Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #4

According to tradition, the city of Venice was founded at the stroke of noon on Friday, March 25, a. d. 421. On the Catholic calendar it was the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the day when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The story goes that around this time three Roman consuls from the city of Padua on the mainland came to a group of islands two miles from the coast known as  the Rivoalto,  or “high bank”. On slighter higher ground on both sides of a deep channel running through the area settlers from the mainland had established a small community. The area where they settled became known as the Rialto, a corruption of rivoalto, and adjacent channel was eventually transmogrified into the Grand Canal. The three consuls had supposedly come to the Rialto to set up a trading post and found a church dedicated to St. Giacomo (James), thus sanctioning the small settlement.  A church of St. Giacomo di Rialto still exists, just north of the Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal, but the building itself apparently dates to around the eleventh century. The area around the Rialto Bridge, where Venice was founded, remains to this day the most commercial and often most crowded part of the city. 
The Lagoon of Venice with Venice in the center of photo. It is separated from the rest of the Adriatic Sea by long narrow barrier islands (click on photos for enlargements). 
 Venice in center of photo. The S-shaped Grand Canal can be seen running through the middle of the city.
It is understandable that the promoters of the origins legend wanted to link the founding of the city to the Day of the Annunciation, an extremely important event on the Catholic calendar. It is not clear why the origins legend states that the city was founded precisely at the stroke of noon. Was this when the church dedicated to St.  Giacomo was consecrated? We don’t know. Indeed, the historicity of the whole legend has been questioned. Could it possible havebeen contrived simply to add luster to Venice, a city which as it evolved was never lacking in its sense of self-importance? We do know, however, that people were living on the island of the Rivoalto in the early fifth century. A few may have been long-time residents, isolated groups of fishermen, hunters, and salt gatherers. Some may have been criminals, hiding out from the authorities on the main land. Most, however, were refugees from the Goth invasions. 

Today the Goths are known mainly for giving their name to horrible pop music, even more execrable clothing, and a dubious lifestyle. At one time, however, they were a potent political force in Europe.  For centuries the Goths, a Germanic people possibly originating in Sweden, had been fighting their way south towards the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to the beginning of the Christian era they had crossed the Baltic Sea into what is now Germany and by the second century the tall, light-skinned, largely blonde-haired marauders, notoriously for their ferocity, were causing havoc all along the northern border of the Roman Empire. They eventually broke into two groups, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. In the 390s the first Visigoth ruler, Alaric I, even dared advance on Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine, or East Roman, Empire. His attack  on the capital having been thwarted by the Byzantines, he turned his army to the southwest, into Greece, where he sacked Corinth, Sparta, Piraeus (the port of Athens), and other cities. He then set his sights on the Western Roman empire and its capital of Rome. Utilizing the superb Roman-built roads he and his army soon founded themselves in the ancient region of Veneto, positioned on the broad strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Dolomites and other mountains of the Alps to the north. Blessed with numerous rivers, plentiful rainfall, fertile soil, and bountiful forests, its famously industrious people had made this one of the richest regions in the Roman empire, dotted with prosperous cities like Padau, Vicenza, Asolo, Patavium, Concordia, Altino, and Montagnana. The provincial capital of Aquileia, with a population of 100,000, was deemed by the fourth-century Roman poet and scholar Ausonius (c. 310—c. 395) to be one of the nine great cities in the world, mentioned in same breath as Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and others.

In 402 Alaric and his rampaging Goths thoroughly pillaged noble Aquileia, sending shockwaves of panic throughout Veneto and beyond. Those with the means to do so fled in advance of the Goth onslaught. Some sought refuge on the islands of the Rivoalto, where it was hoped the Goths had neither the desire nor means to pursue them. Alaric was indeed focused on Rome, which he finally ransacked in 410. He moved south to Calabria, the toe of the Italian peninsula, planning from there to cross the Mediterranean and invade Africa, but he died the same year, 410, before this plan could be carried out. Meanwhile, some of the people who had fled to the islands of Rialto decided to stay there, perhaps surmising, correctly as it turned out, that Alaric would not be the last barbarian from the north to rampage through their  former abodes on the mainland to the north (not one had yet heard of Attila the Hun, but they soon would), and that they were safer on the islands in the Laguna Veneta, the lagoon of Venus. This, then, were the people met by the three Roman consuls who came to the Rialto on the Feast of Annunciation in 421.

