by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo Correr, Venice
The Fire of the Scuola dei Morti at San Geremia by Luigi Querena, 1850

Honest Dictatorship

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 21 November 1998


Unquestionably one of the most distinguished Venetians ever, but one who is sadly little known beyond the shores of the lagoon, was Daniele Manin, the leader of the 1848-49 revolution against the Austrians. The stirring events of those years are the subject of a sometimes moving display of documents, drawing, paintings and memorabilia 'Venezia Quarantotto' (Venice '48) at the Correr Museum (until Mar. 10).

Daniele Manin acquired a broad education, mastering Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and German along the way. He chose to practice as a lawyer, but his principal ambition in life was to rid Venice of her foreign masters. He suffered from chronic ill health, which he overcame through sheer effort of will.

Manin's first strategy was to oppose the Austrian authorities by legal means, arguing they were breaking their own pledges and laws in the manner they administered Venice and their other Italian possessions. Yet, by 1848, resentment against autocratic regimes was reaching boiling point in many European cities. Manin was imprisoned as a dangerous subversive, but on March 17, 1848, he was freed amid a popular uprising fanned by the news that revolution had broken out in Vienna. On March 22, Venice's naval dockyard, the Arsenal, was seized, making it possible to arm the hastily formed Civic Guard and, standing on a table outside Caffe Florian on Piazza San Marco, Manin proclaimed the rebirth the Venetian Republic.

Working-class Venetians idolized the bespectacled, courteous, but absolutely determined Manin, who offered them the leadership that the Venetian nobles had failed to deliver. Under Manin's emergency dictatorship people of all races, faiths and political views were guaranteed security, and it is still a commonly held belief in Venice that the city was never run more intelligently, efficiently and honestly before or since.

But as reactionary regimes asserted themselves again across Europe, Austrian forces returned initiating a protracted siege. The defenders at first held them at bay on the mainland, but when obliged by overwhelming odds to retire, they demolished a long section of the railway causeway, Venice's only direct link to dry land. With total disregard for Venice's historical and artistic treasures the Austrians then began sustained bombardment of the civilian population during which 23,000 cannonballs rained down on the city.

The morale of the defenders remained astonishingly high, but after 14 months of assault supplies of food and ammunition were nearly exhausted and cholera was claiming scores of lives every day. With no hope of assistance from outside, Manin at last resolved to end Venice's suffering and negotiated a surrender on condition that the Austrians carried out no reprisals, and he and 40 other leaders went into exile. Venice was reoccupied on Aug. 30, 1849, Manin dying a broken man in Paris eight years later.

Thanks to several Venetian artists who not only recorded events but also took an active part in the uprising and defense of the city, the exhibition evokes the experience, from the intoxicating early days of freedom to the furious bombardment and counterattacks of the defenders, with unusual vividness and immediacy. None of names of these artists would today be readily recognized outside Venice, but some of their depictions of the drama, such as Luigi Querena's canvas of the explosion of a mined powder magazine against the backdrop of the serene, limpid blue of lagoon and sky, capture an unexpected, eerie and tragic beauty.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023