- - Friday, March 2, 2012

By Roger Crowley
Random House, $32 464 pages

It was called the “Serene Republic,” though in its heyday it was anything but serene. For that matter, once it got going, it was always more of a multinational trading company than a true republic, with most of the shares and the power in the hands of a small, ruthless class of hereditary plutocrats. It began as a swamp and ended as a gilded, corrupt resort town for the 18th-century European equivalent of the jet set. And it is that Venetian Republic, in the long years of its slow, shimmering decline, that is familiar to most of us.

How could it not be, immortalized as it is on canvas by Canaletto; in the memoirs of wandering native sons such as Giacomo Casanova and Lorenzo Da Ponte (Mozart’s best librettist in Vienna and, in his old age, the first professor of Italian at Columbia University); and at the theater in the comedies of Carlo Goldoni and his archrival Carlo Gozzi, whose own acerbic, aptly titled Memorie Inutili, or “Useless Memoirs,” capture both the elegance and the decadence of a Venetian era when, in his words, “women turned into men and men into women and both of them to monkeys.”

During the Age of Enlightenment, anyone who was anybody made Venice a stop on the Grand Tour, preferably in carnival season when, especially by candlelight, masked cavaliers cavorted with masked beauties, pickpockets and prostitutes sometimes passed for highborn ladies and gentlemen … and, occasionally, vice versa. The Venetian Republic was remarkably long-lived, emerging as an independent city-state circa A.D. 697 and lingering on, albeit in an advanced state of decrepitude, until a young French revolutionary general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte administered the coup de grace almost exactly 11 centuries later in 1797.

In “City of Fortune,” popular historian Roger Crowley concentrates on the three centuries from 1204 to 1503 when a very unserene Venetian Republic - ruthless, avaricious and unabashedly pragmatic at a time when most European monarchs ruled on the basis of divine right, obsessed on doctrinal disputes, and loved nothing better than a good crusade - regularly outsmarted its opponents.

Not that Venice entirely avoided crusades. On the contrary, in 1204 it literally hijacked the Fourth Crusade - for which it had contracted to provide sea transport - transforming an expedition meant to rescue the Holy Land into a sacking and looting operation against the Christian Byzantine Empire. Constantinople - and Eastern Christendom in general - never fully recovered from this wanton act which rendered the eventual Muslim conquest relatively easy. A dilapidated Constantinople ultimately fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The Christian rape of Constantinople was, as Mr. Crowley writes, “the scandal of the age,” and the Serene Republic came out of it with western Greece, Corfu, the Ionian Isles and three-eighths of Constantinople, including the docks and the arsenal.

Real estate would change hands over the years but, for three centuries, Venice would be “Mistress of the Seas” that mattered, with a strategic chain of island and coastal colonies from Dalmatia to Crete and Cyprus and points beyond, thereby holding a virtual monopoly on trade between Europe and the Orient. Only the double whammy of Ottoman land and naval superiority and the discoveries of Christopher Columbus and company would finally marginalize the Venetians, arguably adding to their serenity while stripping them of most of their power.

It is the blood, guts and single-minded sense of purpose that characterized the Venetian Republic at its height that fascinate Mr. Crowley, who is a deft hand when it comes to battle canvases and seafaring yarns. The same lively narrative style, rich in eyewitness accounts, that characterized his two earlier, well-received books (“1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West” and “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World”) is on ample display in “City of Fortune” and makes it an enjoyable, highly readable introduction to a chapter of history rich in intrigue, ingenuity and adventure, but woefully short of genuine heroes.

• Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His writing on history, politics, gastronomy and the arts has been widely published in the United States and overseas.