Review: Frederic Lane, Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the
Renaissance. The Johns Hopkins
The title of Frederic Lane's book gives a good
indication of its contents in more than one way. First, the subject of the book is just what the title says, the
ships and shipbuilders of Renaissance Venice.
He examines both merchant vessels and warships: how they were were built
and used, who built them, and how all these interacted with the changing
economic and political position of Venice.
Secondly, the rather pedestrian title betrays Lane's lack of a thesis. While he certainly covers the subject, and
covers it well, Lane has no overall thesis for why this subject is important
for understanding the history of Venice or Europe during the Renaissance. He relies instead on the assumed inherent
interest of the material. The
importance of ships to Venetian history is so obvious that it may invite such
an assumption, and throughout the book Lane gives us glimpses into the wider
significance of this story--the shift of shipbuilding to the Netherlands and the
Baltic; the rise of great power navies which forced Venice to completely alter
its naval organization; the changing role of the galley as merchantman and
warship; Venice's establishment of a standing navy more than a century before
any other European power. But Lane never
draws together these separate strands into a unified whole, and much of the
potential power of the book therefore is wasted.
Nevertheless, the book is very interesting and
illuminating. As suggested above, the
history of Venetian naval power touches so many central issues of European history
that Lane cannot help but make some very intriguing connections. Also, the fact that the book lacks a
unifying thesis does not imply that it is rambling or incoherent. The subject matter connects the chapters
nicely, as Lane move with equal ease from changes in ship design and rigging to
industrial discipline in the Arsenal of Venice, and the chapters themselves do
have their own separate theses. For
example, in the chapter on timber supplies, Lane argues that the Venetian conservation
policy succeeded in securing adequate timber for state use, but at the cost of
accelerating the destruction of the forests available for private use.
Lane's solid research comes through with his excellent
use of anecdotes, which illustrate his points without distracting from them
with extraneous detail. Because he
writes clearly and never wanders from
his topic, the book stays focused enough to manage without a thesis. His use of illustrations and tables is
excellent. Overall, while the lack of a
thesis lessens the book's impact, it is still well worth reading for anyone
interested in the interplay between the military, political, and economic interests
of a state.