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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  Frederic Lane, Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance.  The Johns Hopkins Press (1934).

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.

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