Category: History

Slavery in the history of Venice

There was a thriving trade in human flesh.  By the twelfth century the slave trade in Venice far surpassed that of other cities and other countries.  The Venetians were incorrigible slave traders, and the markets of the Rialto and S. Giorgio were centres of slavery.  They were eager for this particular source of income, since the profit on each item was said to be 1,000 per cent.  They sold Russians and even Greek Christians to the Saracens.  Men and women and children were bought or captured in the region of the Black Sea — Armenians and Georgians among them — before being despatched to Venice where they were in turn sold on to Egypt and Morocco and Crete and Cyprus.  They sold boys and young women as concubines.  One doge, Pietro Mocenigo, had in his seventies two young Turkish men in his entourage.

Many of them were consigned to Venetian households.  No patrician family was complete without a retinue or three or four slaves; even Venetian artisans owned slaves, and used them in their shops or workshops.  Venetian convents possessed slaves for domestic service.  The galleys were stocked with slaves.  But the city always needed a fresh supply; servile status was not inheritable.  Many slaves were freed in the wills of their masters or mistresses.  Marco Polo manumitted one of his slaves, Peter the Tartar, before his own death in 1324.  In 1580 there were three thousand slaves in the capital.  The black gondoliers in Carpaccio’s paintings of Venice are all slaves.

That is from Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City.

My favorite things Venice

1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.

2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.  Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.

3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording).  Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.

4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition.  I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”

5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.”  But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”

Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists.  However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.

6. Painting: Ah!  Where to start?  I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works.  And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo.  Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here.  Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.

7. Sculptor: Antonio Canova was born in the Venetian Republic, and I believe he is now one of the most underrated of Western artists.  His greatest work is in Vienna.

8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.

9. Conductor: Giuseppe Sinopoli.  I enjoy his Mahler and Strauss and Elgar, and his take on Verdi’s Aida was special as well.

10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.

11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie.  What might that be?

11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”

All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.

I’ll be there in a few days time.

Reading and rabbit holes

Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.

Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?”  Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner.  In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.

I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them.  Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:

How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?

How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?

What were the origins of accounting in Venice?

Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history?  How much power did the Doge really have?

How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?

How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?

Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?

What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?  How did Napoleon treat Venice?

Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list.  But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions.  It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East.  Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes.  Or it may lead you to…

Follow the questions, not the books per se.  Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask.  Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.

Read in clusters!  Don’t obsess over titles.  Obsess over questions.  That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.

My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you?  If not, why not?

Open Borders in Svalbard!

Well north of Iceland there is a island archipelago that is governed by Norway but because of a peculiar treaty it has entirely open borders:

When you land in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, you can step off the plane and just walk away. There’s no passport control, no armed guard retracing your steps, no biometric machine scanning your fingers. Svalbard is as close as you can get to a place with open borders: As long as you can support yourself, you can live there visa-free.

In an excellent piece in The Nation, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian describes the history and what it is like to visit:

Formally, Svalbard—known as Spitsbergen until the 20th century—belongs to Norway, which writes the laws, enforces order, builds infrastructure, and regulates hunting, fishing, and housing. Last year, when a Russian man was caught trying to rob a bank in town, a Norwegian judge sentenced him under Norwegian law to a Norwegian jail. But Norway’s control over Svalbard comes with obligations outlined by an unusual 1920 treaty signed as part of the Versailles negotiations ending World War I.

Written in the aftermath of the war, the Svalbard Treaty is both of and ahead of its time. Its architects stipulated that the territory cannot be used for “warlike” purposes. They included one of the world’s first international conservation agreements, making Norway responsible for the preservation of the surrounding natural environment. The treaty also insists that the state must not tax its citizens more than the minimum needed to keep Svalbard running, which today typically amounts to an 8 percent income tax, well below mainland Norway’s roughly 40 percent.

Most radically, the treaty’s architects held Norway to what’s known as the nondiscrimination principle, which prevents the state from treating non-Norwegians differently from Norwegians. This applies not just to immigration but also to opening businesses, hunting, fishing, and other commercial activities. Other countries could not lay formal claims on Svalbard, but their people and companies would be at no disadvantage.

Some 37 percent of Svalbard’s population is foreign born and there is an abandoned Soviet town with statues of Vladmir Lenin. Tyler will also be pleased to know that there are puffins.

I can’t say that I am tempted to move, but given global climate change it’s good to know that I could.

Hat tip: The Browser.

The new Quentin Tarantino movie

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review is titled: “Quentin Tarantino’s Obscenely Regressive Vision of the Sixties in “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”“.

I didn’t love the film, and with each work of his I see, the more I like the others (and him?) less.  My main takeaway was to be reminded of an enormous and unprecedented historical shift.  In the 1960s, in part because of the birth control pill, the sexual opportunities of high status heterosexual men, or even medium status men, increased enormously, in terms of both quantity and quality.  And indeed the men in this movie take advantage of that, to various extremes (wife murder, the Manson cult) and it is not entirely clear how much Tarantino disapproves.

