Speaking of specters, the second half of this work evokes the spirit of Kaplan’s famous “Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History” (1993), which covered much of the same geography. “Balkan Ghosts” received a great deal of acclaim worldwide but was less warmly received by professional historians. Among the latter, Kaplan singles out Noel Malcolm, who “wrote a devastatingly harsh review” because “Balkan Ghosts” “did not come remotely close to meeting Malcolm’s standards of objectivity and research.” But “my initial rage over the review gave way over time to a deliberate resolve to learn from such criticism.” Elsewhere, he writes: “I silently determined to henceforth explore also the best works of academia, in both history and political science.” True to his word, Kaplan employs Malcolm’s own scholarly study of the Bruni and Bruti families of the 16th century (“Agents of Empire”).
But if many academic historians have been critical of Kaplan, he exhibits nothing but admiration for the best of them. “How I regret not continuing my education beyond college and toward a Ph.D. … I would have wanted to dig deep and narrowly like an archaeologist, in order to illuminate something both profound and panoramic.” The historical scope of Kaplan’s canvas is vast, yet he works hard to bring to it the fruits of modern historical scholarship. That is rare among popular authors, and deserves much praise.
In my view, as an academic and a specialist on medieval and early modern Venice, Kaplan has gone a long way toward achieving his goal. Academic history is hard — often written in precise and specialized terms for other historians. Undaunted, Kaplan brings to his reader (in digestible forms) scholars like Peter Brown, Norman Davies, Deborah Deliyannis, Peter Frankopan, Judith Herrin, Frederic Lane, Philip Mansel, Francis Oakley, Chris Wickham and others. They enrich his narrative and enliven his descriptions.
And yet. Kaplan’s personal affinity for the Balkans produces a noticeable blind spot when it comes to Venice. With few exceptions, all the destinations in this book were once part of Venice’s maritime empire. Venetian architecture, especially in Dalmatia and Corfu, is described yet its implications are not. While Kaplan is certainly correct that “the bulk of output in the humanities is notoriously spoiled by jargon,” there remains a prodigious amount of serious modern scholarship on Venice and its Stato da Mar. It is unconsidered here. Instead, Kaplan relies on older works by Mary McCarthy, John Julius Norwich and Jan Morris. Had he, during his sojourn in Venice, peeked into the State Archives at the Frari or the Marciana Library on the Piazzetta San Marco, Kaplan would have discovered a hive of international scholars digging into the fascinating and complex history of this unique republic. Without those insights, Kaplan’s medieval Venetians are flat, lifeless and too easily defined. “Pragmatism, of both the ruthless and the enlightened variety, was the guiding spirit of medieval Venice.” Really? Can any people, particularly one as diverse as the Venetians, be so summarily dismissed? Realism, Kaplan reports, “was the one true religion of Venice.” Why then did they build over a hundred churches and monasteries? This is one part of the famous “anti-myth” of Venice, that the conniving Venetians were a nation of Shylocks ever demanding their pound of flesh.