03.01.29, Cowan, ed., Mediterranean Urban Culture, 1400 - 1700

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Peregrine Horden

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.029


Cowan, Alexander. Mediterranean Urban Culture, 1400-1700. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000. Pp. ix, 277. ISBN: 0-859-89578-5.

Reviewed by:
Peregrine Horden
University of London

The title prompts obvious questions. Is 'Mediterranean' simply an alluring shorthand for 'southern European', or might the Islamic lands be included? Will Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean be compared to see if the contrast between them is valid? Is 'urban' going to be defined, and contrasted with 'rural', or taken as self-explanatory? Will the towns and cities studied be the 'usual suspects' among major settlements, or will some more out of the way places gain attention, and not only as individuals but as constituents of urban networks? Overall, could some distinctively Mediterranean and distinctively urban culture emerge. If so - the final obvious question - on what definition of culture?

Suppose we take the three words of the title in order. The first question, then, concerns geographical scope. Is the volume genuinely Mediterranean? As the editor, Alexander Cowan, remarks in his Introduction, 'the greatest emphasis remains on the north, and particularly on Venice and its tributaries' (p. 10). Indeed, pursuing the Venetian theme through various contributions is a surprisingly comprehensive way of indicating the volume's general character. In 'Neighbourhoods and Local Loyalties in Renaissance Venice', Joseph Wheeler richly documents the vast number of overlapping ways in which the smallest units of Venetian society must be mapped. His particular reference is the sestiere of San Polo at the Rialto's eastern tip in the late fifteenth century; but he brings out changes over time in the complex microscopy of allegiances right across the city.

The editor's own contribution, on 'Foreigners and the City', picks up the theme of social solidarities and, also by means of a case study, explores the permeability of the Venetian patriciate. The case study is that of Jacob Strycker, a Dutch merchant who arrived from Amsterdam in 1647 and settled in Venice until his death in the late 1680s. Wealthy, respected, Catholic, a lavish sponsor of the Venetian war effort in the 1650s, he none the less failed to attain cittadino status. The reasons for this tell us much about the ways in which Venetians, while apparently so welcoming, still gave legal protection to their own business interests.

In 'The Jews and the City in the Mediterranean Area', Donatella Calabi pursues a related exclusivity. She measures the variety of ways, both voluntary and involuntary, in which the concentration of Jews into specific districts proceeded in the region from the later Middle Ages to the early seventeenth century - thereby providing, of course, a broad context for the establishment of the first European ghetto in Venice in 1516.

Federica Ambrosini directs attention to the margins of society on the religious front, using inquisitorial records to reveal the spiritual isolation of some (mainly seventeenth-century) Venetian women and the confused doctrinal eclecticism - 'Between Heresy and Free Thought', rather than Protestantism - in which it was often expressed.

Next, in her defence of the cities of Puglia against the charge of helping to originate the 'southern question', Eleni Sakellariou plausibly revises the view of the area's cities as simply outlets for rural production dominated by foreign merchants, above all Florentines and Venetians.

Alan Harvey then deftly assembles the fragmentary and recalcitrant evidence for 'Economic Conditions in Thessaloniki between the Two Ottoman Occupations' (that is from 1403 to 1430), and naturally again brings in Venice, to whom the Greeks in 1423 transferred control of the city.

Ruth Gertwagen looks at 'Venetian Modon [present-day Methoni] and its Port, 1358-1500', an outpost of empire strategically placed on the shipping lanes that crossed the Ionian Sea. Her focus is the 'hardware' of the artificial port and its inadequacies, which she vividly recreates through a painstaking amalgamation of archaeological and documentary evidence and personal experience. ('It took me an hour and a half to swim from the eastern medieval wall to the opposite eastern shore of the bay' (p. 138)!)

In 'The Port Towns of the Levant in Sixteenth-Century Travel Literature', Benjamin Arbel uses western eye-witness accounts (such as that of the German Leonart Rauwolff) to contradict the stereotype of commercial decline in Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Beirut and Tripoli during early Ottoman times. Among the buildings at which travellers marvelled were, inevitably, the imposing fondachi of Venetian merchants.

