Today on Project Gutenberg #31

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Republic of Ragusa: An Episode of the Turkish Conquest by Luigi Villari

Individual cities always make for such fascinating history, don’t they? Especially in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, where the most famous cities are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Some are even older than the countries we associate them with today. Reading about cities provides us with a more intimate, ground-level view of history.

Today’s book, which comes to us from 1904, focuses on a city, though calling it a city-state might be more accurate. But we’re not talking about one of the heavy-hitters like London or Paris. We’re talking about the little-known city of Ragusa.

So what is Ragusa? It’s the historical name for the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, located in the extreme south of the country in the region once known as Dalmatia (yes, like the dog, and that’s not a coincidence). It was founded sometime in the 7th century AD by refugees from the destroyed Roman city of Epidaurum, and that town eventually combined with a Slavic settlement nearby. It fell under the control of a few different larger powers after that, notably the Byzantine empire and then the Venetian Republic. But the time when the region became truly powerful — the time period this book is interested in — was 1358 to 1808, when it existed as an independent maritime republic.

Our author is Luigi Villari, an Italian historian and diplomat. I couldn’t find much information about him, but what I did find was quite interesting. He served as an Italian Vice-Consul in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Boston, he published several books about Italian life and history, he devoted a whole book to his experiences traveling through imperial Russia, and he even contributed to an early edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Like our very old friend Georg Ebers, he seems to have been a guy who was extremely passionate about history and wanted to teach it in an accurate and entertaining way. He says as much in the foreword of this book, when he talks about the lack of an accurate, English-language book on Ragusa and its place in European history.

Villari is meticulous indeed, because this book is long. Just over 400 pages, to be exact. With its giant blocks of text, it may seem very daunting and dry to modern readers. And while Villari stated that he wanted to avoid writing a mere “chronicle of events,” some paragraphs are just long lists of things like of who succeeded who on the throne and when. Another chapter is devoted exclusively to the trading history of the city, which is admittedly important: at the height of its power in the 15th and 16th centuries, it held special trade privileges from its connection to the Ottoman Empire and was one of the few serious competitors to Venice. Villari describes it in a rather poetic way:

But in spite of this ever-present danger she continues to grow in wealth, splendour, and importance, and to carry out her mission as a haven of refuge and a bulwark of Christianity and civilisation. She flourishes as a centre of learning and the arts no less than as an emporium of trade, and all the while she remains singularly free from internal troubles and constitutional changes—a unique distinction in that part of the world. She pursues the even tenour of her way undisturbed, conservative, aristocratic, narrow-minded, but on the whole successful and prosperous, and her population contented.

Page 219

That’s more or less the most poetic it gets, however. Here’s an example of what the writing is usually like:

The whole basis of Ragusa’s prosperity, as we have seen in the first chapter, was trade. The Republic’s territory was too small, and in part too arid, to provide sufficient foodstuffs for the population and three-quarters of the grain which it consumed annually were imported from abroad. Consequently it was upon trade and industry that the citizens had to depend for their means of livelihood. Manufactures, however, save shipbuilding, never assumed great importance at Ragusa, and it was not until the following century that any industries at all were established. Trade, on the other hand, both sea-borne and overland, received a great additional impetus from the extension of Venetian traffic and from the increasing civilisation of the Slave states. At Ragusa, as at Venice, Florence, Siena, and elsewhere in Italy, the aristocracy as well as the middle classes were all interested in trade. We find members of all the noble families in the Ragusan settlements in Servia and Bosnia and Albania, and no nobleman disdained to travel overseas with his own goods.

Page 115

Would it be fun to sit and read this book all the way through? Probably not. I’m the kind of person who would try it, but I’m weird like that. Even if the subject and/or the writing style don’t appeal to you, however, the amount of work that went into this book. Villari puts in over 500 footnotes, and he includes a pretty large bibliography at the end. He clearly knows what he’s talking about, and he leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the history of this region. As someone who’s written historical research papers, I have mad respect for him and what he’s done here.

I would recommend reading the first chapter to see if this is the kind of book you’d enjoy. It’s not the kind of book you can skim for fun facts. But if you sit down and give it your attention, you’re sure to learn something you didn’t know before. And isn’t that worth it?

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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