Review: Venice- A New History by Thomas F. Madden

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Thomas Madden’s majestic, sprawling history of Venice is the first full portrait of the city in English in almost thirty years. Using long-buried archival material and a wealth of newly translated documents, Madden has weaves a spellbinding story of a place and its people, tracing an arc from the city’s humble origins as a lagoon refuge to its apex as a vast maritime empire and Renaissance epicenter to its rebirth as a modern tourist hub.

Madden explores all aspects of Venice’s breathtaking achievements: the construction of its unparalleled navy, its role as an economic powerhouse and birthplace of capitalism, its popularization of opera, the stunning architecture of its watery environs, and more. He sets these in the context of the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire, the endless waves of Crusades to the Holy Land, and the awesome power of Turkish sultans. And perhaps most critically, Madden corrects the stereotype of Shakespeare’s money-lending Shylock that has distorted the Venetian character, uncovering instead a much more complex and fascinating story, peopled by men and women whose ingenuity and deep faith profoundly altered the course of civilization.

Read to coincide with my reading of The Visitant, Venice: A New History is thoroughly enlightening in regards to a city mainly known today for romance and tourism. Venice, as presented in this book, is so much more than that that perhaps the saddest part is that the once proud empire has be reduced to a honeymoon destination. Venice consistently stood out in Italian history as a republic, created by flight from barbarians invading the area. Its governance was unique and not only that, it maintained this uniqueness for centuries. Constantly caught in clashes with the Turks and Ottoman Empire, deeply devout, thoroughly efficient in business, and espoused to maritime trade and the navy, Venice has a rich history almost separate from that of the rest of Italy.

Often painted as the villain, Venice was merely being true to itself and often was an easy target to other jealous European powers. In truth the city was far more peaceable and fair than most of the rest of Europe and most of all thoroughly tied to trade. A fascinating look at a very different Italian city.

4 out of 5

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