The Siege of Venice 
by Jonathan Keates.
Chatto, 495 pp., £20, September 2005, 0 7011 6637 1
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In the 13th century, Florence banned its noble families from holding public office and instituted a republic. The names of a few hundred select citizens were placed in leather bags and every two months a new government was drawn by lot. In more conservative Venice, a group of nobles simply elected one of their number doge for life. There was no question of hereditary succession. Even where there were dukes and kings, in Milan and Naples, dynastic rivalries and reversals eroded any belief in divine right. ‘No trace is here visible,’ Jakob Burckhardt wrote in his great study of the Italian Renaissance, ‘of that half-religious loyalty by which the legitimate princes of the West were supported.’

The removal of the apex of the medieval hierarchy did not lead to the system’s total collapse. In the 14th century, an attempt by the Florentine woolworkers to get rid of the wealthy oligarchs who had ditched the nobles was short-lived. The plebs were put back in their place. The city even had two currencies, to separate the realms of the rich and the poor. In such circumstances, the principles of legitimacy on which power was to be held were constantly under review. In this sense, Italy was in the avant-garde of political thought in the modern world. Needless to say, wealth and fear threw up various alibis to make sure control remained in a limited number of hands.

But if the important Italian states all had different forms of government, they agreed on what constituted the basis for a sovereign territory. It was the city and the agricultural land surrounding and supplying it. When Venice or Florence or Milan launched wars of expansion, they extended taxes but not voting rights to the subject towns they acquired. Venice was superior to Padua and Verona, Florence to Pisa, Milan to Brescia. There was no question of shared sovereignty. Nor, despite recognising that they had ‘Italianness’ in common, was there any movement among the larger cities towards unification. Such a prospect would anyway have been problematic since a large swathe of central Italy was held by the papacy, which apparently needed to exercise temporal power in order to fulfil its divine mission. The first Italian leader to put the land as a whole and the people of the countryside before the cities was Mussolini.

In part because of this fragmentation into city states, the peninsula was overwhelmed by foreign invasions at the end of the 15th century, though it was not unified under occupation. With the exception of Venice, the republics disappeared, to be replaced by client monarchies and dukedoms that sought an aura of legitimacy in grandiose monuments and public works while keeping a lid on political debate. Needless to say, this state of affairs went hand in hand with the Counter Reformation.

It was through the next three centuries of foreign domination that the desire for a free and united Italy took shape. Liberation, it was gradually understood, was a common cause and would be achieved and sustained only through collective action. By the end of the 18th century, secret societies promoting the idea of an Italian state were common, though there was no agreement on the political form such a state would have. The brief unification of the country under Napoleon, from 1805 to 1814, with the introduction of many republican ideas and the Napoleonic Code, gave impetus to the patriots, but the Congress of Vienna re-established the old status quo and in particular granted the whole of the Veneto and Lombardy to the Austrian Empire. Once again the lid was clamped on nationalist aspirations.

In 1848 patriotic rebellions broke out all over Italy. Jonathan Keates’s The Siege of Venice examines the longest-lived of the rebel states that came into being. With its broad view of the 1848 experience across Italy and its detailed account of political developments and divisions in Venice through the city’s 18 months of independence, the book offers a fascinating picture of Risorgimento Italy and plenty of opportunity to reflect on continuities with the present day. It also tells an excellent story.

Writing in 1826 of the utter cynicism of Italian public life, Leopardi remarked: ‘It is as marvellous and apparently paradoxical as it is true that no individual or people can be so cold, indifferent and insensitive . . . as those who by their nature are lively, sensitive and warm.’ The lively, sensitive Italian nature, Leopardi explains, when exposed to the ugly ‘reality of things and men’, particularly as manifested under Italy’s abysmal rulers, is prone to fall into a ‘full and continuous cynicism of mind’. The poet suggests a psychology oscillating dramatically between positive and negative states, a condition that ‘the northern peoples’, less warm, and hence ‘less swift to disillusion’, could not understand.

Generalising as it is, Leopardi’s observation will serve as a frame for reading the relationship between the Austrians and the Italians as it unfolds in Keates’s book. Among the Italians there are extremes of idealism and cynicism that combine in the obsessive fear on everyone’s part that others are betraying the cause. To this rather hysterical dynamic the Austrians reply with the uniform and dogged determination of a society that, six centuries after the birth of the Italian republics, still believes in the absolute right of the Habsburg dynasty to rule over all its subject territories, regardless of language and ethnicity and whatever the quality of the dynasty’s representative at any given moment. Emperor Francis I would never have been chosen as a leader by any electoral body.

