Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune is a single-volume, popular-but-not-stupid, history of Venice from about 1200-1500. So this is a time period that I’ve read about a bunch in a whole pile of different contexts, right, but Venice has always been in the background, never the foreground. Like, in reading about the Crusades, there’d be a reference to the “ill-fated” Fourth Crusade and its sacking of Byzantium. Reading about the Renaissance, there’d be an offhand reference to Genoa fighting with Venice. Reading about the Silk Road, Venetian shipping comes up. Whatever the context, Venice is always kinda hanging around.
And so now here’s the book that pulls Venice into the foreground, calling out that this isn’t just some little city, it’s a whole-ass naval empire, with imperial holdings in Greece and on the Black Sea; and military conflicts that directly led to devastation in Constantinople, the greatest city in the Mediterranean at the time. It’s actually the Hundred Years’ War that’s off on the edge of the map where nobody cares; Venice is at the very center of European history at this time.
So, concretely, the book spends a lot of time talking about that Fourth Crusade. Instead of just handwaving it off as an embarrassment, it talks in detail about what ended up happening, why it happened that way, and what the impact was. That bare “Venice had a rivalry with Genoa, yadda yadda sack of Constantinople” narrative that I’d always had lying around in a back-of-head way gets fully fleshed out. And that rivalry with Genoa gets more color, too—I actually find myself really wanting more of the Genoese perspective on it now, but I can’t really fault a book about Venice for not being more about Genoa.
This is a compellingly readable book that colors in an essential player in the the late medieval world. If it sounds at all interesting to you, it’s an easy recommendation.