- Venice: History of the Floating City by Joanne M. Ferraro, and Venice: A New History by Thomas F. Madden
The historian who decides to write a history of Venice faces a number of daunting choices. Does she or he write what is essentially an urban history, focusing on the physical development of the city and the makeup of its inhabitants or instead write a history of the Venetian Republic, which encompassed not only the city itself and its lagoon but also an extensive overseas empire and a large territorial state on the Italian mainland? Assuming the latter approach, what does he or she do with the period from the fall of the Republic in 1797 to the present? Finally, what themes deserve emphasis?
When Frederic C. Lane published his monumental history of Venice forty years ago—Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore, 1973)—he opted to write what was essentially a history of the Republic, with only a few pages dedicated to the post-1797 period. What made Lane’s work so powerful and useful even today was the meaning that he imposed on his material. For Lane, the significance of Venice lay in its commercial and naval prowess and its tradition of republican government. When it came out in 1973, the great revolution in social and cultural history was just beginning: Pullan’s study of welfare and Venetian confraternities had appeared only two years before, and Chojnacki would not publish his first article on patrician women until 1974.1 Brown’s study of confraternities and Venetian narrative painting would not be published until 1988.2 Since that time, a veritable flood of research has been carried out and published on nearly all aspects of Venetian social and cultural life.
The great merit of Ferraro’s history of Venice is her synthesis and [End Page 261] incorporation of much of that material into what is essentially a history of the Republic. She devotes only one short chapter to the period post-1797. Furthermore, to her great credit, Ferraro, like Lane, seeks to impose some meaning on the material. She weaves four themes or subjects throughout her account: the creation of Venetian identities, material culture and multiculturalism, society and social hierarchies, and gender. Ferraro, who has published extensively on family and gender in early modern Venice, does a particularly good job of tracing the role of family life in the evolution of the Venetian ruling class and of bringing Venetian women forthrightly into the narrative, especially in the early modern period. Likewise, she pays serious attention to music and its role in Venetian society and culture. But her account of the Middle Ages, especially of Venice’s urban development, is something of a muddle, and her attempts to argue for a cosmopolitan and multicultural Venice seem, at times, forced. Her account of politics and economics makes few advances over what Lane told us; it is unfortunate that she did not choose to show how the themes that she emphasizes (and well understands) played out in the political sphere. For example, how did the inevitable tension between provincialism and cosmopolitism shape debates about citizenship and guild membership?
In contrast, Madden’s history reads as if it could have been written at the same time as Lane’s. Madden, who has published an important book on Doge Enrico Dandolo and much on the Crusades, offers an old-fashioned narrative of high politics and international affairs, with a couple of chapters devoted to the post-1797 period. Women, except for the inevitable nod toward the courtesan Veronica Franco and an account of Lord Byron’s mistresses, and non-nobles, except oarsmen, hardly have a role to play in Madden’s Venice. Even his account of high politics is overly skewed toward the eastern Mediterranean. He offers detailed accounts of the Fourth Crusade and wars with the Turks but tells his readers that the wars that Venice fought to create its mainland state and that had...