‘Its character is complex, awkward, and unique,’ wrote the French historian Fernand Braudel in the preface to the first edition of his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. ‘No simple biography beginning with date of birth can be written of this sea; no simple narrative of how things happened would be appropriate to its history.’
But then, no French historian could reckon on JJN, either. Historian, broadcaster, champion of Venice, he can be viewed almost any day in the reading room of the London Library, where he bones up on his facts and writes his books. Over the years these have included a history of Sicily, two volumes on Venice, and three on Byzantium. If anyone can come up with a simple narrative of how things happened in the Mediterranean, it will be the man who has travelled and guided other travellers across those wine-dark seas for well over half a century.
Braudel is right, in one sense: not since the time of the ancient Greeks has it been possible to speak of a single, unified Mediterranean culture. In recent years, of course, the sea has shrunk, its shores coated in an almost continuous line of resinous foliage and concrete holiday houses,