The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
Roger Crowley's account of the history of Venice is as readable as fiction. He is at his most gripping when detailing the events of the Fourth Crusade. After the sack of Constantinople he gets a little bogged down in the endless series of conflicts with the Genoese but the narrative picks up again with the appearance of the terrifying Sultan Mehmet and the inexorable advance of the Ottoman empire.
What is most fascinating about the history of Venice is the way that it invented itself and this is where Crowley is at his best. "One of the only Italian cities not to have existed in Roman times,' he observes, 'its inhabitants had created their antiquity out of theft and borrowings."
In Crowley's view Venice was always less of a geographical state and more a state of mind – "the first virtual city". As such it had enormous advantages over its competitors but was always dependent on factors outside its own control. So, when trade routes changed overnight with the discovery of a sea route to India, the network of trading relationships upon which its entire existence depended was suddenly obsolete.
Nevertheless, for hundreds of years a tiny city whose very existence seemed entirely improbable made an enormous impact upon the course of world history. Crowley's analysis of how they accomplished this astonishing feat is both illuminating and entertaining.