Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 117-119
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The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297-1797
Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1297-1797. Edited by John Martin and Dennis Romano (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) 556 pp. $45.00
This volume is deliberately structured as a reappraisal of the earlier Renaissance Venice, edited by John Hale (London, 1973). Hale's book contained contributions from some of the leading historians of the day (for example, David Herlihy, Frederic Lane, Nicolai Rubinstein, and Felix Gilbert), [End Page 117] not all of them historians of Venice. Venice Reconsidered has only one contributor from the earlier volume, Stanley Chojnacki. A comparison of his 1973 essay on patrician families with his new piece on the "third" serrata (closing of membership in the Grand Council to patricians only) is itself an illuminating point of entry into how concerns with social historical issues have led to revision regarding Venice's political and cultural history.
"It is no longer possible to isolate the history of the Republic between the dates 1297 and 1797," say the editors, who confine their contribution to a fine historiographical introduction. They determine that the myth of Venice (as an open, just, and benevolent patrician-dominated society) is no longer compelling. Emphasis on sound archival work remains, but now the archives of the terraferma also come into play. Music (Martha Feldman's paper on opera) and material culture (Patricia Fortini Brown's contribution) have supplemented art historical approaches (Peter Humfrey on Veronese's altarpiece in San Sebastiano). In place of institutional political histories are more problematic explorations of Venetian identity (Debra Pincus' chapter on ducal tombs, Richard Mackenney's on the Spanish conspiracy of 1618, Chojnacki's on "Identity and Ideology in Renaissance Venice," and James Grubb's on the inchoate social status of Venetian cittadini).
One result is that, rather than Hale's symphonic tribute to Venice's greatness, Martin and Romano offer the occasional clashing harmonies of free-form jazz. Edward Muir's assessment of the effects of Venice's staggering defeat at Agnadello, discussed on the basis of judicial sources from the terraferma in terms of republican and communal ideals, contrasts interestingly with Elizabeth Gleason's uncovering of Venice's "new realities" in Spanish-dominated Italy. Chojnacki's take on the "third" serrata of the early sixteenth century offers subtle variations on the themes in the defining essay in this collection, the late Gerhard Rösch's depiction of a generation-long process begun with the serrata of 1297. Rösch's comparison of documentary evidence with the accounts of fifteenth-century chroniclers is good, old careful scholarship at its best. Sounding new notes are Federica Ambrosini's survey of twenty years' work on Venetian women and Robert Davis' chapter on Venice's place in Mediterranean networks of slavery and charitable institutions that worked to ransom enslaved Venetians. Davis' essay and that of Peter Burke on Venice's role as a center of communication place Venice's history in a much wider geographical and chronological frame than did the essays in Hale's volume.
Venice Reconsidered is bracketed by two essays that differ dramatically from those in the earlier book. Each considers, in its own way, the very roots of Venice's reputation. The opening essay by Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan examines the ecological history of Venice. Problems with water levels and quality are hardly new to the lagoon city. Crouzet-Pavan determines that deteriorating environmental conditions and a new discourse about their danger "helped to desacralize the Venetian mentality [End Page 118] by representing the state, its magistrates, and their course of action as capable of preserving the city and ensuring the survival of its inhabitants" (56). Claudio Povolo's concluding study looks at early efforts, post 1797, at writing the history of the no-longer independent Venice. The myth of paternalistic good government that emerged served to maintain an idealized continuity to the present day.
Despite some losses between the...