The citizens of Veneto at the time of the Goth incursions were a mixed lot. The belt of land between the Adriatic Sea and the mountains to the north served as a bridge between western Europe and the land to the east—the Balkan Peninsula, Greece, Asia Minor, and beyond, and for centuries people from both the Occident and Orient had been traveling through the region. Excellent roads, including the ancient Via Pustumia (built c. 148 b.c. by Roman consul consul Spurius Postumius Albinus Magnus), which began in Aquileia, the capital of Veneto, and continued the whole way across the top of the boot of Italy to Genoa on the western coast of the peninsula, facilitated travel and the relatively easy movement of trade goods. The ports of Veneto at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea attracted travelers and trade from the entire Mediterranean, linking the province with the ports of western Europe, northern Africa, and the Levant. With all the people passing through Veneto it was inevitable that some, attracted by its fertile countryside and rich cities, would decide to stay. Over the centuries this emigration resulted in a rich bouillabaisse of cultures. In addition to the ancient local stock there were Romans and other Italians, other Europeans from further west, Greeks, Levantines, north Africans, Arabs, and probably even Persians and Mesopotamians, backwash from the Roman Empires’s many wars in the Mid-East.

One alternate historian, Joseph Farrell, in his provocatively entitled book Financial Vipers of Venice: Alchemical Money, Magical Physics, and Banking in the Middle Ages and Renaissance has even suggested that slaves brought back from Mesopotamia by Roman legions eventually settled in Veneto and it was they who went on to found the city of Venice. He claims that the real hard core Venetians down through the centuries were mostly of Mesopotamian descent and that the great lengths to which the Venetian aristocracy would eventually go to impede marriage outside of their own circle was in fact a stratagem to maintain these bloodlines dating back to the ancient Mesopotamia. He also maintains that the legendary financial acumen of Venetians was a result of the arts of accounting and money management first invented by the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia and refined by their descendants, who eventually ended up in the Lagoon of Venice. Mesopotamia was, after all, where money was invented.

I know of no mainstream historian who agrees with the postulation that Venice was founded by Mesopotamian slaves (DNA studies of living members of the Venetian aristocracy would certainly be interesting, however). Mainstream historians like Jane Gleeson-White do provide tantalizing links between Mesopotamia and finance as it evolved in Venice. In her breathtakingly suggestive book Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance, she points out that writing, invented in Mesopotamia, started out as a way of counting objects: keeping count, or “accounting.” She adds:
Apart from its role in the invention of writing, accounting is significant for human civilization because it affects the way we see the world and shapes our beliefs. To take this early example, the invention of token accounting in Mesopotamia was important not only because it facilitated economic exchanges and generated writing, “but because it encouraged people to see the world around them in terms of quantifiable outcomes”. For the first time we had tools which allowed us to count and measure— to quantify— the world around us and to record our findings.
She goes on to trace how the art and science of accounting, founded by Mesopotamian pebble counters—an early version of today’s bean counters— developed in ancient Greek and Rome and eventually became practiced in the mercantile cities of Italy. It would be honed to perfection in Venice. By Enrico Dandolo’s time the Venetians had become masters of a world-view dominated by ”quantifiable outcomes”. Balancing of their ledger books became the all important consideration. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 was motivated by the need of the Venetians to even their accounts with the Crusaders, who owned them a vast amount of money, and then add a quantifiable profit to compensate for the risk they had taken. Enrico Dandolo was above all a masterful book-keeper. The Mesopotamians pebble counters would have been proud.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #2

The Hotel Casanova where I am staying is located on Frezzeria Street, named after the arrow (frecce) shops with which it was once lined. Arrows were an important commodity in fourteenth century Venice, when all adult males were expected to be proficient in the use of the crossbow. Arrows have gone the way of Zip discs; now the street hosts hotels, restaurants, and up-scale clothing stores geared toward tourists. The legendary swordsman and memoirist Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) once lived just off Frezzeria Street, in the Corte del Luganegher; no doubt the hotel got it name from this association. The English gadabout, poet, and prime-time cad Lord Byron (1788–1824) found lodging just up the street from my hotel at building number 1673 when he first arrived in Venice in 1816, and he very quickly managed to seduce his landlord’s wife, the delectable twenty-two year old Marianna, who according to Byron was “in her appearance altogether like an antelope.” Presumably this was meant as a compliment. Near Byron’s former lodging I veer into a coffee bar for a double expresso and latte chaser. This is literally a bar. Sissified customers requiring stools or tables and chairs need not enter. You drink your coffee standing at the bar the way God intended it to be done. Locals, tradespeople from the neighboring shops, pop in for a quick expresso bracer which they toss down at one go, like a cowboy downing a shot of whisky in an old-time saloon, and then quickly depart. The only thing missing is the swinging doors. 

