In the maritime museum in Venice are the few remaining fragments of the Bucintoro, that magnificent galley in which every year on Ascension Day the reigning Doge was rowed out into the lagoon to perform a symbolic wedding with the sea. Anthems were sung, trumpets blared, drums were rattled, fiddlers fiddled, the collective retina was assaulted by the shimmer of silks and brocades (and that was just the senators), the Doge threw a ring into the sea (which once or twice cast it back inside a fish’s belly), and La Serenissima reassured itself of an uncontested dominion over the watery element.
The justification for this mystic union, as Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune demonstrates, was pure geopolitical necessity. In its earliest years, as a huddle of villages on mudbanks in an Adriatic lagoon, Venice needed the sea for subsistence and protection. Maritime trade became the growing city’s raison d’être