Keates opens his book with the story of the Bandiera brothers. Italian officers in the Austrian navy, Attilio and Emilio Bandiera became fervent patriots, tried to lead an insurrection and were betrayed. They deserted, then attempted, in 1844, with only twenty followers, to stir up an insurrection in Calabria, were again betrayed and arrested, shortly after which they met a firing squad with shouts of ‘Viva l’Italia!’

Keates writes with some irony of the brothers’ ineptitude and bungled plans, but then admits that precisely their ‘rashness afforded them an imperishable glamour’. And indeed, many a piazza in Italy is still named after I Fratelli Bandiera. Their story points up the eagerness of the mind, particularly the youthful mind, to attach itself to ideals that give life meaning. Above all, it warns us that whenever people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause, the rest of us, however indifferent or hostile, must sit up and take notice. Inept, bungled and irrational self-sacrifice can be seductive and inspirational, especially in the cynical public world which Leopardi describes. These extremes call to each other.

One man who certainly took notice was the hero of Keates’s book, Daniele Manin, who four years later would find himself at the head of the Venetian rebellion. Keates is troubled throughout his long narrative by the reflection that Venice in general and Manin in particular have not been afforded the celebrity they deserve in the history of the Risorgimento. They were overshadowed by events in Rome and by figures like Mazzini and Garibaldi. Keates’s determination to set the record straight gives the book a touchingly personal note, if only because the reasons for Manin’s and indeed Venice’s relative obscurity in the liberation process soon become all too evident.

Born in 1804, his grandparents Jews who converted to Christianity, Manin was an able lawyer of liberal leanings deeply committed to the commercial life of Venice and to improving its plight under an Austrian regime that tended to favour the port of Trieste and responded even to constructive criticism with censorship if not worse. Bespectacled, short of stature and of uncertain health, Manin fought his city’s corner with courage, confronting the Austrian authorities with demands for administrative devolution and favourable trading conditions. He was concerned above all that unrest arising from worsening poverty and harsh Austrian government would lead to serious public disorder if concessions were not made. The Venetian mob is perhaps the second most important character in the book, a loud background noise always threatening to break in on any orderly political debate or military endeavour. Rather than seeing Manin as a moderate with whom they could do business, the Austrians arrested him on 18 January 1848 and continued to hold him in prison even after a trial had absolved him of any wrongdoing.

The rapid succession of liberal protests and uprisings in 1848, from English Chartism through revolutionary Parisian republicanism to the many rebellions in Austria, Hungary and Italy suggests the extent to which rapid communications were transforming Europe into a place where what happened at one end of the continent could immediately, if unpredictably, affect the other. A sense of the chronology of the uprisings is thus essential for an understanding of Manin’s and Venice’s story.

In January 1848, Palermo rebelled against its Bourbon, Naples-based king, who was obliged to withdraw his forces from Sicily. In February, Paris rose against its government. In March, the Viennese did likewise and the arch conservative Metternich was dismissed. Monarchs in Naples, Turin, Florence and Vienna all promised their people constitutions. On 17 March, a demonstration in Venice forced Manin’s release, and on 22 March a rebellion by shipbuilders in the Arsenale led the Austrians to withdraw from the city. That this happened with very little bloodshed was largely thanks to Manin. During the same few days, the Milanese pushed out the Austrian army led by their senior general, Radetzky. Vicenza, Padua, Treviso and Udine all gained their freedom. On 23 March, Charles Albert of Piedmont announced an invasion of Lombardy and the Veneto. In April, Hungary gained a measure of autonomy within the Austrian Empire, which was now close to total collapse. In May, the emperor fled Vienna.

Austria was on its knees. The major powers of Northern Europe were preoccupied with their internal affairs. In a reversal of previous papal policy, the recently elected Pius IX had declared himself in favour of Italian national aspirations and became a hero for thousands of patriots. It seemed there was nothing to prevent rapid Italian unification.

But to form a single state would mean to agree on a political system and, perhaps more crucially, to accept the subordination of one’s home city to a national government, whether republican or monarchical. These matters had never been thrashed out. There were rival views. Charles Albert was marching into Lombardy as much to bury republicanism as to further unification. Pope Pius had been enthusiastic about the idea of Italy and the popularity his patriotism brought him, until he began to appreciate what the reality would mean in terms of the papacy’s relationship with Catholic Austria and the inevitable involvement in a struggle with republicans in Italy. As the battle against Austria began in earnest in Lombardy and the Veneto, Pius sent an army north but told his commanders not to cross the Po, then called them back. They disobeyed and advanced anyway.

Concentrating on the Venetian experience, Keates’s book now offers a dramatis personae encompassing more or less every shade of opinion and emotional response to the situation that had so suddenly developed: a group of men and women whose interaction illustrates how, despite great physical courage, honesty, idealism, adequate resources and considerable powers of organisation, defeat can nevertheless be snatched from the jaws of victory.

