15.08.40, Berto, In Search of the First Venetians

Main Article Content

Suzanne M. Miller

The Medieval Review 15.08.40

Berto, Luigi Andrea. In Search of the First Venetians: Prosopography of Early Medieval Venice. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 41. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. viii, 485. ISBN: 978-2-503-54101-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Suzanne M. Miller
The George Washington University
smmiller@gwu.edu

Venice has a reputation as an exceptional counter-example to the trends that pulled at its surrounding societies, as an almost anachronistically modern society that eschewed monarchy for republicanism, landowning for commerce, and factionalism for state surveillance. On the surface, In Search of the First Venetians by Luigi Andrea Berto does nothing to reverse that characterization, presenting an unusually well-populated "Who's Who" of Venetians in the early Middle Ages, a period mostly associated with a deep lack of documentation about, or even interest in, individuals. In fact, because it contradicts our preconceptions about the "dark" early Middle Ages, this volume offers crucial insights into the origins and development of civic society during the transition from late antiquity to the central Middle Ages. The main prosopography offers a list of individuals sorted alphabetically by surname (if possessing one; by first name if not) and given a brief description of the date, source, and circumstance in which their names were recorded. Starting in the late sixth century with monumental inscriptions from Grado, and ending with the reign of the dux Petrus Ursoylus II (better known as Doge Pietro II Orseolo), this work tallies the existence of up to 1230 individual Venetians. With a net woven from relatively few primary sources, Berto hauls in a surprisingly diverse catch--charcoal burners and chimney sweeps as well as patriarchs and proto-patricians. He then lays them out in tidy alphabetical order, for readers themselves to choose, prepare, and digest what best pleases them.

As a prosopography, this volume puts the data at the forefront instead of analysis. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but readers have to do a lot of their own legwork to connect the evidence to larger trends. Berto clearly intends this outcome, seeing this study "as a fundamental tool for a wide variety of investigations" by scholars of later medieval Venice, the late antique Byzantine empire, and the medieval Mediterranean (2). It could also be a useful dataset for teaching research and analytic methods to advanced undergraduates or master's students without the requisite language skills or travel funds to work with Latin or Italian texts. Given his deep knowledge of the place and time, as well as his strength in close reading, Berto is indubitably well-equipped to survey and catalog the known inhabitants of Venice for this five-hundred year period. Berto got his start as an early medievalist through his intense scrutiny of the earliest Venetian chronicle, John the Deacon's Istoria Veneticorum, written in the first decade of the eleventh century. He has produced not only a scholarly transcription and translation of the chronicle but also a monograph, The Political and Social Vocabulary of John the Deacon's 'Istoria Veneticorum' and a handful of articles on the source. It takes discipline and restraint to keep focus on the utility of this project to other scholars. Sketches of major historiographical debates swim thickly in the footnotes, but only very occasionally break the surface of the main text. Even in the footnotes, Berto works very hard to lay out all major interpretations of ambiguous data, even for the cases in which he has skin in the game. He lays out his differences of opinion with other notable Venetianists like Andrea Castagnetti, Marco Pozza, and Stefano Gasparri, but balances the at-times gruff assessments with acknowledgements of his debts to them. Their placement in the footnotes also underlines the purpose of this book as a starting point for research, not a presentation of analysis.

The foundation of this work rests not on original archival research, but on the careful examination of published primary sources. Obviously, the Istoria Veneticorum acts as a major source for this collection, as well as the narrative sources, the Cronica de singulis patriarchis nove Aquileie and the Translatio Marci Evangelistae Venetias. He also draws from non-Venetian narrative sources such as the Annals of Fulda, Peter Damian's Vita beati Romualdi and the anonymous eleventh-century Vita beati Petri Urseoli, although rather annoyingly he does not include them in his discussion of sources in the introduction. Notably absent from the sources for the main prosopography is the controversial Origo civitatum Italiae seu Venetiarum. Berto quarantines it in the appendices due to the lack of agreement in the scholarship on how to treat the text, ranging from "the almost complete acceptance of the evidence contained in it to a total rejection of it" (16). Berto also draws heavily on public documents collected by Roberto Cessi in Documenti relativi alla storia di Venezia anteriori al Mille; the richest pockets of data come from Petrus Candianus IV's bans on the slave trade (960) and trade with Muslims (971), Petrus Ursoylus II's prohibition on provoking riots on the Ducal Palace (998), and the lists of individuals paying tithes during the reigns of Petrus Ursoylus (978), Vitalis Candianus (978/9) and Petrus Ursoylus II (991/1008). All of the major sources, with the exception of the monumental inscriptions, date from the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The distribution of names is far from consistent across the centuries. Because of their dates of composition, the sources give us the most detailed, interconnected, and reliable data about tenth-century individuals. Among 1230 entries, 947 refer to individuals active in the tenth and early eleventh century (the latter number was not offered by Berto; I counted out the entries myself); many of them appear in multiple sources. In contrast, by Berto's own admission, the entries from the seventh and eighth centuries are few, isolated, and often drawn from sources long postdating the individuals described (notably the Istoria Veneticorum). This lacuna separates the relatively well-documented sixth century from the much richer data of the ninth through eleventh centuries. Furthermore, because the sixth-century individuals lack surnames, mostly live in Grado rather than the lagoon, and are drawn from monumental inscriptions rather than from public documents and chronicles, it is difficult to see how they should, or even could, be linked to the clannish, cosmopolitan Rivoaltans of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Perhaps this is the point, but it means that there is still a significant blind spot in our understanding of the development of early medieval Venice, albeit much smaller than for much of Europe.

