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Originally published Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'Venice: A New History': the long, rich history of a sinking city

Thomas F. Madden's "Venice: A New History" is a lively look at a city that once signified immense power, and now attracts hordes of tourists drawn by its rich history and its watery setting.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Venice: A New History'

by Thomas F. Madden

Viking, 435 pp., $35

Venice has for centuries been a magnet for those longing to get lost there — both physically lost in the city's famously confounding streets, and emotionally lost in its charisma, beauty and air of wistful melancholy.

Today, the bulk of the Venetian economy rests primarily with the hordes of visitors who descend year-round (though typically for only a few days, and often not venturing much further than the main sights). But, as Thomas F. Madden relates in his excellent new book, the city was once far more than just a romantic tourist destination.

For more than a thousand years, the Republic of Venice was one of the wealthiest, most powerful, most vibrant city-states in the world. It was a highly unlikely candidate for this status; as Madden points out, Venice was a city without land, an empire without borders, and a great urban center that was slowly sinking into the sea.

This grand city's origins lie in cataclysm: the invasion in 452 A.D. of Northern Italy by Attila the Hun, after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Fleeing refugees settled in a lagoon at the head of the Adriatic Sea, building a village of crude huts on swampy, marshy islands.

The land itself may have been unpromising but the location was unmatched. Venice was at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, where the shattered Roman Empire met the Byzantine Empire and the riches of Asia that lay beyond.

The locale was perfect for trade, and the Venetians made good use of it. As business prospered, a city rose from the sea, connecting most of the lagoon's string of tiny islands into one mass. Streets and buildings were built on precarious pilings, while boats transported goods and people along the canals that served as passageways.

By the Late Middle Ages, Venice was rich, robust and fiercely independent. The "Most Serene Republic" boasted a mighty navy, extensive trade routes, and an unusually democratic government (despite its rigid class hierarchy). It played a significant role in the political fortunes of the entire Italian peninsula. And it enjoyed a vibrant culture of its own, with distinctive Venetian dialects, cuisine, products and customs.

The city's reputation as a prime tourist destination blossomed in the late 1600s with the advent of the Grand Tour, the traditional travel route that was a rite of passage for aristocratic young European men. Gradually, as Venice's importance as a commercial center waned, due in part to rivalry with other European city-states, tourism became the city's main source of income.

Unsurprisingly, those who actually live in the city have mixed emotions about this: they resent the intrusion but appreciate the income. (This attitude, by the way, is very much in keeping with the city's long history of sharp business practice.)

Madden's book is a lively and lucid survey of Venice's colorful history. It's not as evocative of the city's charms as other books — Jan Morris' "The World of Venice" is a prime example.

But it's accessible and informative — and jargon-free, which is refreshing, considering that the author is a history professor at St. Louis University.

Despite a few stretches of dry exposition, "Venice: A New History" is a valuable addition to an already long shelf of books about a supremely beautiful, eccentric and resilient city.

Adam Woog's column on crime fiction appears the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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