March 22: Yet another historic day in VeniceBy
1848, if you’ll cast your minds back, was a year that produced a bumper crop of uprisings, insurrections, and assorted revolutions all across Europe. It was a brief, incandescent period variously known as the “Spring of Nations,” “Springtime of the Peoples,” or “The Year of Revolution.”
It happened in Venice, too.
Venice, by then, had spent 51 years — two generations — under an Austrian army of occupation, except for a few scattered years when it was the French instead.
But on March 22, 1848, the independent Republic of San Marco was declared by a group of visionaries led by a Venetian named Daniele Manin (Mah-NEEN).
Historic Irony Alert: He was a relative, by adoption, of Ludovico Manin, the last doge of Venice.
I’ve often reflected on how odd it is that there should be more memorials to Daniele Manin around Venice than to any other individual (I’ve counted five so far), and yet it seems that he has become, like so many other heroes, just another distant star in the galaxy of indifference to which even the most passionate and brilliant people seem to be consigned. If anybody utters his name today (or any day), it’s probably because they’re referring to Campo Manin.
I’m offering this brief disquisition in order to enlarge your view of what history in Venice can entail. It wasn’t just doges and fireworks, it was also patriots and blasting artillery.
I suppose you could live in Venice if you didn’t care about history, though I don’t quite see what the point would be. But if you were to actually dislike history, you should probably move to Brasilia or Chandigarh. History is what Venice is made of, and history is made of people.
In addition to Campo Manin — which you can grasp is named for a person, even if you don’t know what he did — there is the more inscrutable street name of Calle Larga XXII Marzo: The Wide Street of the Twenty-Second of March.
On March 22, 1848, Venice rose up against the Austrian occupiers, and the flag of the independent Republic of San Marco was raised in the Piazza San Marco. It was war.
Not only did the Austrian army fire on the city with cannon placed on the railway bridge (which they had built two years earlier), it also made one of the first attempts at aerial bombardment. They sent hot-air balloons aloft loaded with incendiary bombs rigged with timers; the wind, happily, blew them back to where they came from.
The Venetians and their allies fought ferociously, but whereas once the fact of being surrounded by water had been a defensive advantage, now it became a fatal handicap. The Austrians clamped a siege around the city, reducing it to starvation, which was accompanied by an epidemic of cholera.
One of the best-known poems from this period is “Le Ultime Ore di Venezia” (The Final Hours of Venice), written in 1849 by Arnaldo Fusinato. He relates the desperate last days in the city, constructing an exchange between a passing gondolier and the poet in which they give a summary of the situation in which the former republic found itself. Each stanza concludes with the poignant refrain, “Il morbo infuria, il pan ci manca/Sul ponte sventola bandiera bianca” (Disease is raging, there is no more bread/on the bridge the white flag is waving).
It had to end.
On August 22, 1849, Manin signed the treaty of surrender. The Austrians re-entered Venice, where they remained until 1861. Manin, like several of his ministers, went into exile. He died in Paris in 1857, at the age of 53.
His body returned to Venice on — yes — March 22, 1868, to a city which had finally been liberated from the Hapsburg domination and become part of the Kingdom of Italy. A solemn funeral ceremony was held for him in the Piazza San Marco, and he was placed in a tomb against the north wall of the basilica.
Lino has often told me the anecdote of the little old Venetian lady who was crossing the Piazza San Marco not long after the Austrians returned to the devastated city. A soldier walked by, and his sword was dragging — perhaps only slightly — across the paving stones.
She couldn’t take it. “Pick your sword up off the ground,” she commanded him. “Because Venice surrendered — she wasn’t taken.” Starving a city into submission is one of the least noble ways to conquer your enemy, but history shows that it does get the job done.
Final tally: Slightly more than a year of independence, almost all of which time was spent fighting.
When I reflect on much of this — I shouldn’t, but it’s more than I can resist — and observe the condition of the city’s successive administrations over the past 50 years or so, each of which seems to be a copy of its predecessor, except slightly worse, I can’t bring myself to imagine what Daniele Manin and his dreadnought compatriots might be thinking.
I suppose it’s a good thing after all that he has been “disappeared” into the deep space of cultural oblivion.
[Translation by me]: Italian Soldiers! The war of independence, to which you have consecrated your blood, has now entered a phase which for us is disastrous. Perhaps the only refuge of Italian liberty are these lagoons, and Venice must at any cost guard the sacred fire.
Valorous ones! In the name of Italy, for which you have fought, and want to fight, I implore you not to lessen your efforts in the defense of this sacred sanctuary of our nationality. The moment is a solemn one: It concerns the political life of an entire people, whose destiny could depend on this final bulwark.
As many as you may be, that from beyond the Po, beyond the Mincio, beyond the Ticino, have come here for the final triumph of our common cause, just think that by saving Venice, you will also save the most precious rights of our native land. Your families will bless the sacrifices which you have chosen to undergo; an admiring Europe will reward your generous perseverance; and the day that Italy will be able to proclaim itself redeemed, it will raise, among the many monuments which are here, of the valor and glory of our fathers, another monument, on which it will be written: The Italian soldiers defending Venice saved the independence of Italy.
The Government 12 August 1848 MANIN