Whatever your normative view of this change, keep it in mind the next time you encounter the “Puritan excesses” of today’s PC movement.  Very rapid historical shifts in norms do in fact bring various forms of reaction and sometimes overreaction, and pushing back against the overreaction is not always the wisest thing to do.

If you want to see southern California on the big screen, you might enjoy Echo in the Canyon more, while its bookend cinematic partner David Crosby: Remember My Name will fill in the Joni Mitchell blank and also show you how deeply unpopular and unlikeable people talk and think about themselves.

The Venetian electoral college

For more than five centuries (from 1268 to 1797) the procedure to elect the doge (chief of state) did not change.

  1. Choose 30 members of the Great Council by lot.
  2. These 30 people are reduced by lot to 9.
  3. These 9 people choose 40 other people.
  4. These 40 are reduced by lot to 12.
  5. These 12 people choose 25 other people.
  6. These 25 people are reduced by lot to 9.
  7. These 9 people choose 45 other people.
  8. These 45 people are reduced by lot to 11.
  9. These 11 people choose 41 other people.
  10. These 41 people elect the doge.

Funny that many Americans blame their electoral system for being complicated. You may think what you want about the Venetian system but it guaranteed what was probably the most stable government in the history of mankind.

That is from Alexey Tereshchenko on Quora, cited in this excellent post on the success of Venice.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.


COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.


APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

We need a new science of progress

That is the title of my Atlantic piece with Patrick Collison, excerpt:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”


Plenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion and fails to directly confront some of the most important practical questions.

Imagine you want to know how to most effectively select and train the most talented students. While this is an important challenge facing educators, policy makers, and philanthropists, knowledge about how best to do so is dispersed across a very long list of different fields. Psychometrics literature investigates which tests predict success. Sociologists consider how networks are used to find talent. Anthropologists investigate how talent depends on circumstances, and a historiometric literature studies clusters of artistic creativity. There’s a lively debate about when and whether “10,000 hours of practice” are required for truly excellent performance. The education literature studies talent-search programs such as the Center for Talented Youth. Personality psychologists investigate the extent to which openness or conscientiousness affect earnings. More recently, there’s work in sportometrics, looking at which numerical variables predict athletic success. In economics, Raj Chetty and his co-authors have examined the backgrounds and communities liable to best encourage innovators. Thinkers in these disciplines don’t necessarily attend the same conferences, publish in the same journals, or work together to solve shared problems.

You may have seen there is a small cottage industry on Twitter suggesting that we ignore antecedents to Progress Studies, but of course that is not the case, as evidenced by the paragraph above, not to mention claims like: “Progress Studies has antecedents, both within fields and institutions. The economics of innovation is a critical topic and should assume a much larger place within economics.”  In fact we consider antecedents in at least nine different paragraphs of a relatively short piece.

The piece is interesting throughout, and I can assure you that Patrick is a very productive and diligent co-author.

*Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century*

By George Packer, I thought this book would be dull, but in fact it is interesting throughout.  Holbrooke, if you don’t already know, was a lifetime American diplomat, but much more than that too.  Here is one excerpt:

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel.  But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war.  “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”  The whole scene repelled the Boston Puritan Henry Cabot Lodge.  “I not only don’t wanna,” he said, “I don’t wanna wanna.”

A vivid passage to be sure, but two points.  First, why call the one sensible guy a “Puritan”?  (Yes, the Puritans in fact were great, but I don’t think the remark is to be taken in that spirit.)  Second, it seems to me that many Ubangi women are likely quite beautiful, and probably I saw some of them while in Ethiopia.  Furthermore, at least these days, it is optional whether they wish to take on the famed “lip plate.”

In any case, I would describe the book as “rollicking.”  You can order it here.

For the recommendation I thank Mr. C. Weber.

John Maynard Keynes, “National Self-Sufficiency,” 1933

That was then, this is now:

There may be some financial calculation which shows it to be advantageous that my savings should be invested in whatever quarter of the habitable globe shows the greatest marginal efficiency of capital or the highest rate of interest. But experience is accumulating that remoteness between ownership and operation is an evil in the relations among men, likely or certain in the long run to set up strains and enmities which will bring to nought the financial calculation.

I sympathize, therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than with those who would maximize, economic entanglement among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel–these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national. Yet, at the same time, those who seek to disembarrass a country of its entanglements should be very slow and wary. It should not be a matter of tearing up roots but of slowly training a plant to grow in a different direction.

For these strong reasons, therefore, I am inclined to the belief that, after the transition is accomplished, a greater measure of national self-sufficiency and economic isolation among countries than existed in 1914 may tend to serve the cause of peace, rather than otherwise. At any rate, the age of economic internationalism was not particularly successful in avoiding war; and if its friends retort, that the imperfection of its success never gave it a fair chance, it is reasonable to point out that a greater success is scarcely probable in the coming years.