The last two contributions in the book concentrate on the arts. In 'The Cultural Dynamics of Representational Space in Venetian Renaissance Painting', Tom Nichols shows how the introduction of linear perspective from the 1440s enabled Venetian painters to give 'their ideologically charged subjects a new guise of rational objectivity' (p. 165) by locating them in 'real' space. Moreover this linear rationality could be embodied in the renovatio urbis initiated by Jacopo Sansovino in the 1530s and could thus regulate the actual comings and goings of citizens as well as the represented figures of art.

Finally, in 'As Much for its Culture as for its Arms', a study of 'The Cultural Relations of Venice and its Dependent Cities, 1400-1700', Nicholas Davidson examines the movement of artists and writers and their patrons, as well as the expansion of the art market, to see whether Venice was a cultural parasite and diffused a dominant style, or whether a hundred flowers (mutatis mutandis) bloomed in the Venetian empire. He finds (p. 214), perhaps not so surprisingly, that 'local traditions remained important, within both the capital and its subordinate cities, and sometimes in defiance of political and economic realities'.

And on that note of happy pluralism the collection ends. It is a pluralism with Venice emphatically at its centre. Briefly summarising those chapters that deal either squarely or in passing with Venetian commercial and cultural themes has enabled me to introduce almost the whole volume. Apart from the editorial Introduction only two other contributions remain to be noticed.

Both concern Spain. James Amelang uses 'The Myth of the Mediterranean City' to herald a study of 'Perceptions of Sociability' (his subtitle). His 'myth' is really two related myths: one, ideologies of urbanitas in the classical and Renaissance tradition; the other, a Mediterranean-wide culture depicted by modern ethnographers - a culture of patronage, kinship, intense competition for prestige and so forth. The historian's contribution to deconstructing this supposed ideological convergence is to scrutinize one strand in it, that of urban sociability. Amelang does this by comparing Montaigne's and Goethe's accounts of their visits to Rome, and by mustering more piecemeal evidence of his (historiographically speaking) native city of Barcelona, all so as to bring out the theatrical, rule-governed, yet often sharply contested nature of urban street life.

The other Spanish chapter, by John Edwards, also concerns 'The Culture of the Street', specifically that of the Calle de la Feria in Cordoba in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Edwards's approach to his subject, like Amelang's, is oblique; in his case it is primarily by way of the hitherto poorly decoded recollections of Cordoban street life in the Portrait of the Fair Andalusian, a Castilian dialogue-novel published in Venice in 1528.

Venice is then, clearly, the backbone of this Mediterranean collection. But, equally clearly, there is much else besides. We encounter other Italian cities, north and south, major and minor, as well as Spanish, Greek, and Levantine ones. Constantinople, too, is briefly mentioned. That leaves only two significant gaps: the North African littoral (an omission the editor acknowledges) and southern France. The scope is certainly Mediterranean-wide if not fully circum-Mediterranean. The first word of the book's title seems to that extent justified.

Is there, though, anything special about the Mediterranean urban world as it emerges here? Ideally, identification of Mediterranean characteristics should always be tested or reinforced by extra-Mediterranean comparisons. None is attempted in the Islamic direction - where the presumed contrast is at its most elusive. The distinction between Mediterranean and northern Europe is, however, explored now and then. For example, Amelang concludes his discussion by asking what travellers from the Mediterranean such as Antonio de Beatis and Aeneas Piccolomini (the future pope) have made of northerners' strange mores. And Cowan contrasts the cool Venetian reception of immigrant merchants with that of Baltic ports. Wisely, though, the Mediterranean/non-Mediterranean contrast is never elevated into an all-purpose explanation of cultural difference. Calabi's account of 'ghetto-ization' brings out the peculiarities of Italy by contrast not just with north-western Europe, but with Spain and Portugal also.

