The Decline of Venice and the Rise of England

Political Economies of Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean: The Decline of Venice and the Rise of England, 1450-1700
Maria Fusaro
Cambridge University Press 433pp £74.99

One sometimes forgotten admirer of both the Venetian and British empires was Adolf Hitler. The Führer frequently lauded each as having found the keys to power and popularity, worth recalling by his 1,000 Year Reich as historical models. However, the commerce of the two seaborne polities was not an issue that attracted the attentions of the Führer. But it is trade that lies at the heart of Maria Fusaro’s fine account, sprung from massive archival labour, of the economic and political rise of one imperium, the economic and political fall of the other and the intermingling of these processes, both in real terms and, more importantly, in the mind. For Fusaro is determined to remind her readers, contrary to mainstream historiography, that Venice was indeed an empire and one whose imperial glories, preoccupations and costs acted as a model to those capitalist successors which have lasted into the 20th century and beyond: ‘The ultimate goal of the Venetian government was commercial hegemony through long-distance trade and the administration of its possessions.’ Therefore, she contends, ‘it is time to bring empire back into the history of Venice’.

Once she has set out her interpretational wares, Fusaro engages in a detailed and wide-ranging exploration of her subject, demonstrating how special Venice’s relationship was with Tudor England and a Levant being conquered by Ottoman arms (Cyprus fell in 1571). By the 1590s, for example, English merchant ships were acquiring a major role in the traffic of the Eastern Mediterranean, ousting Venetian competitors, even if, Fusaro is sure, ‘Venice always looked east’ and a hope in empire lingered until the Republic’s collapse in 1797. Given the pre-eminence of commerce, both London and Venice possessed merchant ‘communities’, with Fusaro precisely mapping such presence; her readers will learn which osterie were listed by the Republic as appropriate to satisfy foreign appetities. She similarly tracks which parishes in which sestieri housed such visitors, who sometimes stayed on from one decade to the next.  

Fusaro is perceptively insistent on the role in her story of the subjects of empire, the Greeks, Jews and other Levantines, who took their place in the dealings of the rival polities and crafted their own collaboration or competition. The mugging of Lawrence Hider en route from Piazza San Marco ‘one balmy September evening’ in 1628 by the Cephalonian, Elia Vignari, is one well-told tale. The state, Fusaro underlines, mattered in the construction of each empire. But so did a motley band of cosmopolitan individuals, often possessed of their own networks that were neither simply Venetian nor simply English.

And the state could be in error. During its last century as an imperial power, Venice wasted its resources on expanding its territorial rule of the Ionian islands and in Dalmatia. So, Fusaro concludes, in its decline, ‘while talking like a commercial empire, Venice was acting like a territorial empire’. Such a message from the past reads like cautionary tale to the great and powerful of our own times (one which Adolf Hitler, among many others, failed to comprehend).

Richard Bosworth published Venice: An Italian History with Yale University Press in 2014. 

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