And here is Keynes anticipating Dani Rodrik:

But I am not persuaded that the economic advantages of the international division of labor to-day are at all comparable with what they were. I must not be understood to carry my argument beyond a certain point. A considerable degree of international specialization is necessary in a rational world in all cases where it is dictated by wide differences of climate, natural resources, native aptitudes, level of culture and density of population. But over an increasingly wide range of industrial products, and perhaps of agricultural products also, I have become doubtful whether the economic loss of national self-sufficiency is great enough to outweigh the other advantages of gradually bringing the product and the consumer within the ambit of the same national, economic, and financial organization. Experience accumulates to prove that most modem processes of mass production can be performed in most countries and climates with almost equal efficiency. Moreover, with greater wealth, both primary and manufactured products play a smaller relative part in the national economy compared with houses, personal services, and local amenities, which are not equally available for international exchange; with the result that a moderate increase in the real cost of primary and manufactured products consequent on greater national self-sufficiency may cease to be of serious consequence when weighed in the balance against advantages of a different kind. National self-sufficiency, in short, though it costs something, may be becoming a luxury which we can afford, if we happen to want it.

Here is the full text, whether or not you agree this is interesting throughout, and the prose is lovely too.

Every era’s monetary and financial institutions are unimaginable until they’re real

That is the column subtitle, the actual title is “The Lesson of Bretton Woods.”  Note that yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the signing of the final agreement.  Here is one excerpt:

The Bretton Woods arrangements also seemed highly unlikely until they were in place. They involved a complicated system of exchange rate pegs, capital controls and a “gold pool” (and other methods) to control gold prices and redemption ratios. What’s more, the whole thing was dependent on America’s role as global hegemon, both politically and economically. The dollar still was tied to gold, and the other major currencies tied to the dollar, but as the system evolved it required that no one was too keen to redeem dollars for gold (the French unwillingness to abide by this stricture was one proximate cause of the collapse of Bretton Woods).

I don’t think a monetary economist from, say, 1890 could have imagined that such an arrangement would prove possible, much less successful. Yet the Bretton Woods arrangements had a wonderful track record, as the 1950s and 1960s generated strong economic growth for both the U.S. and Western Europe.

At the same time, once Bretton Woods ended in the early 1970s, few people thought it was possible to turn back the clock. The system required the U.S. to be a creditor nation, to hold much of the world’s gold stock, and for countries such as France to defer to American wishes on gold convertibility. Once again, the line between an “imaginable” and “unimaginable” monetary arrangement proved to be a thin one.

As I point out in the piece, today’s arrangements of fiat currencies and (mostly) floating rates were unimaginable to most previous thinkers, including Keynes.  Here is the column’s closing bit:

So as you consider the legacy of Bretton Woods this week, remember that core lesson: There will be major changes in monetary and institutional arrangements that no one can even imagine right now. Assume the permanency of the status quo at your peril.

*Escape from Rome*

The author is Walter Scheidel and the subtitle is The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity.  Imagine a whole book on what he calls “the second Great Divergence,” namely that China developed a large, relatively unified hegemonic state early on, while Europe remained (mostly) politically fragmented.

Have you ever wondered why the Roman empire did not, in some manner, re-form in the Western part of Europe?  And how did it matter that China had a tradition of having to defend against the steppe while Europe did not?  Here is one brief excerpt:

…East Asia was characterized by a unipolar or hegemonic political system for 68 percent of the years between 220 BCE and 1875.  This pattern presents a stark contrast to the prevalence of a balanced system in Europe for 98 percent of the years from 1500 to 2000, or indeed at any time after the demise of the mature Roman empire.


Remoteness from the bulk of the Eurasian steppe was a constant, invariant across Europen history.  Just as it did not matter if Latin Europe’s states were weak, it also did not matter if a large empire was in place.  Unlike Chinese dynasties, the Roman empire did not bring forth a nomadic “shadow empire”: there was no ecological potential for it.  The Pontic steppe, where Sarmatian tribes might have coalesced in response to the inducements of Roman wealth, was too detached from the Roman heartlands that lay behind the Carpathians, the Alps, and the Adriatic.  To the west of the plains of Eastern Europe, both components of the “steppe effect” were conspicuous by their absence: and so — at least after Rome — was empire-building on a large scale.

If you wish to read a book to ponder the second Great Divergence, this is the one.  You can pre-order it here.

*The Body: A Guide for Occupants*

That is the title of the new Bill Bryson book, and it delivers in all the ways you would expect a Bryson book to do.  Here is one sample paragraph:

Before penicillin, the closest thing to a wonder drug that existed was Salvarsan, developed by the German immunologist Paul Ehrlich in 1910, but Salvarsan was effective against only a few things, principally syphilis, and had a lot of drawbacks.  For a start, it was made from arsenic, so was toxic, and treatment consisted in injecting roughly a pint of solution into the patient’s arm once a week for fifty weeks or more.  If it wasn’t administered exactly right, fluid could seep into muscle, causing painful and sometimes serious side effects, including the need for amputation.  Doctors who could administer it safely became celebrated.  Ironically, one of the most highly regarded was Alexander Fleming.

By the way:

…the average grave is visited for only about fifteen years…

You can pre-order the book here, I would be interested to read more about Bryson’s work, writing, and research habits.