Looks at the magical city of Venice through historical figures including Marco Polo, Galileo, Titian, Vivaldi and Casanova.
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A colorful new history of Venice that illuminates the character of the great city-state by shining a light on some of the most celebrated personalities of European historyThe Republic of Venice was the first great economic, cultural, and naval power of the modern Western world. after winning the struggle for ascendency in the late 13th century, the Republic enjoyed
A colorful new history of Venice that illuminates the character of the great city-state by shining a light on some of the most celebrated personalities of European historyThe Republic of Venice was the first great economic, cultural, and naval power of the modern Western world. after winning the struggle for ascendency in the late 13th century, the Republic enjoyed centuries of unprecedented glory. This golden period only drew to an end with the Republic’s eventual surrender to Napoleon.The Venetians illuminates the character of the Republic during these illustrious years by shining a light on some of the most celebrated personalities of european history Petrarch, Marco Polo, Galileo, Titian, Vivaldi, Casanova. Frequently, though, these emblems of the city found themselves at odds with the Venetian authorities who prized stability above all else and were notoriously suspicious of any “cult of personality.” Was this very tension perhaps the engine for the Republic’s unprecedented rise? Rich with biographies of some of the most exalted characters who have ever lived, The Venetians is a refreshing and authoritative new look at the history of the most evocative of city-states.
In 1295 Marco Polo, accompanied by his father and his uncle, arrived back in Venice having travelled 'from the Polar Sea to Java, from Zanzibar to Japan'. According to the man to whom Polo would one day dictate the story of his travels:
from the time when Our Lord formed Adam our first parent with His hands down to this day there has been no man, Christian or Pagan, Tartar or Indian, or of any race whatsoever, who has known or explored so many of the various parts of the world and of its great wonders as this same Messer Marco Polo.
There is no reason to doubt this claim. Marco had left Venice at the age of seventeen, and had been away travelling for twenty-four years. By the time he returned to Venice he was unrecognisable. Just over two centuries later the scholar Giovanni Battista Ramusio, drawing on stories passed down from father to son by Venetian families who were close to the Polos, described their appearance on their return: 'They looked just like Tartars, and they even spoke with an odd accent, having all but forgotten how to speak in the Venetian tongue.' In 1295, the Republic of Venice was more than eight centuries old, and the Council of Ten had over the years imposed very precise sumptuary laws prescribing for its citizens appropriate dress for different classes, commending modest attire, decreeing short hair and prohibiting extravagant or colourful clothes except on special occasions. But Venice was also a busy port, and its citizens would have been accustomed to seeing visitors in rather more exotic attire than their own – ranging from mainland farmers in their traditional peasant dress, their dark faces all but obscured beneath wide-brimmed straw hats, to Arab merchants wearing turbans and djellabas; Slavs and Albanians in tribal baggy trousers; and local Jews in their long dark gaberdine cloaks. Even so, the long hair and long beards of the returning Polos, with their weather-beaten skin deeply tanned and wrinkled by long exposure to tropical sun and desert winds, together with their heavy tattered kaftans, which appeared more like carpets than civilised Venetian cloth, must have stood out. Heads would have turned as they walked from the landing stage across the rickety old wooden Rialto Bridge and through the narrow alleyways of the Castello district to the Ca' Polo, the family mansion, where no one at the gate even recognised them.
The Polos were a minor family of the ruling patrician class, and their fluctuating commercial fortunes had driven them eventually to undertake the bold and ambitious trading journey into the unknown Orient. (In Venice, unlike the kingdoms and dukedoms of the rest of Europe, upper-class families were deeply involved in trade: this was the ethos of the mercantile republic.) The late thirteenth century marked an age of expanding Venetian enterprise; spurred on by competition with their Genoese rivals, Venetian explorers began searching out new markets by sea as well as by land. The Polo family was the embodiment of this adventurous spirit.
Upon their arrival back in Venice, however, word soon spread that the Polos had been reduced to rags, that after twenty-four years of trading they had returned with no more than a Tartar slave bearing a trunk containing their few remaining possessions. As a result, the good name of the Polo family, long respected for their business acumen, suffered severe damage. Without a sound reputation, ventures now undertaken by any of the Polos were liable to attract few – if any – backers or investors. If such rumours were allowed to spread, the family faced the prospect of ruin.