The first item on my agenda is the birthplace of Enrico Dandolo. There are, of course, no cars in Venice. Travel is by foot or boat. I set out on foot. Venice consists of six sestieri, or districts: San Marco, Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Polo, and Santa Croce. My hotel and the birthplace of Dandolo are in the San Marco district. Each district has numerous campi (singular campo = square) and campielli (smaller squares). The easiest way for the visitor to navigate the city, assuming that he is unfamiliar with the byways, seems to be to proceed from square to square, although this may not be the shortest route to where one is going. The Dandolo residences—there were several Dandolo families in the area—are near the San Luca (St. Luke) Church, itself close to the Campo Manin. The church is indicated on detailed maps of the city, but the residences, to my knowledge, are not on any maps, nor do they appear in any tourist guides I am aware of. I have been able to locate them only by means of a scholarly biography of Enrico Dandolo and some recondite articles in obscure journals. My map of Venice indicates that I have to go through five campi or campielli to get there. 

The first is the Campiello San Moise, the small square in front of the San Moise Church. Although the church itself is ancient, build in the eighth century, the elaborately baroque facade, festooned with any number of rococo sculptures, dates from the 1660s. It was this facade that had infuriated the extremely opinionated nineteenth-century historian John Ruskin, one of Venice’s most famous, notorious even, elucidators. I had read, or at least glanced through Ruskin’s classic The Stones of Venice during a brief Anglophile period when I was a college student, and last night in my hotel room I had downloaded a copy to my Kindle and skimmed through it again. “I date the commencement of the Fall of Venice from the death of Carlo Zeno, 8th May, 1418,” intoned Ruskin, “the visible commencement from that of another of her noblest and wisest children, the Doge Tomaso Mocenigo, who expired five years later.” To him the floridly ornamented facade of San Moise represented a perfect example of the frivolousness to which the once stern and austere Republic of Venice had devolved since the Fall. The facade was “frightful,” he railed, adding that it was “one of the basest examples of the basest school of the Renaissance.” 
Facade of the Church of San Moise. John Ruskin was not amused (click on photos for enlargements). 
The half dozen people in the campo taking photos of the facade, including two using serious looking cameras on tripods, are no doubt blissfully unaware of Ruskin’s fulminations. Few twitter-era people have the desire or fortitude needed to wade through the swamps and thickets of Ruskin’s notoriously dense Victorian prose. If he is remembered at all by most people it may be because of the 2014 movie Effie Gray, starring the adorable Dakota Fanning as Euphemia Chalmers Gray, better known as Effie, the wife of John Ruskin, and heartthrob Greg Wise as the great historian himself. According to the commonly accepted story (the truth may be more nuanced), on their wedding night Ruskin was so shocked by the sight of his bride’s naked body—he was particularly appalled by her pubic hair (apparently Victorian ladies did not shave)—that he was rendered impotent, and remained so for the rest of their married life. Bizarrely, Ruskin had had a crush on Effie ever since she was twelve years old, but apparently he had not thought through the physical aspects of the relationship, at least not until their wedding night, when he made his disquieting discoveries. Claiming that the marriage had never been consummated, Effie was eventually granted an annulment and went on to marry her ex-husband’s erstwhile friend and protégé John Everett Millais, with whom she had eight children. For more on this unfortunate threesome see Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais.

On the far side of the campo is the canal called Le Rio (rio = canal) de San Moise. The bridge across it is called, predictably, Le Ponte San Moise (ponte = bridge). This is the first canal west of tourist-magnet Piazza San Marco and thus the bridge is a very popular spot for hiring gondolas. At least fifty people are lined up on both sides of the canal waiting to board their boats. Every one of them is Chinese. They appear to be members of at least three tour groups. The tour leaders shout in Mandarin, trying to direct their charges, some of them elderly and not too sturdy on their pins, onto the awaiting gondolas. The usual rate, I have been told, for using a gondola is about $100 for a forty minute ride with up to six people, although the prices can vary considerably. So a ride are not especially cheap but hey, what’s Venice without a gondola ride? The first thing you are going to be asked when you get back to Shanghai is “did you take a gondola ride?” and you better be prepared to say yes.
 Chinese tourists waiting to board a gondola
Chinese tourists setting out on a gondola ride
From the Le Ponte San Moise I mosey down Calle Larga XX Marzo (calle = street) to the end, then hang a left onto Calle de Ostreghe, which soon makes a dogleg turn to the right. After crossing a bridge I emerge into the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio. On the northern side of the square is the Church of Santa Maria del Giglio (Saint Mary of the Lily), of some note because its flamboyantly rococo facade contains no religious images at all, but is instead a bombastic memorial to one man, Admiral Antonio Barbaro (d. 1679). Barbaro had an extensive military and political career, holding posts in Rome, Padua, Corfu, and elsewhere, but most notably on the island of Crete, once part of the Byzantine Empire but which Enrico Dandolo claimed as war booty in the name of the Republic of Venice after the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Crete became the Republic’s first overseas colony and served as one of the most important way-stations in the trade networks linking Venice with Constantinople and Alexandria. Candia, the capital (now known as Heraklion), was believed to be the most strongly fortified city in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1648 the Ottoman Turks, intent on seizing Crete, invested Candia, resulting in a siege lasting twenty-one years, one of the longest in military history. Barbaro served as the governor of Candia and was also one of its defenders during the siege. Finally, in 1669 the Ottomans captured Candia and they soon controlled the entire island. 

