Book: Venice: Lion City

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Venice: Lion City

Author: Garry Wills
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Garry Wills’s Venice: Lion City is a tour de force—a rich, colorful, and provocative history of the world’s most fascinating city in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it was at the peak of its glory. This was not the city of decadence, carnival, and nostalgia familiar to us from later centuries. It was a ruthless imperial city, with a shrewd commercial base, like ancient Athens, which it resembles in its combination of art and sea empire. The structure of Venetian society was based on its distinctive practice of religion: Venice elected its priests, defied the authority of papal Rome, and organized its liturgy around a lay leader (the doge).

Venice: Lion City presents a new way of relating the history of the city through its art and, in turn, illuminates the art through the city’s history. In their culture, their governing structures, and their social life, the Venetians themselves speak to us with extraordinary immediacy, whether at work, warfare, prayer, or acting out their victories, celebrations, and petitions in the colorful festivals that punctuated the year.

Venice: Lion City is illustrated with more than 130 works of art, 30 in full color. Garry Wills gives us a unique view of Venice’s rulers, merchants, clerics, and laborers, its Jews, and its women as they created a city that is the greatest art museum in the world, a city that continues to lure an endless stream of visitors.

Like Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches, on the Dutch culture in the Golden Age, Venice: Lion City will take its place as a classic work of history and criticism.


The tiny island city-state of Venice was, for a time, one of the greatest maritime powers the world has ever known, its influence extending far beyond the Mediterranean. Garry Wills, well known for his studies of American political history, travels far afield to explore Renaissance Venice at the height of its power.

Venice, Wills writes, was “not an ideal state.” Its champions would claim otherwise; they held a view of Venetian “exceptionalism,” an idea that the city-state, like its classical Athenian model, was somehow destined for great things. It achieved many of them, gathering phenomenal wealth through the monopolies of its many guilds, floating great navies that controlled the seas, and building a splendid, renowned city. Wills profiles the leaders, great families, corporations, and institutions (including what he calls a “gerontocracy” of elder statesmen) that allowed such growth, as well as women, ordinary workers, and other actors who do not often figure in histories of the period. He examines the religious beliefs and worldly wisdom that motivated and justified the Venetian impulse to achieve wealth and power, and he takes his readers on a learned tour of Venice’s architectural and artistic glories—many of which survive today.

No, it was not ideal, Wills concludes, “just better than most of those around it—better able to sustain, over a long period, whatever ideals it had.” His account of those ideals and the city they made will appeal to a wide audience of readers. —Gregory McNamee

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