In order to restore their good name, soon after their return the Polos decided to throw a banquet, inviting all members of their family and including as many influential people as they knew. When the guests were seated, Marco Polo, together with his father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo, appeared before the company dressed in flowing robes of the finest silk. They then proceeded to remove these garments and began tearing them into strips, distributing the colourful tatters amongst the servants, before retiring and returning in yet more fine robes, this time made of red velvet. In the midst of the meal the Polos rose once more and began tearing their expensive robes into strips, again distributing these amongst the servants. They then retired and returned once more clad in the finest robes; at the end of the meal, these too were torn to shreds and given away. By now, all understood: the Polos could hardly be poor if they could afford such extravagant gestures. But Marco, Niccolò and Maffeo had one more sensational demonstration, which was to be the finale of their performance. They returned clad in the ragged Mongol attire they had worn on their return to Venice. Ramusio describes how the three of them produced knives and began cutting through the inner seams of their thick garments, 'causing a cascade of precious gems to spill out. These rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, diamonds and emeralds had all been concealed within the garments in such a cunning fashion that no one could have guessed what they contained.' This story has the flavour of an oriental tale, and could indeed be straight out of Scheherazade, though Polo's biographer Laurence Bergreen is of the opinion that here Ramusio 'was probably embellishing but not inventing'. At any rate, this or some similar act certainly seemed to restore the Polo name as successful traders.
However, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, the three Polos were indeed enacting something of an oriental charade – for they were withholding a disastrous secret. They may have returned with a stock of precious gems, but they had in fact been robbed of the major fortune they had made in the course of their twenty-four years of trading. During their travels throughout the Mongol Empire their safety and that of their goods had been under the protection of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who had taken them into his service and issued them with a paiza (a privileged diplomatic pass). This consisted of a gold tablet one foot long and three inches wide, on which was inscribed: 'By the power of Eternal Heaven, holy be the Great Khan's name. Any one not giving reverence to the bearer of this evidence of the Khan's power will be slain.' This had guaranteed them complete protection and gracious hospitality on all their travels.
However, towards the end of their voyage home they had arrived at the empire of Trebizond, a remote Byzantine outpost on the south-eastern Black Sea coast. Here for the first time they were venturing outside the Pax Mongolica, beyond the western jurisdiction of the khan's paiza. Trebizond was nominally a Christian ally of Venice, but its very remoteness, some 500 miles east of Constantinople, meant that it was to all intents and purposes a law unto itself. When the Polos had arrived here, instead of receiving a welcome from their fellow Europeans, they had watched powerless as their trunks of gold had been confiscated by corrupt local authorities. The sum of their losses would seem to have represented a considerable fortune, and might even have been enough to elevate the Polos to a place amongst the richer noble families of Venice, had they retained it. Needless to say, Marco glossed over the distressing events at Trebizond in his account of his travels, and neither his father nor his uncle ever made mention of their huge loss – not until after the death of Uncle Maffeo was reference to this incident found in his will, when accounting for the paucity of inheritance and certain debts that the family owed.
The loss of this fortune probably also accounts for the three Polos arriving back in Venice dressed in such outlandish garb. They could easily have purchased more suitable Venetian clothing when they passed through Constantinople, which had a large, established Venetian trading community. Yet at the time they arrived there the Polos would have been decidedly short of spending money, as well as being wary of risking the secret of their Mongol clothing by exchanging jewellery.
Apart from this episode, Marco Polo soon began regaling all who would listen with tales of his travels in the East, including exotic descriptions of China and Kublai Khan. Ramusio described how:
He kept repeating these stories, always emphasising the magnificence of the Great Khan, claiming that his revenue was between ten and fifteen millions in gold. Likewise, when speaking of the fabulous nature of the other countries he visited, he always spoke in terms of millions. As a result, he soon acquired the nickname Messer Marco Milione, and was even mentioned in the records under this name, while his house became known as the Corte Milione.
And the name persists to this day, having been given to the remaining arches of the Ca' Polo that can still be seen on the façade of the Teatro Malibran in the midst of the Castello district of Venice.
By now Genoa posed a serious threat to the expansion of Venetian trade, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant and the Black Sea. On his return journey from the Orient, Polo himself was surprised to notice as he passed along the shores of the Caspian Sea how 'Genoese merchants have taken to launching ships on this sea and sailing on it'. Already the Genoese had well-established colonies and trading partners at points all around the coast of the Black Sea; now they appeared to be expanding far beyond the confines of Europe. (Indeed, Genoese influence in Trebizond may even have played a part in the seizure of the Polos' treasure.) In 1296, just a year after the Polos had passed through Constantinople, the Genoese launched an attack on the Venetian colony there, seizing all its assets and putting its traders to the sword. The Genoese trading colony in Constantinople would soon be accruing a massive revenue, three times greater than the entire income arriving at the capital city from all over the Byzantine Empire.
The sacking of the Venetian colony in Constantinople set the stage for outright war. After a number of increasingly serious skirmishes between ships of the two rivals, in August 1298 news reached Venice that a Genoese fleet of eighty-eight ships under the command of Admiral Lamba Doria was stationed at the entrance to the Adriatic – posing a direct threat to Venice's trading routes. Doria was keen to draw out the Venetian fleet and engage them in battle, but for some reason the Venetians refused to be drawn. Doria, mindful of his reputation as the greatest naval tactician of his age, suspected that the Venetians were afraid of him. In an attempt at further provocation, he decided to sail into the Adriatic itself – a move that finally forced the Venetians into action.
