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The best books on The Venetian Empire

recommended by Georg Christ

Cultures of Empire: Rethinking Venetian rule 1400–1700: Essays in Honour of Benjamin Arbel by Franz-Julius Morche & Georg Christ

Cultures of Empire: Rethinking Venetian rule 1400–1700: Essays in Honour of Benjamin Arbel
by Franz-Julius Morche & Georg Christ

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The Venetian Republic was one of the mightiest empires of early modern Europe, with its Terraferma dominions on land and a maritime empire, the Stato da Màr,  that stretched across the Mediterranean. Its unique strength lay in long-distance trade and, as historian Georg Christ explains, in some ways, it resembled a company more than a state. Here, he recommends books to better understand the Venetian empire, what it was and how it grew.

Interview by Benedict King

Cultures of Empire: Rethinking Venetian rule 1400–1700: Essays in Honour of Benjamin Arbel by Franz-Julius Morche & Georg Christ

Cultures of Empire: Rethinking Venetian rule 1400–1700: Essays in Honour of Benjamin Arbel
by Franz-Julius Morche & Georg Christ

Read
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Before we get on to the books, I wonder if you could say when and why the Venetian empire started and what it consisted of at its maximum extent?

It’s very difficult to say when it started. It’s all controversial, even the date when Venice was founded. In order to make a claim to be independent, it was important for Venetians to hark back to a Roman past and to say Venice had existed since the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, but that’s essentially a mythological claim.

If we want to talk about an empire, we need something that is bigger than a city or a territorial state and we have to define the degree of exertion of power. What does it mean to control something that is bigger than a territorial state? If we focus on economic control, the year 1000 is a good, rough marker. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Venetians attempted to check the competition of other emporia in the northern Adriatic. In 1000 they reinforced that policy, trying to control the other side of the Adriatic with activities in Istria and Dalmatia, as well as becoming more assertive in their interactions with the Byzantine Empire. They’re powerful in many ways. They are clearly submissive to the Emperor, but increasingly they can use their fleet as a bargaining chip and maximize their de facto power. They do the same in the northern Italian Terraferma, around the city’s hinterland. They become economically more dominant in the salt trade and, using that as leverage, they can exert certain levels of political control. That works well for a while.

Then there are changes as their informal power has to turn into formal power. For Byzantium, 1204 is the important date. On the Terraferma it’s later, around the beginning of the 14th century. That’s when they were first rebuffed and forced to take a more assertive stance. Their informal hegemony was challenged more and more through the rise of northern Italy’s late medieval ‘Signoria’ states. 100 years later, the late 14th and early 15th centuries, is what is described as the beginning of Venice’s ‘imperial age’ in lots of traditional literature on the Venetian empire. That’s when they start to build up this territorial state. But it would be anachronistic to think of this as a fully integrated state in the modern sense. It remains very much a patchwork of different relationships between these various types of subordinated political entities and Venice.

But, if you want to think of Venice’s empire in a more modern, general sense, i.e. empire as a mega state, with some sort of a colonial administration and attempt to impose taxes, legislation and so on from the centre, then you have to go even later. Paradoxically, that goes hand in hand with the shrinking of the Venetian empire, although it’s not that straightforward. It shrinks in some parts and expands elsewhere till the very end of the 18th century. But, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it turned into a more integrated unit with stronger legal and fiscal homogeneity.

And the empire consists of parts of mainland Italy, the other side of the Adriatic and some of the Greek islands, like Crete?

Yes, it’s mainly the northern Italian Terrafirma, what is now the Veneto and going into what’s now Emilia-Romagna to the south. They never quite hit Modena or Bologna. They went a bit further south into the Papal lands and further west towards Milan, all the way to Brescia and also towards the Alps to the north and northeast into Friuli.

Round the Adriatic, it’s Dalmatia in today’s Croatia, and part of today’s Montenegro, Albania and Corfu.  In the eastern Mediterranean they had Crete and Cyprus was added relatively late in the 15th century. That’s pretty much it. You could add the southern Adriatic. It’s mainly an informal, economic hegemony, but there was an attempt in the late 15th century to build territorial possessions in Apulia. But it’s ephemeral, not long-lasting.

“They’re trying to stabilize, buttress and maintain a system of long-distance trade”

Now, there is one thing I would add that’s important although, conventionally, it’s not included in definitions of the Venetian empire. To fully understand a commercial empire, I think you need to consider it. You have the two famous paths, the Terraferma or land-based empire, and the sea-based empire. These are the ‘two wings of the lion.’ I would add a third, the diasporic empire. Venetian diasporic communities are extremely important as an extension of the empire into other realms. They were crucial in terms of connectivity. If you understand the Venetian empire not as an early modern imperialistic entity along the lines of the British Empire, but more as something geared towards maximizing and enabling trade connectivity, then these diasporic communities are essential because they make the connection.

