Cool Hand Lagoon: On the Misappropriation of Venetian History

Several days ago, Prateek Raj retweeted a capsule HBR article by Piero Formica, “Why Innovators Should Study the Rise and Fall of the Venetian Empire”.  Retweeting it myself, I said “This is bad history.  Really, really bad”.  Quite fairly, I was challenged to elaborate by University of Liverpool’s Andrew Smith.  My response took the form of a Noah Smith-imitating chain tweet.  It received some likes, but also complaints, of the type “You should have blogged this.”

So here is a cleaned-up and somewhat expanded version of my tweet.  Please read the (very brief) Formica article first.


In, “Why Innovators Should Study the Rise and Fall of the Venetian Empire”, Piero Formica represents medieval history as a sort of prequel to Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to innovate.”  Or, in the case of Venice, a failure to keep innovating.

But it’s absurd to represent Europe’s succession of economic and political dominance – from city-states to Mediterranean empires to northern nation-states – as a lapse in innovative urgency by a small Italian polity.  Short of inventing the A-bomb and the B-29, how could Venice have prevented the emergence of the Ottoman and Spanish empires or have prevailed over them?

As for the claim (an old canard) that Venice came to focus “more on exploitation than exploration”, when were the Venetians not exploiters?  The new Mediterranean commerce, that the Venetians helped to invent, heaped new exploitation – of weak entities by strong, via trading rights and concessions achieved through violence – upon the old exploitation – of large prices differences over long distances – that had long been the crux of international trade.  If, as its trading routes declined, Venice transitioned from exploiting its mini-empire to exploiting its hinterland*, it did so more successfully than any other Italian city-state.  Indeed, in their acquisition of an Italian backcountry, one can argue that the Venetians displayed just the sort of prescience that Formica says they lacked.

Eventually, Venice’s – and the other Italian maritimes’ – northern European customers, originally buyers of luxury goods out of feudal surpluses, developed into nation-states whose agricultural bases and commodity markets – grain, wood, wool – dwarfed the former luxury trade.  Once this happened, England and the United Provinces could defy the Habsburg Empires.  Again, Formica expects that – by some innovation Venice could have stopped them?  He mentions improved sailing ships, but, without control of Gibraltar (something that England did not win until 1704), these ships would have had no place to sail.

This brings, of course, us to the Arsenal – a dream destination for any innovation theorist’s need for a natural experiment.  But when Formica links the long span (697-1797) of the Venetian Republic to Venice’s “military technology” and this “advanced naval munitions factory that anticipated by several centuries the production-line method of manufacture”, he neglects to point out that the arsenale nuova, which indeed embodied these methods, was not set up until the fourteenth century, when Venice, though at the peak of its power, was close to the end of its long run of military relevance.

Even before this, and through much of its long history, the Arsenal’s concentrated production facilities and standardized ship designs provided Venice with, to use Philip Hoffman’s term, “a comparative advantage in violence” and allowed a small country to project its military interests with surprising efficiency.  Venice was more relevant, for a longer period, than it arguably should have been.

And the Venetians didn’t neglect improvements in ship design – the gun-platform galleaze that were so useful at Lepanto – were largely Venetian innovations.  But as their trade routes declined, the Venetians seem to have avoided a full-throttle, dreadnought-like competition with emerging European powers – a pointless battle which they could not have won.

To conclude, Formica’s depiction of Venetian history is typical of the current innovation trope, which suggests, via a kind of glib, innovation-trumps-all consultspeak, that any country (or company, which is the real point) could have ruled the world – and maintained its rule – had it only been more like Apple.  Venice, like the clients of consultants like Formica, was “doomed to wither”, as are all who are satisfied with “success as usual” and become “set in their ways and never strive for new horizons”.

What romantic nonsense.  We can pity the companies who become enthralled to such counsel; the Venetians, we can be sure, would have led its purveyors over the Bridge of Sighs.  We should not exaggerate their accomplishments, or confuse simple longevity with exemplary performance, but – for reasons very different than those mentioned by Formica – the Venetians’ long-term record in confronting an increasingly dynamic, competitive world full of opportunities, dangers, and constraints is indeed one we moderns would do well to examine.


*To keep things simple, I’m omitting any reference here to the Venetian switch to manufacturing from entrepôt-based trade in the sixteenth century – another example of successful economic adjustment.  See Lane, chapter 22.


The are many recent articles, monographs, and surveys on Venice.  But since it drew the attention of the greats, why not read them?  These writers provided the background for this post.  Lane is the best first-stop.

Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, 1: The Structures of Everyday Life, 2: The Wheels of Commerce. 3: The Perspective of the World. Harper Collins, New York, 1985.

Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. 2 volumes. Univ of California Press, 1995.

Lane, Frederic Chapin. Venice, a maritime republic. JHU Press, 1973.

Lopez, Robert Sabatino. The commercial revolution of the Middle Ages, 950-1350. Cambridge University Press, 1976.

McNeill, William H. Venice: the hinge of Europe, 1081-1797. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

2 thoughts on “Cool Hand Lagoon: On the Misappropriation of Venetian History

  1. I don’t think people like fatalism. Americans don’t like thinking that their global dominance had as much to do with WWII’s destruction of so much of the rest of the world as with our own innovations and capitalist spirit. Now that Europe and Asia have rebuilt, we’re having trouble conceptualizing the new playing field.


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