In the heat of the last days of August, a fleet of ninety-six Venetian galleys – including one under the command of the forty-four-year-old Marco Polo – disembarked from Venice led by Admiral Andrea Dandolo. On assembling outside the lagoon, the fleet began rowing and sailing its way down past the islands of the Dalmatian coast. Impatiently awaiting the appearance of the enemy, the Genoese fleet anchored 300 miles south in the lee of the Venetian island of Curzola (modern Korcula). Here a sudden storm blew up, sinking six of their ships. Exasperated by this development, Doria ordered Genoese forces ashore, where they proceeded to inflict rape and pillage on the local settlements, a move intended to draw the Venetians to the scene as soon as possible. While the Genoese waited, a calm descended and banks of mist began to drift over the glassy sea. Early on the morning of 6 September the sharp black prows of the Venetian galleys appeared out of the mist, as if ready for battle. Then, for no accountable reason, they disappeared back into the mist once more.
Doria suspected that the Venetians, despite their superior numbers, were still afraid of taking on the might of the Genoese fleet. But this was not the case. Dandolo had been informed of the position of the Genoese fleet by boats in flight from Curzola, and now sailed to the other side of the island. Here he put ashore a contingent of soldiers who covertly began making their way over the barren rocky mountains to the far shore. On the morning of Sunday 8 September, in a coordinated attack, the Venetian soldiers stormed the Genoese encampment while the Venetian fleet rounded the island on a following wind and launched into the Genoese galleys. Owing to the element of surprise, the Venetians were able to gain the upper hand, ramming and setting on fire a number of Genoese galleys. On land, a hail of Venetian arrows rained on the Genoese camp and the Venetians charged. At sea, Dandolo managed to capture ten Genoese galleys, but in the midst of this operation a number of his own galleys ran aground in shallow water. Doria immediately seized upon this mishap. As the sea battle continued, he surreptitiously manoeuvred the Genoese ships around the Venetian galleys, until at last he had them surrounded. As Doria began forcing the Venetian galleys into an ever tighter concentration, rendering them unable to manoeuvre, the Genoese began firing burning arrows into their midst. Fire began to spread through the Venetian fleet, yet still they continued to fight. However, after almost nine hours of continuous fighting the Genoese finally overwhelmed the Venetian fleet, eventually capturing or destroying eighty-four of their original ninety-six galleys, and taking prisoner no fewer than 8,000 men. This represented a staggering blow to Venice's ability to fight; at the time the entire population of the city was just under 100,000, and these prisoners accounted for almost one-third of the able-bodied male population of the city.
Faced with the prospect of disgrace and capture by the Genoese, the humiliated Dandolo took his fate into his own hands. It is said that he gave orders that he be lashed to his flagship's mast, and then proceeded to smash his head against it until his skull split open. However, his defeat had not been quite as devastating as he perhaps imagined. Dandolo's fleet had managed to inflict sufficient damage on the galleys under Doria's command that the Genoese admiral decided not to risk consolidating his victory by sailing to attack Venice itself.
Amongst the Venetians taken prisoner was Marco Polo. Since returning to Venice he had continued to trade, and had done so with such success that he soon had sufficient funds to sponsor the building and equipping of a galley, which he himself captained in the campaign. Along with his thousands of fellow captives, Marco Polo was now transported back to Genoa in triumph aboard the captured galleys. Within a month of the battle he found himself confined inside the grim Palazzo di San Giorgio; adding insult to injury, this prison had been constructed out of stones taken more than thirty years previously from the sacked Venetian embassy in Constantinople. Polo and his fellow Venetians now faced the prospect of being confined for many years.
In the manner of the period, the prisoners were allowed to range freely within the castle, and 'nobles' such as commander Marco Polo were permitted large cells that could be decorated with furniture – carpets, bed, hangings and so forth – sent from home. Although many of the poorer ordinary sailors were all but starving, the 'nobles' were permitted to purchase extra rations to ensure their survival. As the months passed, Marco Polo reverted to character, keeping his fellow prisoners entertained with the fabulous tales of his travels through the East. Word of the exploits of 'Il Milione' began to spread through Genoa and, according to Ramusio, 'he was visited by the most noble gentlemen of the city, who bestowed upon him presents to alleviate his confinement'.
Excerpted from The Venetians by Paul Strathern. Copyright © 2013 Paul Strathern. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Paul Strathern is a Somerset Maugham prize-winning novelist, and his nonfiction works include The Venetians; The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior; Napoleon in Egypt; and Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements. He lives in England.
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The book provides an excellent overview into the long and fascinating history of Venice. It starts with the return of Marco Polo who brings with him almost unbelievable tales of adventure in the East but minus all the accumulated wealth, thanks to untimely robbery by corrupt officials in a neighboring state. Then it takes the reader through the ages from Ottoman invasion to plague and other ups and downs experienced by this vibrant city whose long history comes to a close when Napoleon descends on them. Educational yet eminently readable.