Review of K. R. Appuhn's "A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice" (Johns Hopkins UP, 2009) by Ellen Arnold for H-Environment

Karl Richard Appuhn. A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in
Renaissance Venice. Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
xi + 361 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-9261-5.

Reviewed by Ellen Arnold (Ohio Wesleyan University)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2011)
Commissioned by Dolly Jørgensen

Making Venetian Forests Legible

In _A Forest on the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance
Venice_, Karl Appuhn tackles an important and extremely complex task:
unraveling the Venetian bureaucracy's views about timber resources
and the ways that politicians, bureaucrats, and forest "experts"
transformed mainland forest management in their efforts to control,
regulate, and preserve trees and timber for the future well-being of
the republic. This is an ambitious and thorough book that will do
much to demonstrate the value of premodern environmental history to
modern environmental historians. It is a fascinating study in how
both real and perceived resource limits, environmental setting, and
cultural values can intersect to shape environmental policy.

This book is simultaneously wide-ranging and very specific. Appuhn
himself acknowledges that for a case study, this book has a broad
temporal scope, covering almost 450 years (1350-1797). Yet despite
this breadth, the book has a very narrow focus on the institutions,
individuals, and political frameworks that dominated and shaped
Venetian forest policy. It draws on a dense and complex (but
relatively small) body of sources, deals with a very specialized
branch of the republican system, and, in the end, focuses on a series
of individual officials in a single city-state.

Appuhn presents and evaluates the actions of several state boards and
governmental agencies that directly and indirectly influenced
Venetian access to and regulation of timber and firewood from the
mainland. He explains the inner workings of the Venetian bureaucracy,
focusing on the changing role of institutions such as the _Arsenal
_(in charge of ship-building), the Council of Ten (Venice's main
legislative body), and the _provveditiori _(elected managers of
forests, firewood, and the Arsenal). He tracks increasing government
interest in and management of an extensive network of mainland

As with much of the field, this forest history is limited by a focus
on forests as producers of trees, rather than forests as a broader
resource pool (in part because most of the Venetian officials did
so). It chronicles, evaluates, and critiques Venetian ideas about the
value of trees and timber, about scarcity of tree resources, and
about the ways in which trees became commodified, bureaucratized, and
even conscripted into the republican agenda. Appuhn tracks the
development of expert knowledge, the relationship of experts to the
state, and the ways that the republic tried to project its authority
and economic power over the mainland.

In addition to evaluating the goals and actions of the republican
institutions, Appuhn also explores the role of individuals within the
system. For example, he introduces readers to Giovanni Garzoni, one
of the _provveditiori _of forests. Garzoni, a "dedicated public
servant" (p.183) had an "intimate knowledge of the region's community
forests" (p. 179). Garzoni advised the Council of Ten, drafted policy
for the Arsenal, aggressively campaigned to punish individual nobles
who stole or misappropriated forest resources, and tried to preserve
traditional community use. He developed a cadastral survey of the
mainland forests, designed an experimental forest to test his
theories about management, and linked a great deal of his personal
identity to these projects.

Chapter 5, "The Preservation and Reproduction of Bureaucratic
Knowledge," which explores how individual knowledge was turned into
collective expertise by the processes of the republic, is one of the
most engaging chapters (and it is perhaps the most accessible to
non-specialists). This chapter will doubtless be widely read and
appear in many comparative discussions; it will remind readers not
only of James C. Scott's _Seeing Like a State _(1999), but also of
Ken Alder's book _The Measure of All Things _(2002). It is also
connected to the theme of _A Forest on the Sea _that I suspect will
have the greatest resonance with an environmental history (and
history of science) readership: "the creation, reproduction, and
circulation of specialized knowledge about forests and forest
landscapes" (p. 296). It describes the processes and writings of
expert and novice foresters alike who created and influenced forest
policy, and the mapping and informational tools that allowed
knowledge of forests to be bureaucratized. Appuhn argues that
republican Venice had a "preference for collective knowledge over
individual knowledge" and an "unwavering belief in the superiority of
concrete experience over abstract theory" (p. 197). Yet one of the
most striking aspects of this chapter is that despite republican
ideas about the value of corporate management, Appuhn's detailed
exposition reveals how the decisions made by Venetian politicians
could be radically influenced by the ideas, beliefs, and
preoccupations of individuals.