This degree of sensitive comparativism is unusual and welcome. Yet it is not quite enough to establish the validity of Mediterranean urban history as a discrete subject. In his Introduction the editor looks to Braudel, and Braudel alone, for justification of his enterprise. In Braudel's eyes, according to the lapidary summation of Lucien Febvre, the Mediterranean was routes et villes: towns and their interlocking trade networks. It is in keeping with that view of Mediterranean unity that much of the volume should be taken up with the Venetian world. The unity of the region cannot, however, be taken as so uncontroversial. In his account of 'The Myth of the Mediterranean', Amelang refers in passing to those anthropologists who have criticized the whole project of seeking out Mediterranean-wide cultural traits, and who have (in homage to Edward Said) labelled that project 'Mediterraneanism'. Amelang's footnotes ignore the latest broadsides in this debate from Michael Herzfeld, and do not take his earlier arguments seriously enough. Nowhere else in the volume is the vulnerability of Mediterranean ethnography and, by extension, historiography more than hinted at.

A similar degree of insouciance is evident in the collective treatment of the category of 'town'. For Braudel, the presiding genius of the volume, quite simply 'a town is a town wherever it is'. In that spirit, a huge historical and sociological literature on the definition of the town, on the Islamic city and other ideal types, on the 'production of space' and so forth, is passed over here. Much of the literature is, admittedly, vacuous, and a robust empiricism such as that exhibited in this collection can contribute inductively to many current debates (as for instance through Nichols's account of the impact of represented space on town planning). None the less the volume is a little too straightforward in its approach to urban history. In his defence the editor could remind us that the towns considered are not treated in isolation from their surroundings. The urban networks of Puglia and the Veneto emerge in all their complexity. One city is related to its wider economic environment in the chapter on Thessaloniki. And no town is treated as monolithic. This is clearest in the opening section of the book on 'Neighbours and neighbourhoods' (Amelang, Wheeler), and in its successor on 'Religion, Ethnicity, and Minority Groups' (Cowan, Calabi, Edwards, Ambrosini), which bring out the divisions by age, gender, wealth and religion that so deeply marked the societies under discussion. For all that, the question of what (if anything) makes urban society urban might have been confronted more explicitly by at least some of the contributors - through sustained urban-rural comparisons, and through greater attention to the characteristics of suburban life. 'A town is a town' can no longer serve as a rallying cry.

Having put this book to the question with respect to the first two words of its title, I can end by noting the view of 'culture' that it espouses. The editor presents his collection as 'an attempt to construct an answer to two overlapping questions. What is urban culture? To what extent may we speak about a common Mediterranean urban culture in the early modern period?' (p. 2). As to the first question, urban culture is construed very widely: it embraces textile production and harbour moles, as well as the more usual subject matter of popular literature and paintings. The diversity of evidence and eclecticism of approach - from the quasi-post-modern symbolism of space in Venice to the very traditional demographic history of Puglia - militates against any clear characterisation of urban culture in general, and a fortiori of Mediterranean urban culture in particular. Public space - pre-eminently that of the street - as the setting for the expression of cultural and religious conflict is a theme of several essays. So too is the fraught relationship between minority groups (pre-eminently Jews) and those who dominate. But these themes are perilously reminiscent of some of the stereotypes that Amelang listed as constituents of the anthropological 'myth of the Mediterranean', and do not seem to constitute a very solid or novel result.

This is, as its editor claims, a splendidly interdisciplinary and comparative collection. All its contributions are scholarly and stimulating. I came to the book predisposed to find it wanting, having wrestled elsewhere (at length and inconclusively) with the question of Mediterranean unity, and having argued that 'urban history' has no distinct subject matter and should be disbanded. My prejudices were confounded. If this book fails ultimately to answer the great questions of 'Mediterranean urban history', that scarcely diminishes its value. It provides ample material for the more precise formulation, and more focused discussion, of those questions in the future.

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Author Biography

Peregrine Horden

University of London