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  • A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice
  • J. Donald Hughes
Karl Appuhn , A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

That the island city of Venice depended on the sea for trade, and asserted thalassocracy through the well-built ships in her navy, is a commonplace of late medieval and early modern Mediterranean history. Karl Appuhn's fine environmental history is a reminder that the shipbuilding Arsenal of Venice depended on the timber resources of the Italian mainland across the water. Beyond that, the city itself rested on a forest of tree-trunk pilings [tolpi] driven into the mud of the lagoon bottom. Charcoal burners in the mainland forests provided fuel for heating and for such urban industries as glassmaking and dye production. Venice had a ravenous appetite for wood, and rather than importing it, the Serene Republic depended on the lands she had conquered between the Adriatic Sea and the Alps, and on the peninsula of Istria.

Appuhn's study is unique among forest history studies of this period in its careful reading of the sources and its insight into the attitudes and purposes of the Venetian leaders. He shows the evolution of a state apparatus with direct central control of key forest resources, bolstered by meticulous record keeping that included mapping and inventory of the forest resource, often down to individual oak trees. Annual reports aided in perpetuating a valuable institutional memory, useful in planning use of the resource and in detecting thefts and corrupt activities.

From early times until the eighteenth century, Venetian officials in their written comments and speeches emphasized a perpetually short supply of timber and other wood products, and pointed out the threat this constituted to the security of the community. They repeatedly blamed deforestation on peasants who cleared land for their fields and grazed their herds within the forest, as well as local landlords who sought to expand their holdings. As an official on the mainland complained, these landlords "in a very brief time consumed such a substantial number of trees that nature had long struggled to produce for the public advantage" (282). The rhetoric of scarcity, Appuhn believes, was used by bureaucrats to gain support in the city's Council of Ten for such measures as the conversion of local community forests into public forest reserves, and forestry laws that successfully intruded state regulation even into private forests and required peasant labor for state forestry projects. Many other historians cite the reports of scarcity in maintaining that Venice was seriously exhausting her forests, and that this contributed to the fall of the republic in the late eighteenth century. Appuhn counters that Venetian forest policy enabled sustained use of the local wood supply, and that the rhetoric was just [End Page 166] that—even if those who used it actually believed it. One would be wise, however, to maintain a healthy skepticism in the face of Appuhn's contentions: Venice's forest requirements were great, her territory relatively small, and there was deforestation to some extent—examples, indeed, are given in his book. Appuhn returns more than once to the dramatic speech of Leonardo Mocenigo in 1704, which includes the words, ". . . the vast majority of forests are no longer worthy of the name, but have become mere wilderness, stripped of useful vegetation and hollow at their very core" (249). Granted the availability of inventories at the time, this reader wants to believe that there was more to these words than a play for political advantage.

In his conclusion, Appuhn contrasts the "managerial organicism" (12) of Venice's forest bureaucracy with the economic commercialism and colonialism of such northern European countries as England and the Netherlands, going so far as to say that Venice's assertion of jurisdiction over forest landscapes was closer to that of Tokugawa Japan than to the policies of any other European states. He postulates an exceptional Venetian desire to imitate nature in applying environmental policy as part of the reason for its success. He also makes it abundantly clear, however, that the shipbuilding needs of the Arsenal took precedence over all other uses of wood in...


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pp. 166-167
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