Appuhn positions his work in relation to modern environmental
histories and philosophy, which will help H-Environment readers
readily understand many of his main themes. This is a strength, and
it does much to show that the gulf that is often perceived to exist
between the modern and premodern worlds is indeed bridgeable. At
several key points, for example, Appuhn compares the Venetian view of
nature to Carolyn Merchant's conclusions about continental Europe. He
also draws connections between his Venetian case study and Conrad
Totman's work on Japanese forests, Keith Thomas's _Man and the
Natural World _(1996) and Scott's arguments about the modern state.
However, readers may sometimes wish these comparisons had been more
deeply integrated, making the Venetian world even more accessible to
non-specialists. There are also a number of important works
(including works on the Mediterranean environment, cartography, and
the relation between science and the state) that are listed in the
bibliography for "Further Reading." These clearly influenced Appuhn's
views of the Venetian world but they are not fully integrated into
the argument or the notes for particular chapters.

One might also wish for more deeper citation and more source
quotation in general. This is a lengthy work, and sacrifices may have
been necessary because of word limits. However, more documentation
might have helped readers distinguish a bit more between when Appuhn
is reflecting the language and contents of the sources and when he is
adding analysis and concepts of his own to make the ideas more
accessible to modern environmental audiences. This is particularly
true for readers unfamiliar with the tone and language of Venetian
documents, and the author misses opportunities to highlight the
character of his sources. For example, when a case proved that
officials "were correct to draw a distinction between minor
infractions and real _crimes against the ecological order_" (p. 178,
emphasis mine), it is hard to determine the line between the
Venetians' words and ideas and Appuhn's modern analysis.

Appuhn's stated purpose is to demonstrate how Venetian politics,
bureaucracy, and information technology tools combined in the early
modern period to develop "a unique view of the relationship between
humans and the natural world that stressed the preservation of
nature" (p. 9). He coins the term _managerial organicism_ to describe
what he argues is a "uniquely Venetian attitude" that stemmed from
Venice's distinct ecological position, republican values, and
identity politics (p. 9). As these goals suggest, Appuhn's work often
displays a firm belief in Venetian exceptionalism that at times is a
remarkable reminder of how much location and culture affect
environmental regimes.

However, this undercurrent does at times set Venice apart too much,
and in ways that can seem dismissive of the rest of Europe--Venice
for example, was connected to a "secular Renaissance republican
morality" rather than the more common "reformed Christian morality of
improvement and divinely sanctioned rule over nature" (p. 252). Even
if unintended, this type of language implies that Appuhn's subjects
are the sole premodern voice of rationality, which other scholars of
the medieval period or early modern era might find objectionable.
Finally, the author might have strengthened his case for
exceptionalism had his section on "Venetian Discourses in a European
Context" been more fully developed (it is only four pages long).

_A Forest on the Sea_ models how premodernists can and should employ
the methods, conclusions, and even language of modern environmental
history. By doing this Appuhn also makes the unique and at times
disorientingly different premodern world accessible to other
scholars. This book has already gained recognition as an outstanding
work of European history, winning the AHA's 2010 Herbert Baxter Adams
Prize. It also deserves wide recognition as a case study of how
environmental resource management regimes develop, how government
institutions can project their values on environments, and the
complexity of unraveling the many (collective and individual) human
concerns that lie behind decisions about how to use, protect, and
develop resources.

Citation: Ellen Arnold. Review of Appuhn, Karl Richard, _A Forest on
the Sea: Environmental Expertise in Renaissance Venice_.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2011.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
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