotiate as a tactic also was really inspiring.
Venice: A New History has endless nuggets of gold contained within it. History books are rarely this good - I recommend it as the definitive guide to Venetian history.
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