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addabook - Venice
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A New History
Thomas F. Madden
read on March 13, 2017

We had a trip planned to go to Venice this month, and I wanted to prepare properly. Having been to Venice twice before, I'm quite familiar with the city, but had been entirely unfamiliar with it's history. Happily, this book corrected that. I really enjoyed it, but sadly wasn't able to read enough of it prior to the trip, and actually finished in the week or so after we returned, and so was left with a few things I wish I had known while we were there.

Regardless, fantastic book, amazing city. Madden calls Venice "an exquisite corpse", which I think is the best way to describe it. Venice is uniquely beautiful, but having visited it before, my impression was always part awe, and part disgust at the throngs of tourists, noisy, oily boats, gimmicky gondoliers, kitschy mask shops, and borderline disneyland feeling. The book gives amazing context behind that. Venice's history is fascinating. Some bullets:

  • Venice was arguably the first real republic. Since about the 900's, local inhabitants have been there after having fled the Huns on the mainland. Venetians had representative government long before it was trendy.
  • Venice was it's own independent, and extremely powerful state. Master of the seas, masters of trade.  They totally owned Mediterranean trade and pretty much monopolized access to spices and goods from the east. They only began losing steam when Spain/Portugal found their way around Africa in the 1500s and began trading with India directly.
  • Well... that and La Serrata, which dramatically increased inequality in Venice, undermining the efficacy of the republic and eventually (combined with the above) its economy. This came up four years ago for me in Plutocrats - wonderful to close the loop on it.
  • Venice missed overlapping with the USA by 10 years. The two never coexisted. F'ing Napoleon.
  • Venice was deeply involved in the crusades. This was covered in pretty good detail, but Madden has written several other standalone books on the topic that I'd like to get into.

That's it. I love Venice. Reading this book made me love it more. I hope it doesn't change - but if I learned anything in this book, I know that it will.


Madden has a followup book on Constantinople as well, which I'm highly interested in. 



Author Bio:

Thomas Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. As an author and historical consultant he has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and The History Channel. Dr. Madden's latest book is Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World, recently published by Viking/Penguin. His previous books include, Venice: A New History, The Concise History of the Crusades, Empires of Trust, and Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. He has also written and lectured extensively on the ancient and medieval Mediterranean as well as the history of Christianity and Islam. Awards for his scholarship include the Medieval Academy of America's Haskins Medal and the Medieval Institute's Otto Grundler Prize. He is a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Medieval Academy of America.