Review: “Adriatic”, by Robert D. Kaplan
Speaking of ghosts, 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 much acclaim worldwide, but was less warmly received by professional historians. Among the latter, Kaplan singles out Noel Malcolm, who “wrote an extremely harsh review” because “Balkan Ghosts” “failed to live up to Malcolm’s standards of objectivity and research”. But “my initial rage over the review gave way over time to a deliberate resolution to learn from such criticism.” Elsewhere he writes: “I have silently decided to explore henceforth also the best works of academia, both in history and political science. True to his word, Kaplan employs Malcolm’s own scholarly study of the 16th century Bruni and Bruti families (“Agents of the Empire”).
But while many academic historians have criticized Kaplan, he only shows admiration for the best of them. “How I regret not continuing my education beyond college and into a doctorate. … I would have liked to dig deep and narrow like an archaeologist, in order to illuminate something both deep and panoramic. The historical scope of Kaplan’s canvas is vast, but he works hard to bring to it the fruits of modern historical scholarship. This is rare among popular authors and deserves much praise.
In my opinion, as a scholar and scholar of medieval and modern Venice, Kaplan has come a long way towards achieving his goal. Academic history is difficult – often written in precise and specialized terms for other historians. Unfazed, Kaplan brings to his reader (in digestible forms) scholars like Peter Brown, Norman Davies, Deborah Deliyanis, 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 of the destinations in this book were once part of Venice’s maritime empire. Venetian architecture, particularly in Dalmatia and Corfu, is described but its implications are not. While Kaplan is certainly correct in saying that “most production in the humanities is notoriously marred by jargon”, there remains a prodigious amount of serious modern scholarship on Venice and its State of Mar. It’s inconsiderate here. Instead, Kaplan relies on older works by Mary McCarthy, John Julius Norwich, and Jan Morris. Had he, while in Venice, peeked into the Frari State Archives or the Marciana Library on the Piazzetta San Marco, Kaplan would have discovered a hive of international scholars digging into history. fascinating and complex part of this unique republic. Without these ideas, Kaplan’s medieval Venetians are flat, lifeless and too easy to define. “Pragmatism, both ruthless and enlightened, was the guiding spirit of medieval Venice.” Really? Can a people, especially a people as diverse as the Venetians, be so summarily dismissed? Realism, Kaplan reports, “was the only true religion of Venice.” Why then did they build over a hundred churches and monasteries? This is part of the famous “anti-myth” of Venice, that the conniving Venetians were a nation of Shylocks still demanding their pound of flesh.