Antonio Musarra. Genova e il mare nel Medioevo. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2015. 202 pp. EUR 14.00 (paper), ISBN 978-88-15-25990-5.
Reviewed by Thomas Kirk (University of Central Oklahoma)
Published on H-Italy (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Matt Vester (West Virginia University)
Long relegated to the darker recesses of scholarly works on both medieval Italy and the Renaissance, interest in the convoluted history of Genoa has been on the rise for a few decades now. The pioneering works by Roberto Lopez on the economic and social history of medieval Genoa were followed by those concerned more narrowly with the activities of the city’s financiers in the early modern period. Here the works of Filipe Ruiz-Martin and Ramon Carande stand out. The monumental works of Fernand Braudel then placed Genoa firmly at the center of both the Mediterranean world and the economy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This has led to something of a groundswell of activity, from Michel Balard and Gabriella Airaldi’s explorations of medieval Genoa’s presence in the Black Sea to George Gorse shedding light on the art-historical significance of the Ligurian city and to Steven A. Epstein’s panorama of medieval Genoa’s economic and social history. We have now reached the point where there is a sufficient critical mass of material on Genoa that need has arisen for an introduction for the general reader or student. Antonio Musarra’s succinct yet comprehensive volume fills that void. It is only a shame that more “general readers” do not read Italian.
Musarra’s approach is conventional, written in clear, straightforward prose. Broadly chronological, the narrative opens with a discussion of what little is known of the city from classical antiquity through the periods of Lombard and Frankish domination, and continues with the tale of Genoa’s involvement in the First Crusade, the creation of a communal government, and the construction of a maritime commercial empire. Three chapters are dedicated to the history of the city’s intricate relations with the other powers of medieval Italy, and western Europe more generally, and the concurrent convulsions that drove the city through an broad array of regimes, political experiments, and forms of government. Excursions from the strictly chronological narrative describe the commercial traffic flows within the Genoese system of colonial outposts, and provide an overview of the port structures supporting that system. There is also a concise discussion of the development of ship types and the Genoese fleet, living conditions aboard medieval vessels, and the nature of warfare at sea in the Mediterranean. The final two chapters deal with the repeated experiences of domination by foreign powers in the fifteenth century and the concurrent shift in the epicenter of Genoese activity from the eastern to the western end of the Mediterranean world and to the Atlantic. This is a familiar story and Musarra does a very good job of organizing and presenting the material in an accessible, comprehensive manner.
In spite of the title, and Dr. Musarra’s research interests in maritime history, the book is primarily a general overview of medieval Genoa. The volume’s strengths are many and its shortcomings are few, and, perhaps surprisingly, they are intimately linked. In his successful effort to present the rise of Genoa as a sea power and an economically dominant force in the medieval Mediterranean in a clear fashion, the city’s rise appears a bit too linear and Genoese society too cohesive. While the book points out the variety of structures and degrees of sovereignty exercised over the city-state’s possessions, the extremely fluid nature of the “empire” and the tenuous nature of any control over Genoese possessions is muted. This is an issue faced by anyone dealing with the history of Genoa. The unifying element is not institutional, but rather one of identity. Therefore, approaching the Genoese empire, or commercial network, or diaspora with the cognitive categories common to historical overviews tends to suggest a conformity to modern notions of social and political cohesion. Any other shortcomings of the book are simply those dictated by the format. Clearly, a book meant to be an introduction to medieval Genoa in general lacks the depth of analysis or prosopography that the serious scholar will be looking for. The lack of notes or a comprehensive bibliography also limits the book’s utility for in-depth research (although there is a useful guide for further reading.)
In short, this is a good book that achieves its intended goal. It is a direct, reliable overview of a complex subject that at least touches on the important questions of Genoese history--essential reading for anyone wanting to get acquainted with the city-state’s fascinating history. One can only hope that an English translation is in the works, allowing for a much-deserved wider audience.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
Thomas Kirk. Review of Musarra, Antonio, Genova e il mare nel Medioevo.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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