Venice: A New History – Thomas F. Madden

I have had many arguments with friends which got me labelled as some kind of history sceptic. This isn’t a conspiracy thing – I just refute a certain significance that people give to history, particularly in how it is taught in schools. People seem to walk away with a notion that history is some kind of a crystal ball into the future. THAT is what I refute. History is a crystal ball into the present, and that is a much less impressive trick.

History is a good way to understand how we got to where we are now. It is in no way a road map of where we are going. That those two things are conflated is massively infuriating.

Venice: A New History is exactly what it says on the tin – a history of Venice. It begins with the founding of the island city, shows it rise to empire, and shows its ultimate fall. It nominates the main players of the story, and is extremely thorough and up to date. I was impressed that it even nominated Silvio Berlusconi, the recent declared ‘death’ of the city, the MOSE project, and the recent permissive government that allowed cruise ships into the grand canal of the city proper. This book will not only get you caught up, but would allow you to speak with some sophistication about the real contemporary issues of the city.

That is impressive. When I think of history, I (incorrectly) never really think about events that occurred during my life (and again, I think this is a fault in how schools handle the teaching of history).

There are lots of ways in which one can look at history. One is as a story in and of itself, and this is what Madden presents us with. Another is history as a puzzle piece to the present. This isn’t the first book I have read that offers a history of Venice, but it is the first one that gives it a story in itself. Other ones really focus on how Venice: impacted the imperialism that came after it, really was central in the development of what we would call modern tourism, and to what extent modern banking and finance was completely born in Venice. These are important aspects, do not get me wrong, but to a certain extent that isn’t exactly what history is exactly. This book is really akin to a biography of the city. Just like a biography would focus on the whole life of an individual and not just their major achievements, this book tackles Venice in an analogous fashion.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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