Soothed by the waters lapping against the swaying gondolas, ravished by the mist-shrouded views of towers and domes, the visitor to Venice is soon ready to accept her nickname, La Serenissima. But the truth is that there is no place on earth whose fate and achievements owe more to fierce hostilities, to bitter competition, to ruthless struggles for survival and supremacy. Venice is the ultimate Darwinian city. Sharp elbows were second nature to its Renaissance patricians, and throughout the society animosities and feuds were endemic. Even a distinguished man of letters and a cardinal, Pietro Bembo, lost the use of a finger in a street fight over a lawsuit. Lower down the social scale, two factions regularly scheduled violent encounters on the city’s bridges. The dark vision of James Fenimore Cooper’s Bravo is no travesty of a quarrelsome, intrigue-ridden republic. And the competitive instinct served Venice well as she swept rivals aside to establish her wealth, dominance of the Aegean, rule of northern Italy, and presence throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

more from Theodore Rabb at the TLS here.