Seas within seas

Bucentaur at the Molo, Ascension Day, by Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)

History of the Adriatic: A Sea and its Civilization

Egidio Ivetic, Cambridge: Polity, 2022, hb., 352 pps, £25

DEREK TURNER wallows in warm world-historical waters

The Mediterranean flows always through European awareness, Homer’s ‘wine-dark-sea’ and the Romans’ Mare Nostrum becoming ‘Our Sea’ too by ancient immersion. But within the world-historical susurrations of those waves can be heard the sounds of smaller waters, whole seas within seas. University of Padua historian Egidio Ivetic draws attentions to the oddly-overlooked Adriatic, a more intimate body of aqua but one with its own identity and importance, which he calls ‘the Mediterranean of the Mediterranean.’

As well as academic insights, Ivetic has personal connections around these shores, criss-crossed the Adriatic frequently while working on ships, and evinces unflagging interest in everything from sixth-century BC amphorae to twenty-first century ephemera. His book is not lushly impressionistic in the style of many northern European writers, but it is deeply affectionate, and his subject intrinsically poetic. It is not free from ‘academese’, but it is vastly informative, helping fill a surprisingly blank space in the expanding area of thalassography – the history of seas, as opposed to history in or on seas.

The Adriatic was historically considered a discrete region of the Mediterranean, a third branch that was neither the Levant (east) nor the Ponent (west). It was where the Latin West encountered the Orthodox East and later Islam, and where numerous empires had their farthest frontiers – the Carolingian, the Byzantine, the Holy Roman, the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, and the Napoleonic. It was strategic too to the Spanish crown, and always a corridor of concern to Popes, especially after the fall of Constantinople allowed the Turks to subjugate much of the Balkans. The area was both recognizably European and exotically Near Eastern; Saracens captured Bari as early as 847, into the 1920s camel caravans travelled as far west as Sarajevo, and Al Jazeera broadcasts in Bosnian-Croat-Serb. Albania, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and Slovenia are the latest manifestations of infinitely older identities, rooted in both reality and romance. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also Adriatic although it does not have a coastline, because whatever transpired on the sea always made ripples far inland.

Reliable counter-clockwise currents, and the narrowness of the gulf, impelled Archaic then Classical Greeks northwards along the eastern shores then all the way back down the western ones, founding colonies and making myths as they came, alternately encountering transhumant pastoralists or sophisticated Etruscans, Gauls, and Italics.

Many Greek colonies became fought-for Roman provinces and towns – Hannibal prevailed at Cannae (Barletta), and Caesar’s Rubicon flows north of Rimini – then Avar, Frank, Hun and Ostrogoth conquests – and eventually celebrated market- and meeting-places. The twin-sailed bragozzi of fishermen timelessly ploughed the liquid plain between passing triremes, dromons, galleys, cogs and galleons and countless other craft of ambassadors, bishops, corsairs, crusaders, dukes, kings, mercenaries, merchants and pilgrims – constant interchanges often exploding in conflict.

Ancona, Apulia, Brindisi, Calabria, Dalmatia, Epirus, Istria, Picenum, Ragusa, Ravenna, San Marino, Trieste, Urbino, Venice… The names sound down centuries, magnetizing today’s tourists as they magnetized Greeks, Tudor Englishmen (Twelfth Night was set in Illyria), or eighteenth-century Grand Tourists. Later wanderers too were entranced – James Joyce, who decamped to Trieste in 1904, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the flamboyant future Fascist who took Fiume in 1919, or Lawrence Durrell, who joyfully swapped 1930s Bournemouth for balmier Corfu (where Alcinous hosted Odysseus).

Not all who live around the Adriatic have been sailorly, but Venice by herself made up for any regional maritime deficit. Centuries of daring, enterprise and ruthlessness are symbolized by the annual ceremony of ‘Marriage to the Sea’, when the city’s mayor is rowed out into the lagoon to do what Doges did – drop a consecrated ring into the water while intoning ‘Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini’ (‘We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination’). Venice’s Arsenal was probably the largest manufacturing facility in the pre-industrial world, experimenting with secret weapons and turning out ships on something resembling an assembly-line. When Napoleon’s troops took the Most Serene Republic in 1797, it was the shocking end of over 1,100 years of independent existence, but perpetuated the modern legend of the unique ‘Mistress of the Adriatic,’ the enigmatic, imperilled dream-city of commerce and Carnival.

Over the ensuing two centuries, the Adriatic was gradually “transformed from place to geography”, increasingly lined by new nation-states with ‘rational’ constitutions and industries, plied by steamships and overflown by aircraft, studied by scientists, and treated thematically by historians. The old empires imploded, buffeted by ethnic and liberal rebellions, then 1914-18, but leaving vestiges of vassalages that ultimately made Yugoslavia unviable, and still envenom regional relations.

Since the 1990s, bureaucrats have presented the fabled Adriatic as bathetic ‘Euroregion,’ an allegedly integrable socioeconomic zone suited to mass tourism and ‘multicultural’ connections, which perspective brings problems of its own. Ivetic applauds attempts at cooperation, but knows the Homo Adriaticus foreseen by certain fond theorists has yet to be born.For now, at least, he concludes shrewdly, ‘the Adriatic is first and foremost history.’

This review first appeared in issue 31 of Bournbrook Magazine ( and is reproduced with permission