They serve as ambassadors and consuls, the traditional accoutrements of diplomatic relations, but they are important beyond that. There are Venetians in Alexandria in Egypt, some even in Cairo, the very capital of the Mamluk Empire. The Venetians in Byzantium were a very important element in shaping the interaction between Venice and the Byzantine Empire, all the way to the breakdown of the late 12th century and the tragedy of 1204, but after that as well. There were also Venetian communities in London, Southampton, Bruges, and so on. These types of communities are the real connectors that create Venice’s unique selling proposition, which is, in many ways, long-distance trade.

Let’s get on to the books you’re recommending on the Venetian empire. First up is Venice: A Documentary History 1450-1630 by Brian Pullan, David Sanderson Chambers and Jennifer Fletcher. What does this book tell us about the Venetian Empire and why have you chosen it?

It’s a collection of primary sources. It seems an odd choice, but it’s complicated finding Venetian historic texts talking about this ‘imperial period.’ The primary sources are circumspect in how they’re talking of and about empire. This collection of sources is one great way into the subject.

There are a few others translated into English as well, like Marino Sanuto’s travelogue, his account of an inspection trip on the Terraferma. That’s a great book about the Venetian empire, but it’s just about the Terraferma. In this source edition, you have excerpts from that but also samples of many other primary sources. Thanks to the editors—who are familiar with Anglo-American scholarship’s ideas about the Venetian empire—they include lots of very useful sources on different elements of the empire. That’s why I included it.

One of my favourites is a relatively late source. It’s a Spanish ambassador writing very critically about the Venetian empire. He writes that Venice has acquired “a vast and spacious empire of great wealth and power, both maritime and terrestrial. Hence it can truly be called a great and powerful commonwealth…But to tell Your Majesty [i.e. the Spanish King] the truth, they are all for the most part uninhabited and barren, and to put it bluntly, they are more of a vile beasts’ lair or a robbers’ roost than places of great importance.” That’s just one example. There are many interesting sources in the book that show the problems around the very notion of a Venetian empire.

Let’s move on to The Military Organization of a Renaissance State: Venice 1400-1617 by Michael E Mallett and John Rigby Hale. Tell us about this one.

This book isn’t focusing on the maritime empire, which is normally viewed as the more interesting, typical and important component of the Venetian empire. The authors are very consciously focusing on the land-based wing of the empire, the Terrafirma. This is very important because Venice could not have built up the Terrafirma state without being expert, efficient and well-organized as a land-based empire, doing the things mega states at the time did, that is mastering the financial sinews of power to flex military muscle to conquer and defend a territorial state.

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The book corrects a tendency for historians to focus on the maritime wing of the empire: the galley, the East, gold and pepper.  In reality, it goes without saying that the two wings must go hand in hand. It’s great to control the salt trade, and the salt pans. It’s very much a sea-based resource, although technically the salt pan itself is on land. But who uses the salt? Well, the farmers need salt for cattle breeding. You also need it to cure meat and to eat and so on. It’s very much a resource required on land. Therefore, the two things go hand in hand and Mallett and Hale remind us of the importance of the land base. Venice was not what we want it to be: the exception, the extraordinary, the almost mythical, oriental, fairy tale entity in the sea. It’s just a state acting as early modern states did, doing the stuff early modern states have to do—bloody, boring, financial, military things.

When they took over territories—Dalmatia, what is now Veneto and Friuli—did they do so on the back of significant military campaigns, or were they able to annex those territories without huge military conflict?

It really depends which part you’re looking at. Normally the process is marked by a pragmatic use of opportunity. In Friuli at the beginning of the 15th century, there was a civil war. Venice got involved informally at first, with a little bit of money, of support, leaning on one side. Then more muscle comes into play, with Venetian troops eventually becoming active. But it starts off as a relatively low-intensity conflict, taking sides in an internal affair.

In other places, it’s different. In Padua, Venice perceives the ruling family as becoming too powerful. They are allied with Genoa, Venice’s archenemy and there was a more robust approach right from the beginning (although, even there, Venice first supported the family).

If you take a step back to the beginning of the 14th century and the relationship with Ferrara, that worked well for a long time, with hegemonic, indirect control of the salt trade and other elements of trade. Then they’re challenged a bit, and it becomes more and more difficult to uphold that regime. An opportunity arises during a disputed succession. So they intervene again, on the side of one of the pretenders.

