Monday, March 02, 2009


I am reading A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich. It's the totally traditional type of history with almost no information about social history, the economy, lower or middle class issues (only the rulers and military leaders count) -- in other words, it's about dead white males -- rich and powerful ones. Just for an example: not a word about the foundation and invention of the Ghetto.

And very little about food other than mentioning that some of the conquests of nearby territory were driven by the need for land on which food could grow. Hurrah! He admits that people ate food! As early as the year 1000, Venice was outgrowing the "patches of productive land" on the nearby islands, and needed to control shipping and mainland territory. (p. 54) And doges were quite early prohibited from accepting gifts of food and wine: "not more than one animal or ten brace of birds at a time." However, they had the right to "apples, cherries, and crabs" from Lombardy and Treviso so we can guess a little about what they ate. (p. 151) Surprisingly, there is very little detail about the spice trade -- just vast histories of the battles that defended it; he does mention the introduction of sugar from the Middle East (p. 270). (So it's the opposite of the book The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, which I read recently.)

I've kept reading Norwich almost to the end because it links to other historic reading I've done. Anyway, I like a challenge. So here are a couple of interesting things.

An eleventh century doge married Princess Maria Argyra, niece of two Byzantine emperors. Her oriental ways astounded the Venetians: she did not deign "to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small peices, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth." So wrote historian Peter Damian. I'm sure this is often mentioned when the complicated history of the fork is discussed; it illustrates how it was in use in Byzantium early -- forgotten in the west -- not introduced or invented at a single moment in history. (p. 60)

Finally, here's a historic detail: at the end of the fifteenth century, Venice had a serious financial crisis: "One of her major private banks, the Garzoni, had failed ... for 200,000 ducats, despite a personal offer of 30,000 fromthe Doge himself in an attempt to save it; and since then another, the Lippomano, had gone the same way, causing a panic-stricken run on banks throughout the city." So we didn't invent the bailout, either, here in 21st century America! (p. 387)

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