The Venetians: A New History; From Marco Polo to Casanova

Pegasus. Dec. 2013. 368p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781605984896. $27.95. HIST
Strathern's (Aristotle in 90 Minutes) title reflects his emphasis, which is much more on people than on institutions. The book's strength is that it offers entertaining vignettes of a number of colorful Venetians, including painters, writers, and luminaries such as Marco Polo as well as Sofia Baffo, first concubine of Ottoman emperor Murad III, and Francesco Lupazolli, the Venetian consul at Smyrna in the mid-1600s, whose chief claim to fame seems to have been that he died at 115, after siring 24 children. The author's criterion for inclusion here appears to be, above all, color. Strathern's stories do entertain, but they don't always enlighten or at least not enough. That's the glaring weakness of this work: it won't really help the reader to understand better Venice and its people. Strathern does lay down context—government, economy, the evolving treatment of Venetian Jews, the plague—but explanation is drowned in a flood of stories that are as much show as substance.
VERDICT Given the presence of two superb recent histories of Venice—Joanne M. Ferraro's Venice: History of the Floating City and Thomas F. Madden's Venice: A New History—why spend time on this volume?

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