City of Fortune:
How Venice Ruled the Seas
by Roger Crowley
Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York 2013
[Challenge # 3: A book taking place mostly or all on the water]
I was a little concerned that City of Fortune, which was a history of the city of Venice between the 11th and 16th centuries, would not fully meet the criteria for this category. It was, after all, a civil history. But to my delight, it did.
The book’s focus was on the Stato di Mar, the “State of the Sea” that the Venetians used to control their empire, which was one of trade. Like many Italian cities of the Medieval period, Venice was a city-state, but its extended holdings were not on land but on sea… in ports, harbors and islands, and the trading communities of far-flung cities like Brussels, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Their knowledge of the sea and shipbuilding skills made this possible, and their often dangerous commerce with the Muslim and Greek Orthodox worlds enriched the city’s culture and design. For a while it was the richest city in Italy.
The Stato di Mar lasted only until the beginning of the 16th century, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the Portuguese discovery of trade routes to India which allowed them to hijack the spice trade. The author writes covers his material well and at times I thought I was reading a thrilling adventure novel. It was all fascinating stuff, and the maps included were a big help… except Negroponte, an important Venetian holding, was not labeled. I made it through five-sixths of the book without knowing where it was because the text did not tell me, and it was annoying. (It’s off the east coast of upper Greece.)
I still rate the book five stars, and I’ll keep it for reference, because the political analysis of that time will come in very useful when plotting my own stories.