The Venetian approach in Dalmatia is different. In the 14th century, they’re rebuffed and cannot really sustain an aggressive military approach. Before that, they did sometimes attack, as they did the so-called Narentinian pirates, who arguably were not pirates, just competitors. As an imperial power, one way to deal with competitors is to call them pirates. People who are outside of everything can be dealt with quite aggressively.

So I would say it’s pragmatic. Often the initiative for expansion did not come from Venice, but from the subordinate—a city or territory that wanted protection. It was either the Ottoman emperor or Venice and so that particular territory or city approached Venice. ‘Could you please accept us into your commonwealth/empire? Could you be our overlord?’ The Venetians sometimes said that, no, they couldn’t. It was too expensive, too complicated, too provocative. When you look at the fine print, even when they accept a role as protector or overlord, they often make sure that they are not offending the former or alternative overlords. So they’d say, ‘We are overlords but of course, we accept you, the Ottoman Empire, as our overlord, at least for this particular place we are getting involved with.’ There’s a great deal of ambiguity. They might imply to Ottoman interlocutors that ‘we accept you as an overlord, we are part of the Ottoman Empire.’ Of course they cannot say that publicly, because the Pope would probably have a problem with it. They are very flexible in their approach. They use ambiguity and multiple meanings and they get away with it.

Let’s go on to the next book, Venice: A Maritime Republic by Frederic Chapin Lane. Why is this book a must-read on the Venetian Empire?

The main reason is that this is just the best book, full stop, about Venice. It’s a little bit highbrow, so if you want an easy, shorter introduction there are other options, which we will talk about. But if you’re a little bit more ambitious, and you say, ‘Okay, what’s the best, most robust book on Venice and the Venetian empire?’ then I would still point to Lane, even though it is from 1973. As a holistic, general take, it’s absolutely brilliant.

Perhaps because I’m an economic historian, I think it’s really important when you approach Venice that you’re not trying to reduce it to art and cultural phenomena. The economic element is really important. In many ways, you could say Venice is more akin to a firm than to a state. In the Middle Ages, the Senate is almost akin to a board of directors and the Maggior Consiglio to a stakeholder meeting. Of course, one can challenge all these comparisons, but it’s important to think about Venice a little bit in these terms. Lane does that very effectively. He has been criticized for not including the newest cultural theory and findings and so on, but I think that’s a bit unfair because in terms of a broad, rigorous, comprehensive, overall view, it’s an absolute masterpiece.

The second reason I chose it is that we should not be tricked by titles such as a ‘maritime republic’, into thinking that this has nothing to do with empire. To understand modern empires, it’s very important to understand how the two things are linked. It’s probably not a coincidence that Frederic Lane is a US historian. He’s a fantastic historian, but still a child of his time. He had an official function as a naval historian during the Second World War, so he was part of the war effort. For him, thinking about the legitimacy of empires, of modern empires, of the US empire was very important. For the US empire, being a ‘republic’ is a very important legitimizing factor. It says, ‘We are not a totalitarian empire, we are very different from the evil forces we are fighting, we are not a fascist, totalitarian state. Our empire rests on the pillars of civic liberties and freedom, and tolerance and respect.’ And so on.

So his take on Venice, which is very subtle and does not in any way jeopardize the quality of the account, suggests this line that Venice is a predecessor of the modern empire in that it rests on a republican base. This is something you also find in the sources of the time. The Venetians are emphasizing that all the time, although they have an interesting variation. For them, it’s not so much that they’re a republic, but that they are the ideal combination of all three classical types of states: they are combining aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy. In that sense, it is maybe more about empire (and the US), than the title would at first suggest.

Does it give us a clear particular economic explanation for the rise of Venice’s power?

He does that really well. He shows how it is very much driven by economic factors. Long-distance trade is an important element. In many ways, the empire building, if you want to call it that, is following the trade routes. They’re trying to stabilize, buttress and maintain a system of long-distance trade that is jeopardized by the implosion of or the challenge to pre-existing, ‘real’ empires: the Byzantine Empire and the Mamluk Empire.

An important aspect of the classic empire is to guarantee freedom of trade; the protection of the merchants by the emperor. There is a bit of a debate about this in legal historical circles. Some people say it is all nonsense or empty words and that there was no imperial protection of traders. All trade relationships were negotiated on the ground and ad hoc—in some game-theoretical way. In that scenario there would be no international law, that would be anachronistic. I would say, no, while the term international law is anachronistic, there still was something there, a shared idea of both what the rights of merchants should be, and a shared understanding, also, that these were often not respected.

