From the Venetian Quarter


In 1204 the Fourth Crusade, reaching the peak of its mission to undermine Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, sacked Constantinople and established a Latin ruler in the remains of the Roman Empire, which we dub today the Byzantine Empire. This I mention because I’m reading John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, and it discusses one of the consequences. Venice had supported the expedition, in no small part to divert the Fourth Crusaders from attacking its trading partners in Egypt, and also to reduce Constantinople as a threat to Venice’s power. Venice got direct material rewards too, and Norwich mentions one of them:

When, on 5 August 1205, Sebastiano Ziani’s son Pietro was unanimously elected Doge of Venice, the first question that confronted him was one of identity. To the long list of sonorous but mostly empty titles which had gradually become attached to the ducal throne, there had now been added a new one which meant exactly what it said: Lord of a Quarter and Half a Quarter of the Roman Empire.

This I mention because the reward of three-eighths of the Byzantine Empire (the Byzantines considered themselves the Roman Empire, quite reasonably, and called themselves that) is phrased here in a way that just wouldn’t be said today. Why go to the circumlocution of “a quarter and half a quarter” instead of “three-eights”?

Continue reading “From the Venetian Quarter”

Fibonacci, a Comic Strip, and Venice


The comic strip Frazz, by Jef Mallett, touches another bit of mathematics humor. I imagine if I were better-organized I’d gather all the math comic strips I see over a whole week and report on them all at once, but, I’m still learning the rules of this blog, other than that anyone writing about mathematics has to bring up Fibonacci whether they want to or not.

The association that sequins brings up for me now, though, and has ever since a book I read about the United States’s war on the Barbary Coast pirates, is that the main coin of Venice for over 500 years of its existence as an independent republic was the sequin, giving me notions of financial transactions being all sparkly and prone to blowing away in a stiff breeze. It wasn’t that kind of sequin, of course or even any sort of particularly small coin. The Venetian sequin was a rather average-looking gold coin, weighing at least nominally three and a half grams, and the name was a mutation of “zecchino”, after the name of Venice’s mint. But, apparently, the practice of sewing coins like this into women’s clothing or accessories lead to the attaching of small, shiny objects into clothing or accessories, and so gave us sequins after all.

A listing on a coin collectors site tells me the Venetian sequin was about two centimeters in diameter, which isn’t ridiculously tiny at least. I’m not sure if that is a reliable guide to the size, although since it’s trying to sell me rare coins, probably it’s not too far off. Unfortunately most of the top couple pages of Google hits on “Venetian sequin coin size” brings up copies of Wikipedia’s report, which fails to mention physical size. An Ottoman sequin at the British Museum’s web site lists its diameter as 2.4 centimeters, but its weight at four and a third grams.