City of Fortune by Roger Crowley

Book Reviews

During the Middle Ages, a city on the sea enjoyed many advantages such as easy access to a trade route. Water meant transportation and trade that could lead to wealth. One city on the sea gained and lost an empire during the medieval period.

Roger Crowley in City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas examines the rise and fall of this municipality at the edge of the Adriatic Sea.

Venice, surrounded almost entirely by water, came to depend on trade with the East and Muslim lands for its survival. Its economy and way of life developed from a set format for trade and industry. Bells signaled the start and end of each work day. Ships knew which port to go to and how long to remain. Nearly all citizens depended on trade for their livelihood in one form or another. The sea provided the good life for the aristocrats and jobs for everyone else.

Venetian history and legend claims to have removed the body of St. Mark from Alexandria Egypt and brought it to the city. It became central to their Catholic faith. Venice also remained alert to any threat that would disrupt their access to the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. In 1202, Venice became the primary backers for the Fourth Crusade. Instead of directly going to the Holy Land, at the risk of papal displeasure, they sailed to the city of Zara and captured it. From there, they went onto Constantinople where in a couple of years, the city lay in ruins. One objective for Venice had been to bring the city back to the Roman Catholic faith from their Orthodox views. They also wanted to get back their investment from those in the city who had backed the Crusade. After the Fourth Crusade, Venice began to build an empire by establishing several colonies and posts along the trade route to India. They battled for control of the area with their bitter rival, Genoa. After prevailing over them in 1380, Venice established a large empire around the Mediterranean at sites such as Corfu and Crete. With all this trade, Venice became extremely wealthy.

In the fifteenth century, the city faced an even more serious threat to their holdings. The Turks or Ottomans began to expand their own empire closer to Europe. In 1453, Constantinople became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans fought Venice over control of several ports as they also tried to advance further into Europe. The two sides met in battle several times with Venice losing territory after each one. As a result, Venice lost its domination in the eastern Mediterranean and had difficulty conducting trade. Their empire came to an end, and they sought new ways to make money. In the near term, it would not have mattered as the Portuguese, Spanish, and English began to explore the oceans and as a consequence, discovered new trade routes to the Orient leaving Venice behind in trade and empire. For several hundred years, Venice could claim to be the most powerful empire in the world before losing to bigger and stronger rivals.

There may be more to a city than just what the tourist sees. All cities have their unique history and traditions and Venice is no different. While Venice made mistakes in their past, they have thrived and are still a major port on the sea.

About the Author

Judy Klamm is a reference librarian in Central Reference. She has written book reviews for Library Journal and various Presbyterian publications.

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