'The Grand Canal, Venice' by James Holland

For nativist movements across the world, the past is a rich source of material waiting to be reshaped. Nationalists hark back to a “Golden Era” of lost power and pride, constructing histories that are often then used to fuel nostalgia and resentment amongst the population. In 2017, for example, India’s government secretly appointed a group of scholars to alter school textbooks, using historical material to promote their ideological view that India is a Hindu country. We have seen that such tactics can be effective; in the early 20th century, powerful groups in the US campaigned to present the Confederacy as fighting for “states’ rights” rather than the institution of slavery. By 1940 most textbooks included this discredited theory.

An unusual new book series hopes to challenge these kinds of false narratives head on, by providing travel guides to nations that no longer exist. Its creator, Giovanni Vale, is a youthful and charismatic Italian journalist living in Croatia. He was a foreign correspondent when he thought up the Extinguished Countries guidebook series, supplementing his income by working for mainstream travel guides. “What attracted me was not so much the tourism thing,” he says, “but to see how people interpreted their past, how they use it, how it is presented.”

The first guide in the series takes travellers through a region close to Vale’s heart: the Republic of Venice, a state that exerted a powerful influence over the Mediterranean for a thousand years before its collapse in 1797. Like more traditional guidebooks, readers can use it to plan a trip, but it also offers a unique historical perspective. The book is based on hundreds of interviews with historians, chefs, linguists and other local experts, gathering together stories, past and present, and maps illustrating the history of the Republic and its legacy today. “It’s journalistic reportage,” Vale explains. “It’s a beautiful way of travelling differently, off the track.”


Founded in 697 and ruled by the elected Doges of Venice, at its height the Venetian Republic covered an area that included parts of seven modern states: Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Cyprus. Trade on the Mediterranean made the doges (often translated as “dukes”) rich. The 41st Doge, Enrico Dandolo, even bankrolled the Fourth Crusade after it encountered financial difficulties. Finally, after a long decline and the shrinking of its borders and influence, the last Doge signed a desperate and ultimately futile deal handing its remaining territory over to Austria before promptly being conquered by revolutionary France in 1797.

By inviting the reader and traveller to explore this historic territory, the Extinguished Countries series draws our attention to the fact that today’s states and borders are
relatively recent. Compared to the 1,000-year-old Republic of Venice, Italy has only been a nation since 1871, while Croatia gained its independence just 29 years ago. Around the world, politicians emphasise and utilise the importance of borders and national identity, but as Vale points out: “Actually those borders, and those identities, are very young.”

Rather than seeking to “praise” any extinguished country, Vale and his team say they are keen to contextualise and counter national myths. Just over the border from their offices in Croatia, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, is drawing on the past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to empower his nationalist regime.

Hungary recently marked the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon, which resulted in the loss of three-fifths of its pre-First World War territory. The events included the unveiling of a large monument featuring the name of every “lost” town and settlement that formed part of Greater Hungary. In May 2020, Orbán posted an “openly revisionist” message on Facebook, intended for students, about this “lost” territory. “People put stickers of the ‘Greater Hungary’ on their cars,” says Vale. Such pride and nostalgia for past greatness is not unique to Croatia. In Venice, Vale says, many people also look back fondly on the Republic.


The Extinguished Countries team are interested in exploring the past in a more nuanced way. “I don’t want to subvert borders or say national identities are worthless,” Vale says. “I want people to look at it differently and question it a bit and understand what we have in common.” For example, Vale’s native Udine, in north-eastern Italy, shares common culture with Slovenia and Austria as the city was also part of the Austrian Empire. “That is something really positive and rich that we should value,” he says.

The legacy of a shared cultural heritage can persist even in the most contested places. Nicosia, in Cyprus, is Europe’s last divided capital, with barriers and UN peacekeepers separating the Turkish north and Greek south of the city since 1974. However, street artists from both communities regularly use a star symbol in their work, and the imagery is also used by both the Turkish and Greek governments. This comes from the star-shaped defensive walls built around the city when it was part of the Venetian Republic in the 15th and 16th century.

There are spots on the Extinguished Countries maps that evoke a sense of eternity – in the landscape or in the buildings of cities demolished and rebuilt, made anew,
generation after generation.

There are others that tell a story of violent endings or slow decline. The peninsula of Istria, for example, is shared by three countries: Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. The mediaeval town of Dvigrad is now under Croatian rule, but when Vale asked if he could contact anyone there, he was met with confusion. The town was abandoned in the 17th century following outbreaks of the plague and malaria, compounded by the impact of war. “You can still see the shape of the city,” says Vale, who decided to mark the ghost town in his guidebook, despite the lack of organised trips or infrastructure.

Food, a staple of all travel guides, makes an appearance – but not as you might expect. The Venice book, for example, relates the curious adventures of the Venetian merchant Captain Pietro Querini. In 1432, he was travelling from Crete to the Netherlands but was blown off course by a storm in the North Sea. The crew abandoned the damaged ship, and set off in two small boats, eventually landing on one of the Loftus Islands in Norway. They were cared for and ate the local food: air-dried stockfish. The fish has since become a delicacy across Italy, with 90 per cent of the haul from Norway still exported there. The
island of Røst, where the sailors landed, is now twinned with a town near Vicenza, and has a restaurant named after the captain. Discovering dishes, and places to eat, based on this kind of historical knowledge is one of the many pleasures of the guidebook.

Of course, the guidebook’s own account of history may be disputed. “I approached it as a journalist,” Vale says, explaining how important it was to interview people with different perspectives and backgrounds.

The team are already planning which place that no longer exists to explore next; the Ottoman Empire is one option. The period lasted up to five centuries, but many of the successor states in Europe reject that history. “I think that in general the Ottoman and Muslim past of a part of Europe has not been accepted in a way,” says Vale. “It’s not considered to be part of our common story but rather something alien.” Instead of avoiding the past, Vale believes it should be embraced and approached with “cultural honesty, listening to different points of view”. He adds, “The idea is, when travelling, to be free of today’s borders and to think a bit differently.”

The Republic of Venice guidebook is available for pre-order in English and Italian. Some of the interviews conducted for it are available online through the Extinguished Countries podcast.

This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.