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  • A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice
  • Jason Hardgrave
A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice. By Karl R. Appuhn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 376 pp. $60.00 (cloth).

Histories of Venice are typically and necessarily concerned with water as the defining feature of the city's physical and political geography, but as Karl Appuhn's work reminds us, the city is held above the waves on piles and ships made of wood. Entirely dependent on outside resources for its existence and, as this work indicates, wood possibly more than any other, Venice needed a secure and sustainable source of timber. The scope and to some extent approach of the work, described by the author as longue durée, considers the development of social and political attitudes and responses to Venetian timber resources. Beginning in the fourteenth century, continuing through the 1797 fall of the Republic, Appuhn traces the development of attitudes, offices, and legislation about forest use and preservation. The work bridges premodern and modern environmental history, showcasing a period of developing policy and perception more modern than medieval in its understanding, use, and preservation of mainland forests through a system balancing economic and ecological forces through what Appuhn terms "managerial organicism" (p. 9).

Venetian's dependence on imported goods and resources, with a particular focus on timber in this text, created the context for the acquisition in earnest of coastal colonies and territories on the Italian mainland beginning in the fifteenth century. Following a concise introduction, this is where Appuhn's work begins, exploring the sources and [End Page 867] uses of Venetian timber products. Specifically he refutes the classical stereotypes of scholars such as Frederick Lane that Venice's avarice for shipbuilding materials resulted in a system of destructive clear cutting on the mainland and down the coast of Dalmatia. As he states, "by the time the Venetians had become capable of consuming all the available timber in their territories, they had also created an elaborate system of legal, bureaucratic, and technological safeguards aimed at preventing just such a catastrophe" (p. 25). The remaining chapters of the book examine these institutions and the rhetorical context behind their creation and function.

When Venetians realized that control of the forested territories did not eliminate timber shortages and that market forces did not stabilize the situation, new positions and officials were created. A prime example in the wake of a heating fuel crisis was the creation of the provveditori sopra il fatto delle legne to manage firewood. While various incarnations of this office managed the purchase and sale of firewood, it became apparent that additional bureaucrats were needed to survey and administer the resources directly in the forests. Additionally the needs of the state overrode individual claims and profit, particularly regarding the timber needs of Venice's great shipbuilding industry, the Arsenal, with the creation of state-owned forests known as boschi pubblici. This was supplemented by extensive legislation regarding the use and maintenance of community forests through laws persisting until the end of the Republic.

Additional layers of bureaucracy were implemented in succeeding centuries. A proveditore sopra boschi to survey and record the variety and quality of forest resources, along with a provveditori all'arsenale charged with securing shipbuilding materials, joined the firewood monitor provveditori sopra il fatto delle legne in combing and claiming the mainland forest reserves. This inevitably led to conflict as all three offices competed not only for the wood, but also for political and economic power. The central dispute concerned which agency controlled the forests, and was not over the actual trees themselves. As Appuhn points out, firewood and shipbuilding materials are not of the same species or quality of timber. From these conflicts arose much of the rhetoric of scarcity, each party attempting to gain support by presenting the availability of wood as a much more critical problem than it actually was. Future surveys of the forests confirm this, the core feature of chapter 5, and integrated a level of expertise into the bureaucracy charged with the forests. Experts in cartography, scientists experienced in dating and grading trees, and historians joined resource surveyors. The...