Book Review: Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice by Thomas F. Madden

For many scholars and readers of medieval history, Thomas F. Madden is well-known for his work concerning the Crusades and the cultures that inhabited the Mediterranean of the middle ages. As a historian, he has written and discussed at length the crusades and in particular the Fourth Crusade and the Republic of Venice. It is in his fifth book, the 2005 Otto Grundler Award winning and 2007 Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice that he delves into the man who many think of as the one who set into motion the events that would bring Constantinople to an end for roughly 60 years.

Madden’s book on Enrico Dandolo fits right in with his other work which deals with other topics related to the Crusades, in particular the Fourth Crusade, but also with medieval Venice. We all know of Venice as it relates to gondolas and the Venetian celebration of Carnival, but outside the academic world, the Republic of Venice during the Middle Ages is an often forgotten subject. Madden writes to change that in this work that goes into a broader detail of the rise that Venice experienced after the 11th century.

The description of the Dandolo family focused on at the beginning of the book. Right away we have information that it was through infighting throughout the republic during the 10th century that saw the rise of the family. It gives us a timeline of the family’s good political fortune, mostly through the eyes of Doge Andrea Dandolo in the 14th century and Venetian genealogist Marco Barbaro during the 16th century. While Andrea Dandolo does not write of it in his work, the 1360s manuscript of Venetiarum Historia mentions the Dandolo family as a founding member of Venice.[1] Throughout the opening passages, we can see how the affairs of the state and the installed Patriarch, Enrico, helped shape the Dandolo family and set the stage for Doge Enrico Dandolo to come in and make his mark on history.[2]

Further reading details the exile and then return to prominence of the family and shows how Doge Enrico came to the political game. This is want the chief argument of the book is about. Doge Enrico, the key player of the Fourth Crusade, is coming to power and now we have the basis for what his forebears set up for him. The Dogeship of Enrico was a public one. He held court and sought to be a man who would break any deadlock vote. While not trying to take sides, they knew him as the conduit between the government of Venice, the people of Venice and Heaven. Dandolo quickly becomes known for his reforms, much like his uncle Patriarch Enrico was, notably in the legal and administrative system.[3]

Thomas Madden points out that most of the scholar views that have focused on Enrico has been on the Fourth Crusade. He does not go into as much detail into the infamous Fourth Crusade as he does with Doge Enrico. We learn that much of the more prominent view of the crusade and the doge comes from Byzantine nobleman Nicetas Choniates, a man who never the Doge who he famously defames. Madden uses Choniates as a source of the Byzantine perspective. It is in this area that we gain valuable insight into the mind and views of the Doge. We gain both sides of the argument of the crusade that brought ruin to the Byzantine Empire.[4] We also can read from the viewpoint that many historians fell on the piety of Venetians in their continued sea trade with the Muslim east before, during and after the crusades.[5] This, however, is what they had known the Venetian economy for; sea merchants who relied on the Mediterranean Sea for a way of life, even renting out their ships to transport Crusaders.[6]

Soon we see the picture of the Fourth Crusade and the effects it would have, not only on the medieval world but also on Mediterranean history. Much of the story is told from an exiled prince to political power plays. Madden discusses the Franks who journeyed to Venice, hoping to reach Jerusalem but also he gives the details of how the fleet and war effort shifted to Constantinople, due in part to Frankish debts.[7] Madden also paints a picture that the Venetians have built a history for themselves, that they would forsake faith if it meant to recoup a monetary loss.[8] The long history of the Dandolo family’s rise to power and the details of how Doge Enrico used that power to help Venice succeed financially greets us in this book, even if that meant excommunication of the entire populace.

Throughout Enrico Dandolo & the rise of Venice, we see multiple viewpoints on not only Doge Enrico but also of Venice during the time of the Crusades and a few instances prior to the wars. These views help to shape the man and republic into what we might not have known already. Madden does not shy away from pointing out points that have been made on the negative aspects of Doge Enrico in his book. This helps to take away some of the bias for Venice and their political stance in the work. However, Madden does not interject much of his own personal views which can be seen as helpful to fully grasp an accurate history. However, many of his sources rely on personal feelings to pass judgements on Venice and Doge Enrico.

While the central argument of the work is mostly on the Dandolo family and more precisely Enrico, we get a larger feel that much of the work leads up to how these actions lead to larger maritime empire of Venice. In fact, Madden places the outcome of the Fourth Crusade and its results almost entirely on Dandolo’s shoulders.[9]

As mentioned previously, Madden used sources for this work that showcased the opinions that many historians have had for many years. These sources range from family and Venetian records to enemy testimonials. Each brings a new viewpoint to the table but they also rely on personal feelings and attitudes which might not be the most accurate. Could it be said that Andrea Dandolo, a future Doge himself, wrote about his work while wearing rose-colored glasses? We certainly can understand the anger that Choniates feels when writing about Dandolo. The latter’s army had conquered his homeland. These two views reflect the world views of the republic. Within this work and the sources used to compile it, we get a sense that Venice during the Crusades was a polarizing republic.


1. Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo & the Rise of Venice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins     University, 2003.

[1] Madden, 2-3.

[2] Madden, 24.

[3] Ibid, 105-108.

[4] Ibid, 118-120.

[5] Ibid, 121.

[6] Madden, 124.

[7] Ibid, 134-135.

[8] Ibid, 151-153.

[9] Madden, 195.


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