Anyone who has visited Venice, with its fine buildings and waterways, probably thinks of the Renaissance. While Venice was of course a power during that period, its naval empire was won and lost in the medieval period.
It is those first five hundred years that are narrated in Roger Crowley’s book ‘City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire’. From the founding of the city in the lagoon around 1000, to 1500, by which time the Ottoman conquest had clipped Venice’s power, and the discovery by the Portuguese of an alternative route for the spice trade, damaged its commercial success.
My interest in Venice was sparked not only by a couple of visits to the city, but by the role it played in the history of the Balkans. In many cities and towns along the coast of the Balkan peninsular, you can see the typical Italian architecture and the lion of St Mark engraved into the walls and fortresses.
I have John Julius Norwich’s classic two-volume history, which is very readable. Crowley writes in a similar style, covering the Venetian focus on commerce and the steps they took to protect their trade routes.
Their role in the diversion of the 1204 crusade to Constantinople is well covered, but I was less aware of the siege that nearly finished the city in 1379/80, when the Genoese and their Paduan allies nearly captured Venice. The city recovered and it was only the Ottoman conquest that snuffed out their naval bases.
So, if you want a readable, single volume, narrative history of Venice in the medieval period – this is the book for you.