In fact, many of the tenth-century individuals have more obvious connections with the Venetian patriciate of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance than to the sixth-century residents of Grado. Familiar names from the Libro d'Oro such as the Maurocenus (Morosini), Bragadinus (Bragadin), and Gradonicus (Gradenigo) families pepper these documents along with other famous clans like the Candianus (Candiano) and Ursoylus (Orseolo) that had gone extinct by 1297. The evolution of surnames in the Venetian duchy occurred early, and as Berto points out, is one of the chief points of interest for this material. Cautious in his approach, he suggests that their adoption was uneven, adhoc, and polygenous. Even though he trumpets Venice as a place where some had already assumed surnames by the eighth century (2, n6), he later hedges that "in my opinion the tenth century was still a transitional period during which surnames were not yet fully in use by all Venetians, and some names, which later became family names...seem to have been only first names" (19-20). This inconsistency represents not so much a contradiction in Berto's interpretation (which can be inferred to be a nuanced one) as a shortcoming in the layout of the book.

This leads to my major point of frustration with this complex, interesting work: this prosopography occupies an awkward space between monograph and database. Berto clearly believes in his mission to provide the community with important data, but he cannot help but offer suggestions on how it ought to be properly used, both through the format of the volume, and in the ancillary analysis offered in the introduction and the appendices. As a tool for scholarship, the main prosopography would have been much more accessible and better served by its publication as a searchable database (or at least accompanied by one), much like The Rulers of Venice, 1332-1542, an electronic (now online) database edited by Benjamin Kohl, Monique O'Connell, and Andrea Mozzato. It is tedious to have to sort and count by hand the number of names for a given category when you know that even a simple spreadsheet or search engine could do the same in seconds. In the appendices, Berto has done some preliminary sorting by first name, by gender, by clerical status, by office, by profession, and by geographical origin. These appendices illuminate some very interesting trends, such as the overwhelming preponderance of lay individuals (1039) named in the documents, rather than ecclesiastics (201) even for this early period. Yet, the appendices do not sort out other basic categorizations that scholars might want to make, such as an organization of individuals by source or by century, nor do they offer numerical data for their lists. If the decision to present this data as a book rather than a database was philosophically driven (and not due to the demands of publication), it seems as though Berto wishes to impress upon the readers the difficulty of extracting the data from the sources by having them share some of the labor.

The hints of narrative that pop up in the introduction and appendices point toward a monograph-style analysis of the data, but the subsequent retreats back into lists of data mean that they never cohere as a consistent, rigorous argument, as they would in a monograph. Instead, they make us guess what to make of the connections. In particular, "Appendix 2: The Rulers of Venice" morphs from a list with simple biographical details on the early duces and magistri militum into a grand narrative of dynastic ambition and political innovation for the doges of the ninth and tenth centuries. The result is a carefully curated collection of data that pushes the reader to certain conclusions about the development of civic society in Venice, but coyly refrains from making a direct statement. On the other end of the spectrum "Appendix 8: Advocati," possess only three entries, and no explanation there or in the introduction of what this title or office entailed or why it appeared in the tenth century; it is also unclear why Berto segregates it from "Appendix 6: Other Offices and Titles."

Similarly, the introduction possesses a disjointed, unfinished quality to its explanation of the material. As mentioned above on the issue of surnames, Berto sometimes offers differing perspectives on the same subject in multiple sections that are not explicitly reconciled. The sections do not possess a consistent style and tend to lack transitions. For instance, no explanation is offered for why "Geography of the Venetian Duchy" discusses locations in a narrative style, while the following sections, "The Venetian Bishoprics" and "The Venetian Monasteries" lay out place names in lists. Since a footnote (14, n42) refers to the section on Venetian monasteries as an appendix, they originally may not have been intended as part of the introduction and were hastily inserted there in the editing process. Apparently torn between his commitment to put the unadorned data in the limelight and his excitement over the phenomena it suggests, Berto has left traces of tantalizing but incomplete analysis throughout the introduction, appendices, and footnotes.

In the end, reading this volume is basically accessing the research notes of a very knowledgeable scholar. It presents its data neither in a raw, crunchable state, nor in the fully finessed form of a monograph, but somewhere in between. Nevertheless, the information that it conveys is detailed, comprehensive, and thought-provoking. If it does no more than provide accessible evidence to support new arguments and suggest ways to process it, this work will have contributed substantially to the scholarly discourse on socio-political and cultural formation in early medieval Venice, in the Mediterranean, and in Europe.

Article Details

Section
Reviews