It was a terrible blow to Venice, which had lost one of its most important trading and military strongholds. Barbaro emerged unscathed, however, and he when died he left a considerable amount of money (30,000 ducati) for the refurbishment of the church on the northern side of the square. Dating back to the ninth century, the original structure was known as known the Church of Santa Maria Zobenigo, named after the Jubanico (Zobenigo being a corrupted form of Jubanico) family who had donated much of the money for its construction (some maps still call the square Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo). Barbaro’s 30,000 ducati bequest was used to update the church, most notably adding the baroque facade. A relief the Barbaro family coat-of-arms can be seen at the top of the facade. In the center is statue of Barbaro himself, with representations of Honor, Virtue, Fame, and Wisdom on either side. The entrance is flanked by statues of various family members. Also depicted are marble relief maps showing the various places where Barbaro served.
Facade of Church of Santa Maria del Giglio, with statue of Barbaro in the middle
A representation of Fame trumpeting Barbaro’s deeds to passersby in the square
Barbaro family members on the facade
All of the self-glorification seen on the facade of Church of Santa Maria del Giglio might be considered excessive, especially when we consider that Crete, one of the jewels on the Venetian necklace of islands stretching across the eastern Mediterranean, was lost during Barbaro’s watch. The easily irritated John Ruskin, predictably, was utterly appalled by this spectacle of baroque self-indulgence, yet another example of the decadence into which once noble Venice had devolved. The church reeked of “insolent atheism,” he fumed, adding that it was “totally destitute of religious symbols and entirely dedicated to the honour of [the Barbaro family].” He had plenty of opportunities to hone his outrage, since for eight months he had lived just three hundred feet away. The Campo Santa Maria del Giglio opens onto another square, the Campo del Traghetto, which extends south to the Grand Canal. By the side of Campo del Traghetto, facing the Grand Canal, is the Palazzo Gritti, where Ruskin and his long-suffering wife Effie rented rooms in 1851–52. Aficionados of American literature may recall that the character Colonel Cantwell in Ernest Hemingway’s novel Across the River and into the Trees also stayed here, as did Hemingway himself. Now the palazzo is home to a very up-scale hotel, the Gritti Palace (cheapest room $538 a night; cheapest suite is $1,934 a night). I would stay here myself, but I am experiencing a cash flow problem, one that, unfortunately, has been dogging me for decades. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Turkey | Mesopotamia | Mardin

Wandered out to Mardin, in southeast Turkey, 673 miles east-southeast of Istanbul, on the very border between Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The Syrian border is about 14 miles to the south, but there are few visible signs of the war in Syria in this part of Turkey. Mardin is famously located on the side of a 3700-foot high hill overlooking the great plain of Mesopotamia. The southern edge of the town is at about 3000 feet, but at the Syrian border the elevation has already dropped to 1600 feet, almost 2000 feet lower than the town. 
 The hillside city of Mardin (click on photos for enlargements).
 The great plain of Mesopotamia viewed from Mardin—home of Suberians, Hurrians, Elamites, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Romans, and Byzantines—and that’s just up the fourteenth century!—and beloved by current day Neo-Mesopotamians.
 The town of Mardin
 Most of the lanes running up and down the town are staircases. 
 The narrow streets of Mardin. 
The 170-foot high minaret of the Great Mosque (Ulu Camii), built by order of Qutb ad-din Ilghazi in the 12th century. As you probably know, Qutb ad-din Ilghazi was the ruler of the Artuqid Turks, who in the 12th century established an emirate more-or-less independent of the Saljuq Sultanate of Rum. The mosque originally had two minarets, but one was reportedly destroyed by Amir Timur (Tamurlane). 
Courtyard of the Great Mosque
Mardin is the jumping-off point for the region known as Tur Abdin, “Mountain of the Servants of God” or “Mountains of the Hermits”, which rumor has it may contain a Portal to Shambhala. More on Tur Abdin to follow . . .