That’s the point at which it becomes interesting, and it becomes clear how Venice started acting as an empire. It’s not because they are consciously trying to formally become an empire. They actually studiously avoided that. This is about maintaining the empire that is always there and that guarantees mercantile freedoms. Now, if the Byzantine emperor cannot guarantee freedom of trade, and the protection of merchants anymore, well, someone has to do it. So the Venetians have to do it themselves, not because they wanted to be the new emperor, but because the emperor is not there right now and not doing the job of protecting long-distance trade.

So Venice acted on behalf of the emperor, if you like, exercising empire without trying to become an empire. That becomes very clear reading Lane, how the necessities of trade, and of defending certain trade privileges, trigger this imperial action. I would go further than Lane and emphasize the importance of a conservative tilt, of trying to uphold old imperial liberties, while Lane emphasizes more the idea that there’s a problem and an opportunity, and the Venetians react. He has, perhaps, more of a developmental perspective.

Let’s move on to Venice: the Hinge of Europe by William McNeill, which was published at about the same time but just after Lane.

Yes, a little bit later. In any case, too late for Lane to change the outlook of his book as I just tried to sketch out. There’s something amiss or out of sync with that developmental perspective, this image of a small little entity, a few villages in the lagoon, starting to acquire some salt monopolies, then bashing down their local competitors, like Comacchio and Narona, and then growing and growing and growing. Something is amiss because Venetian long-distance trade predates  Venetian military muscle by a long, long time. The Venetians are active in Alexandria way before the Venetians are able to project military power to Alexandria. Also, it’s important not to forget that they never really do. They never tried to conquer Alexandria.

McNeill was very important for me in understanding that. He is a global historian, a herald of world history, with great books on the plague and many other things as well, who thinks very broadly. He is a fantastic writer. His book takes a step back and de-centres Venice. He emphasizes the importance of seeing Venice as a hinge, a connector between realms, the two easts—the Orthodox east and the Islamic east—and the Latin west. It’s a history of connectivity. I think foregrounding Venice merely as a connector, as a node was a really important shift and although it’s a famous book, it has not penetrated mainstream historiography as much as it ought to. A node can be powerful, of course, but it cannot really replace the things it’s connecting unless it becomes a total, universal empire.

A  lot of the galleys at the battle of Lepanto were Venetian, presumably under the power of the Pope or Emperor Charles V. Also, didn’t the Venetians play a strong role in the naval protection of the Christian emperor in Constantinople against the depredations of the Ottoman Empire? Was that strong mercenary role for the various emperors what helped Venice grow and exercise influence, or was it the other way around?

It had a much more mercenary side than maybe comes through in some of the mainstream accounts. Lane, before he wrote his masterpiece that we just discussed, was really a specialist in the Venetian navy, focusing on its institutionalization. Before, it was really a mercenary force. The earlier story is of Venice as an entrepreneur, pulling together galleys from different sources, from private, local entrepreneurs.

The Venetian fleet, when it was helping the Byzantines against Normans or Muslim raiders is probably still a composite fleet. A lot of the outfitting of the ships is financed by private money, with the Venetian government coordinating and acting as a meta-contractor, basically. It’s representing a sort of consortium of ship owners and then negotiating with the Byzantine emperor on their behalf. But this becomes more and more of a state affair because part of what comes out of it is not just payment that goes to these different operators of ships, but also political privileges and rights that are then held and controlled by the Venetian community, the city of Venice.

That’s really the story of Byzantine-Venetian relations, at least from the year 1000 until the breakdown of relations in 1204, with the Venetians acting as maritime mercenaries. Venice used its naval might to renegotiate the terms of trade and its privileges within this integrated economic area that was the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians continue to do that, along similar lines, with the  Islamic empire of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria, except that there we don’t have big naval encounters. It’s more subtle. They are acting against pirates, but it’s a very delicate affair because these pirates claim to be Crusaders. The Venetians are intervening de facto on the side of the Mamluks, so you have this mercenary element there as well: naval services in exchange for smooth trade relations.

Then you have it at Lepanto. There’s not a very strong Venetian interest in that, but they cannot really step aside in such a big, papal crusading enterprise. You also have it with the Crusader States, if you take a step back. So yes, that’s a very important element of Venetian diplomacy and of Venice’s interaction with other players, not least imperial players: they use their fleet as a bargaining chip to renegotiate their position.

Let’s go on to the last book The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage by Jan Morris. Jan Morris is a popular historian and a journalist, rather than an academic. Why have you chosen this one?

