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October 2, 2015

The Venetians


"We have much to learn from the historical parade of varied characters who so reflected Venice's rise and long, long decline."
- Paul Strathern

I enjoyed this "new" history of Venice. It's not comprehensive (and it's a bit heavy on naval battles), but I liked the author's focus on Venetians who are not only the usual suspects (Marco Polo, Vivaldi, Casanova) but also those who I'd never "met" before.

I enjoyed learning about Nicolo Barbaro, a Venetian physician who was in Constantinople in 1453 during the Siege and whose diaries tell us much about that epic war. "Game of Thrones" fans will be interested to see the parallels between the Siege and the fictional Battle of the Blackwater in the second GOT book, Clash of the Kings.

Another Venetian who was new to me was Leon da Modena (1571-1648), a poet, scholar, rabbi, and compulsive gambler who lived in the Ghetto. A fascinating character!

And then there's Sofia Baffo, born into a noble Venetian family in 1550. Her father was the governor of Corfu when it was still part of the Venetian empire. In the early 1560's, she left Corfu on a boat on its way back to Venice and was kidnapped by pirates who sold her to the Sultan's son who added her to his enormous harem in Constantinople. The son eventually became Sultan, and she became "first wife" (bash kadin, chief woman of the harem), and she used her influence and power to help Venice in its seemingly constant struggles with the Turks. When her husband died, she had 18 of his 19 sons strangled so that her biological son would become the next Sultan. In 1602, she herself was strangled. Instant karma?

"The Venetians" also has the most detailed account I've read of the life and times of Caterina Cornaro, Venetian noblewoman who was briefly the Queen of Cyprus. What a sad life she had. The Venetian Republic used her badly, sad to say.

Another Venetian woman I met was Laura Querini who entered (or was forced into) the convent of San Zaccaria in 1584 when she was 15 years old. She and a friend painstakingly dug a hole in a storeroom floor in order to allow boys to sneak in for visits and romance. They were caught and it was quite a scandal!

I also met Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838), a Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a priest (which didn't stop him from maintaining an active romantic life). He was briefly the priest of the church of San Luca but was eventually exiled from Venice because of scandal. He went to Vienna, hung out with Mozart, and ended up moving to New York City. Welcome to America!

So I recommend this book to any and all Venice lovers. It was fun to read!

October 20, 2015

Smithsonian Journeys: Venice


The Winter 2015 edition of Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly is all about Venice! I'm looking forward to reading this soon.

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