Manin had become the idol of the crowd, but his charisma lay above all in his ability to face a mob down and restrain people from acts of public disorder. What appears to have mattered to him most was that Venice demonstrate its right to liberty through a show of civilised restraint. He rapidly put together an administration that was extremely good at managing the city’s resources but unimaginative in its response to the inevitable Austrian counter-attack. Manned by Italians who could well have mutinied, the Austrian fleet was allowed to escape and would return months later with different crews to blockade the Venetian lagoon. Appeals for military help from the surrounding towns of the Veneto were not generously met. Very soon the ancient campanilismo re-emerged, with Padua, Vicenza and Treviso all suspecting that Venice intended to lord it over them.

Manin was assisted and hindered in his work by the wonderfully tetchy writer Niccolò Tommaseo, an outspoken and provocative misanthrope with a vocation for taking offence. While Manin supported a moderate form of republicanism, Tommaseo believed fervently in an Italy led by the papacy. Further to the left there were patriots supporting more extreme forms of republicanism and even Communism. Among the business community many pressed for fusion with Piedmont under the conservative rule of Charles Albert, while Cardinal Monico was not alone in hoping for the return of the Austrians, a sympathy that led to his house being stormed and looted.

All these positions were intensely and eloquently argued in a plethora of newspapers and assemblies while the Austrians, who, though demoralised, knew exactly what they were about, regrouped to the east. In April, the Irish General Nugent led Austrian forces into Friuli and the Veneto in an attempt to link up with Radetzky, who had retreated to a defensive position in Verona, midway between Milan and Venice.

The campaign was long, complex and fragmented. The reader of Keates’s entertaining account is struck by the international nature of the forces on both sides. The Austrian army was largely Croat, but there were also Hungarians, Slavs of every kind, Romanians and many Italians who remained faithful to their oath to the imperial flag and the very simple and to many people ‘natural’ view of the world it allowed. On the Venetian side were soldiers who had deserted from the papal army, as well as soldiers from Naples and Calabria, from Tuscany and Romagna, but also a contingent of Swiss volunteers and stray adventurers from as far abroad as England.

It is also striking to learn, from Keates’s many mini-biographies, how many of the men involved, whether professional soldiers or volunteers, switched sides and ideologies before and after this campaign. Personalities seemed to fragment under the pressure of rival political visions and sudden changes of context. Men who had fought for Bourbon kings now fought valiantly for republicans, but would perhaps go back years later to shooting down unarmed political demonstrators. Clearly there was a passion and enthusiasm in those heady days of liberation that carried many along in a raptus of collective sacrifice that would later seem inexplicable. Yet conscription was not introduced and even after the military situation in Venice became desperate there were many young men who did not offer to fight and presumably remained indifferent to the outcome of the war. On the other hand, there were many women whose contribution went beyond nursing and knitting blankets to volunteering as soldiers.

For months the outcome of the struggle hung in the balance. The Piedmontese achieved early successes in Lombardy and on the borders of the Veneto. Supported by a variety of papal, Tuscan, Neapolitan and Venetian troops, the people of Treviso and Vicenza fought courageously. But again and again one force let down another, professional soldiers showed their contempt for volunteers, local groups and new arrivals failed to co-ordinate. Town by town, the Austrians regained control. Every failure on the Italian side led to recrimination and suspicion of treachery. There were so many different agendas. Above all, the Italians lacked a man who possessed both political and military vision and the mandate to use it. The much envied Garibaldi might have been that man, but he was given a small force of poorly equipped volunteers and dispatched by the Piedmontese on a pointless diversionary excursion north of Milan.

The Venetians waited. Keates repeatedly and admiringly remarks on how meticulously the city’s accounts were kept throughout this difficult period when a population of a hundred thousand and more had to be fed and armed despite a tightening blockade. But careful accounting was a minor virtue beside what was now required and hardly likely to inspire future generations of patriots. In July 1848, fearful of Austrian successes, a democratically elected assembly of Venetians voted for fusion with Piedmont in the hope that Charles Albert could offer protection. Manin resigned from the city’s government, unable, he said, to serve in a monarchy, thus revealing that he put his political ideals before a united Italy. Only three weeks later the Piedmontese army was beaten at Custoza (just south of Lake Garda). Milan capitulated shortly afterwards and very soon Charles Albert was making a peace which did not recognise the Venetians as ever having been part of his kingdom. This betrayal brought Manin back into government, but aside from making futile appeals to liberal opinion in France and Britain, he had little idea as to how his city’s independence might now be saved. At this confused moment, however, events in Venice were decidedly upstaged by those in Rome.

