Venice: A New History by Thomas F. Madden

Venice is a city that I would love to visit someday. However, before I get around to doing that (if ever), I want to take some time and really study its history. We see Venice all the time in movies and occasionally in video games like Assassin’s Creed II, but why did it come to be built on a lagoon? Why does it have no cars? What sort of people live in a city where canals are the streets? And finally, what role did it play in the history of the Mediterranean for over a thousand years and how does it define itself today? Thomas Madden attempts to answer all of these questions and more in under 500 pages.

Overall, I would say that the book is a well-written treatment of the city of Venice, Italy. Admittedly, it must be difficult choosing what to write about in a city that is so uniquely geographically positioned, built, and with such a massive history. Madden’s writing is accessible to the layperson and does not bog down too much in stuffy scholarship. He offers a sweeping narrative of the city taking care to highlight key figures and emphasizing its growth in the Middle Ages, the expansion of its maritime empire, and its close economic connections with the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). In short, Madden succeeds in writing a reasonably detailed history that goes far broader and deeper than your Lonely Planet travel guide to Venice.

Speaking of travel guides, the final chapter is a somewhat depressing look at the effects of tourism on the city since the mid-20th century. Venice has since been derided as Disneyland for adults; a place that is overcrowded with obnoxious foreigners who only show up for a day to snap photos of its architectural beauty but have little understanding of its true history. Indeed, during the peak tourism season in the summer, the tourists outnumber the Venetians of which only about 60,000 remain while the rest have moved to the mainland to escape the astronomical housing prices and tons of trash left behind by the daytrippers. Since the 1980s, tourism has become the main economic reason that Venice hasn’t completely sunk into the Adriatic. Thankfully, Madden’s book gives you a better appreciation of the city’s history.

In terms of criticisms of the book, there are no footnotes or endnotes and only a bibliography. This makes it very difficult for other historians or the detail-oriented reader to track down specific pieces of evidence. This is understandable because Madden’s book is very broad in focus and seems to be written for a more popular (read: casual) audience and not academics or professional historians. Another criticism is that the narrative is very pro-Venetian in the sense that Madden largely paints Venice and its people as the victim. For example, he seems to downplay the role that Venice had in the Fourth Crusade, particularly in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. Finally, the majority of the book’s content is on Venice during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Once the narrative gets into the 19th century and beyond, it seems to lose focus much in the way that Venice itself, lacking a maritime empire, struggled to redefine its raison d’etre.

While I still want to see the famous City of Canals on top of a lagoon in Italy, after speaking with some of my friends who have been there and reading this book, I am left with a somewhat melancholy impression. Much like some of my students who have no appreciation for history, Venice seems to be a city that has succumbed to the pressures of tourism and only maintains pretty buildings in order to stay afloat. Still, there are historians and the historically-minded out there who find their way across the Piazza San Marco from the Doge’s Palace and into the Biblioteca Marciana to study the manuscripts and archives of Venice. Perhaps I will someday, too.

A very good historical overview for those wanting a place to start.

Up next on my reading list is Istanbul (also by Thomas Madden).

Rating: 4 out of 5 (very good/worth your time).

Rating: 4 out of 5.