On Things Italian
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
Like so many others, I am drawn to Italy and to things Italian. Coffee for one. Why is it that, using precisely the same ingredients, Italians can do with this little brown bean something no other nation has managed to do? Italian art, architecture, food, language, gardens, fashion, music; in every endeavour they seem to have an aptitude that overshadows everyone else. In the seventies I spent a year in Rome and that is probably when my own love affair with Italy began. I honeymooned in Italy, and for ten years I regularly attended services at the Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem, with its charming Baroque interior, brought from Congliano Veneto in northern Italy and reconstructed in downtown Jerusalem, where services are held by a local community of Italian expats. I should probably not be surprised then that a book I recently began writing, my first venture into the world of trade literature, which had begun as something quite different, has evolved into a book largely about Italians. One cannot write about the Mediterranean without Italians popping up, and then pretty much taking over. This is true for almost every historic period. They feature prominently if not predominantly in every human endeavour over the past two or three millennia, be they Etruscan warriors, Roman senators, Renaissance artisans, twentieth century Fascists or, in my case, medieval merchants from the city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa.
The Italian merchant communities in Acre and Tyre were quite small. The late British medievalist, Jonathan Riley-Smith estimated that in 1249 there were no more than 70 households, or about 300 people in the Genoese quarter of Acre, which would seems to indicate that they were quite a trivial presence in a city with a population of several tens of thousands. In fact, despite these numbers they are right up there with the crusader nobility, the great military orders (Templars and Hospitallers) and the Latin Church, as a central and dominant force in Frankish society, and not only in port cities like Acre. The crusaders were dependent on them and on their pivotal role in commerce, in the transporting of armies, pilgrims and commodities, and of course in naval warfare. Without them, and this is half of the thesis of my new book, the crusader states would probably not have survived for a decade, let alone for two centuries (or four if we include the kingdom of Cyprus). On the other hand, the contribution of the Italian city-states to the downfall of the kingdom of Jerusalem and later on to that of the kingdom of Cyprus, was no less central. It seems that, when it comes to the Italians, the crusaders could neither live with them nor live without them.