It’s a beautiful book and a very important complement. In a way, it’s in the tradition of Marino Sanuto, who I mentioned earlier. It’s basically a eulogy. Sanuto’s account is really a defence of the Venetian empire, a praise of the Venetian land-based empire, the Terraferma, but he structures this cleverly as a travelogue, as reporting. Morris does a similar thing with the maritime empire, also slightly eulogical or panegyrical. She clearly loves Venice.

There’s nothing wrong with that, provided we read it critically. It’s a beautiful read, precisely because she is a journalist, and can maybe take these liberties that historians can’t. She can bring together different elements, the personal and the factual. It’s very well-researched and she can present it in a different way. She takes an iterative approach to the Venetian Empire, following the routes of the galleys. It’s structured almost like a travelogue.

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In many ways Jan Morris is bang on. Historians in their nit-picking, hypercritical way might insist that this isn’t all accurate, that this or that might be problematic, and so on. But in their own work, those historians might miss out on constructing the broad strokes of something. Their construction might be a complete misconstruction, although the pointillist details might be correct.

There is an idea of the Venetian empire which is very much informed by a somewhat anachronistic historians’ definition of empire, which is the British Empire. That is then projected back to Venice. Morris doesn’t do that, but takes an experience-based approach, her experience of travelling, to the Venetian empire. It maybe comes closer to how many Venetians experienced the Venetian empire, as a series of stations that you hit which all have to do with Venice but in many different ways. You might encounter certain elements that remind you of Venice, and you might perceive this as more or less Venetian, but ultimately it’s a fluid thing. It depends very much on your perception of what you’re looking at. And, in any case, your final destination is almost always outside the Venetian empire, according to the standard definition of historians—in Istanbul, Alexandria, Damascus, Aleppo, Bruges, London. But there you still have a Venetian diaspora that make it Venice, who create a little Venice. Jan Morris brings this really crucial fluidity in what is Venetian back in, which is a great thing. For anyone who doesn’t have the time and the stamina to read Lane, this book is a great entry point.

Tell us about your recent book on Venetian history, Cultures of Empire: Rethinking Venetian Rule 1400-1700.

It was really a Festschrift for Benny Arbel, who worked a lot on the Venetians of the maritime empire, mainly in the early modern period. I wrote an introduction with my former PhD student, Franz Julius Morche, reviewing the current state of research on the Venetian Empire, challenging the very notion of a Venetian empire, but also trying to make sense of the debate that is going on between mainly Italian versus English speaking and writing scholarship. The former is critical of the notion of the Venetian empire, maybe also because of the bad associations with empire, especially in continental Europe. That scholarship suggests that Venice was a commonwealth. Anglo-American scholarship took a very different route, be it with a  positive or negative connotation of the Venetian empire, yet in both cases constructing it as a predecessor of and akin to the British Empire. Our intro tried to make sense of this debate in a rigorous, academic way.

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It starts with what the terminology means. What does ‘imperium’ mean and how has it been used since the Roman period and especially in the Middle Ages and early modern period? How did the Venetians use it? How did they use it very carefully to distinguish between the universal empire of a Byzantine emperor, or the Roman emperor, or the Pope for that matter, versus the other Latin meaning, which is to have limited control, typically for a limited period, over a very clearly distinct area? Of course the Venetians do make use of empire in that latter sense of having de facto power over certain things. But they’re not making a claim—in terms of political taxonomy or rank—to be an imperial player, because that makes no sense for them: they need to connect with other empires. Making such a claim would present problems with regard to diplomatic interactions with the Papacy, the Mamluk Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. It’s even true with regard to the Byzantine Empire, although there it’s a more complicated story because Venice does eventually almost frontally challenge the Byzantine Empire. Even in that case, they still shy away from the temptation to say, after 1204, that they have defeated the Emperor and that it is therefore they who are the new imperial power in the region. They might have thought about it, but they very consciously did not do it. They inserted themselves into the pre-existing imperial framework—in a very powerful position, but not as emperors.

Interview by Benedict King

September 14, 2022

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Georg Christ

Georg Christ

Georg Christ is a senior lecturer in medieval and early modern history at the University of Manchester, UK, and a general staff officer in the Swiss Army. His work focuses on relations between Venice and the Mamluk Empire including the role of diasporas in transmediterranean connectivity.

Georg Christ

Georg Christ

Georg Christ is a senior lecturer in medieval and early modern history at the University of Manchester, UK, and a general staff officer in the Swiss Army. His work focuses on relations between Venice and the Mamluk Empire including the role of diasporas in transmediterranean connectivity.