There were those who had hoped that Pius IX could bring religion and national sentiment together. ‘If Pius IX wishes it,’ wrote Massimo d’Azeglio, later to be prime minister of Piedmont, ‘if he consents to what public opinion is making of him, the papacy will become the century’s guiding force.’ With this in mind, d’Azeglio drafted a proclamation for the commanders of the papal army on their arrival at the Po in April 1848. It declared that the struggle against Austria was a holy war on a par with the Crusades. The plan backfired. Far from coming on board, Pius recalled the army and shortly afterwards told all Catholics to obey their foreign rulers. When in November his chief minister was murdered by demonstrators, Pius fled, to take refuge with the reactionary King of Naples. From that moment on, the split between the Church and Italian patriotism was irremediable. It was a rift that would plague the country into the 1930s.

Into the vacuum left by the pope came Mazzini and Garibaldi. Neither was from Rome. Having lived much of their lives as exiles, they were attached above all to the idea of Italy and had no particular allegiance to any one town. Although important social reforms were passed, they sought above all to use this moment to advance the cause of a united Italy. Over a period of four months, Garibaldi won two major engagements against French and Neapolitan armies and then led a spirited defence against a massive French siege. Always aware that the city couldn’t be held, he fought his way out of it and took what was left of his army into the hills so that the fall of the town should not be seen as a final defeat. Keates repeatedly points out that the siege of Venice lasted much longer than that of Rome, yet this is hardly the point. There was a clarity of patriotic intention, a simplicity of gesture in the defence of Rome that was far more likely to capture the imagination than the drawn-out vicissitudes of the siege of Venice. One was a watershed in Italian consciousness, the other was not.

With the fall of Rome in July 1849, Venice was now the only rebel town in Italy. The Austrian army were dug in on the terra firma all around the town and they controlled the sea, if not the lagoon; capitulation was only a matter of time. As Keates’s story draws to a close his language grows more coloured and emotional, attractively so. He seems to have forgotten now his irony at the expense of the Bandiera brothers and their futile sacrifice. Close by inclination to the peace-loving and pragmatic Manin, he has nevertheless been seduced by the heroism and excitement of the final, futile Venetian defence, particularly the disciplined resistance of Fort Marghera at the landward end of the railway causeway, where for many days a mixture of Neapolitan artillery-men and Venetian and Swiss volunteers sacrificed their lives under the fiercest bombardment, taking out large numbers of enemy troops as they did so.

A section of the railway causeway is blown up to prevent the Austrian advance across the lagoon. Cannonballs rain down on the churches and monuments of the ancient city. Little boys run after the iron balls to restock Venetian munitions. Artists are present to paint the smoke and fires reflected in the lagoon. Other, more priceless paintings are destroyed. Patriotic operas are performed. Food is scarce. The hospitals groan with amputees. Cholera victims are dying in their hundreds. The people demand that ancient religious icons be brought out and paraded. The soldiers engage in orgies with prostitutes, male and female. Syphilis is rife. Meanwhile, trapped in a rhetoric of last-ditch heroism, nobody has the courage to advocate surrender. Defeatists have been beaten and lynched. Manin himself wavers. At the last, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the diminutive, bespectacled lawyer with his frock coat and fussy beard was officially installed as dictator only so that the responsibility for capitulation would rest on the most popular man’s shoulders. The final image of a gondola bearing the white flag is a reminder of the way Venice transforms almost any event into an aesthetic experience.

Had Venice become part of a free and unified Italy as a result of the heroics of 1848 then doubtless Manin would still be a major presence in Italy’s collective memory. He was a man without glaring defects. He had none of Garibaldi’s crude anti-clericalism or Mazzini’s fanaticism. He was not a subtle and ambiguous politician like Cavour, or a pompous incompetent like the kings of Piedmont. But it didn’t happen. Venice was added to a united Italy in the most humiliating way possible. After yet another Piedmontese defeat at the hands of the Austrians in 1866, Vienna handed Venice to Paris, who passed it on to Italy in return for Nice. So today, if I ask my children, educated from start to finish in Italian schools, who Manin was, they have only the vaguest notion. But then they have very little notion of the Risorgimento at all and it is hard to think of a single hero who is wholly revered in Italy in the way Nelson has recently been admired in England. One problem perhaps is that almost every episode of the Risorgimento recalls divisions that are not entirely resolved today, between state and Church, ideologies and nationalism.

Exiled from Italy after the siege, Manin died in Paris in 1857. He was 53. After unification his body was returned to Venice, where the Church authorities denied him burial in the Basilica of San Marco. ‘Every Italian,’ Leopardi reflected in 1826, ‘is more or less equally honoured and dishonoured.’

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