Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 120-121
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Venice and the Slavs:
The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment
Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment. By Larry Wolff (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001) 362 pp. $49.50
The burgeoning literature about "encounters with the Other" has concentrated on European reactions to the very Other, the peoples of distant Africa, the Near East, Asia, and the Americas. Wolff's original contribution is to consider Western perceptions of a culture that was near to hand yet largely alien, familiar yet mysterious—that of the Dalmatian coast and Slavic hinterland, threshold between West and East. He has firm control of high theory, which he applies in a lucid and sensible manner, and he has—judging from generous quotation and summarization—rich material with which to work.
The "discovery" of the title is not intended literally, as Venice had ruled most of Dalmatia for centuries and had long recruited workers from it, but Wolff points out correctly that only in the eighteenth century—after annexation of a large new chunk of the region, containing the fierce and strange people known as the Morlacchi—did Venetians [End Page 120] look closely at it. They did so sometimes in the spirit of the Enlightenment, with an ethnographical eye and a view to reform, and sometimes in the spirit of Romanticism, looking for the exotic. Either way, Venetians sought to distinguish that which was civilized from that which was barbaric, and, in the process, tried to come to grips with the nature of their own imperial venture.
They did so in disparate ways. Poets and playwrights made up stories or imaginatively recast others' work; government commissioners took an empirical approach; antiquarians and academics wrote formal treatises; travelers adopted the Herodotean method of behavioral description. Some found Dalmatians—especially the Morlacchi—ferocious and cruel; others noted their valor and hospitality. To some, the Dalmatians evoked the noble savage, to others only the primitive and bestial. To Wolff's credit, he does not try to reduce the many debates and manifestoes to a single "ideology of empire" (quoting Anthony Pagden), but locates a plethora of representations. He discerns broad changes, notably from the Venetians' focus on the Dalmatians' lack of discipline to their focus on Venice's "civilizing mission," but largely leaves the account open-ended: The process hardly ended with the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797.
The "Venice" of the title, too, is somewhat misleading, not just because the dominant presence in the book, the cleric Alberto Fortis, was actually a Paduan (only the most chauvinist Venetianist could quibble about that). Rather, the writers who populate these pages were engaged in a broader endeavor of classification and description that characterizes the Enlightenment at large. Venetians shared the preoccupations of Carolus Linnaeus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Madame de Stael, and Voltaire, and their works were quickly translated into the major vernaculars of the continent, presumably because the wider body of philosophes was intensely interested in this experiment in cultural exploration. At the same time, some educated Dalmatians, resentful of the Venetian enterprise and eager to reclaim control of the discourse concerning their soil and culture, put nationalist sentiment into play. Wolff looks beyond the capital to explore issues of resistance and identity formation by the colonized. Dalmatia thus serves as a case study for some large-scale inquiries, and the book is not at all parochial.
Two final notes: First, that Wolff has understood the linguistic and political technicalities of Venice is no mean feat, considering he was not hitherto a specialist in that peculiar and demanding place. Second, he has introduced us to one of the most fascinating people of the time. Writer Giustiniana Wynne was born to an Englishman and a Venetian of Greek background, held an Austrian noble title, had an affair with Casanova (and others), wrote in French, and addressed her work to Catherine the Great. What a companion for a dinner party!