Rebel States

Tim Parks

  • The Siege of Venice by Jonathan Keates
    Chatto, 495 pp, £20.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 7011 6637 1

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.

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