Italian Venice: A History

Italian Venice: A History

by R. J. B. Bosworth


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In this elegant book Richard Bosworth explores Venice—not the glorious Venice of the Venetian Republic, but from the fall of the Republic in 1797 and the Risorgimento up through the present day. Bosworth looks at the glamour and squalor of the belle époque and the dark underbelly of modernization, the two world wars, and the far-reaching oppressions of the fascist regime, through to the “Disneylandification” of Venice and the tourist boom, the worldwide attention of the biennale and film festival, and current threats of subsidence and flooding posed by global warming. He draws out major themes—the increasingly anachronistic but deeply embedded Catholic Church, the two faces of modernization, consumerism versus culture.
Bosworth interrogates not just Venice’s history but its meanings, and how the city’s past has been co-opted to suit present and sometimes ulterior aims. Venice, he shows, is a city where its histories as well as its waters ripple on the surface.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300216127
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/27/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 905,146
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

R. J. B. Bosworth is a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford.

Read an Excerpt

Italian Venice

A History

By R.J.B. Bosworth


Copyright © 2014 R. J. B. Bosworth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21011-8


Awaiting an Italian destiny

Venice to 1866

The architecture of the Hotel San Fantin may broadcast a patriotic history to passers-by; its cannon balls may blazon a claim that Venetians heroically brought themselves into union with the nation, Italy, and urge that the Risorgimento was a popular movement backed by a people who unanimously knew themselves to be Italian and longed to be free of alien rule. On the other side of the Rialto bridge, however, another square carries a more complex message in its very name, 'Campo Cesare Battisti già della Bella Vienna' (the square of Cesare Battisti, formerly that of fine Vienna; see map 2). It is a place coursed by histories rather than a single past.

At first sight, all might seem straightforward. Vienna is doubtless a nice place, but it was the capital of that Habsburg Empire whose rule over Venice Italy dislodged in 1866. Moreover, Cesare Battisti was a martyr-hero to the nation in its First World War, an 'irredentist' (that is, someone committed to the 'return' of Italy's 'terra irredenta', or 'unredeemed', Italian-speaking lands) and nationalist (although ready to leave the German-speaking parts of the Tyrol outside Italian control, while also trying to remain some form of social democrat). Despite having been born in Trento and therefore being an Austrian citizen, he volunteered to fight for Italy in 1915. He was captured by his enemies, court-martialled and then garrotted and hanged with studied humiliation, not in Italian uniform but in dirty civilian clothes, by the Austrian army on 11 July 1916.

He was not, however, a Venetian. Although he orated in the city during the so-called 'intervento' – the period that separated the start of war between the Great Powers in August 1914 and Italian entry into the conflict, at least against Austria-Hungary, nine months later on 24 May 1915 – his concerns were not particularly Venetian. Even his war-front, contested in the high country above Trento, was not as near to Venice's fate as that conducted lower down on the Venetian plain, across the river Isonzo until the Italian defeat at Caporetto (Kobarid) in October 1917 and thereafter beside the river Piave, some forty kilometres to the east. When Fascism took Italian nationalism to an extreme and made memory of the 'total' effort in the First World War the historical justification for its own 'totalitarianism', Battisti's widow by no means fully or automatically endorsed the dictatorship. It was thus telling that the opening of a strikingly modernist memorial to Battisti above Trento in June 1935 was attended by King Victor Emmanuel III but not by the Duce, Benito Mussolini. The ghost of Cesare Battisti therefore carries into the calli of Venice not so much a 'divided memory' as a multiplicity of histories. His name is not a simple patriotic counter to the 'bella Vienna' of a defeated ancien régime.

In any case, how should foreign rule over Venice from 1797 to 1866, whether French or Austrian, be judged? The standard nationalist Italian line, endorsed by English historians with romantic inclinations, such as G. M. Trevelyan early in the twentieth century and Jonathan Keates in our own times, is one of hated misrule and oppression. Such accounts will explain that the Napoleonic extinction of the Republic meant disaster for Venice, the most obvious proof being that the population of the city tumbled from 136,000 in 1799 to 125,000 in 1812 and 100,000 in the 1820s (by 1871 it had risen back to 141,000, plus 26,000 on the islands, then administered from Murano, and 23,000 in and around what was still the village of Mestre).

In 1797 the French revolutionary forces had time to pull down the wooden doors of the ghetto, which had confined the two thousand Jews of the city within their part of the sestiere of Cannaregio. On 12 July these religious and social barriers were ceremoniously burned in the centre of the ghetto square, where a Liberty Tree was planted in demonstration that liberty, equality and fraternity must now take root in Venice. This promise of revolutionary change and the practice of fraternity proved fleeting, however. By the end of the year the Republic's territory, reduced to a pawn in diplomatic dealing, had been handed over to Austrian control by the terms of the Treaty of Campo Formio, Habsburg forces establishing themselves in the city in January 1798.

That solution did not last, either, and seven years later further victories by Napoleon, now French emperor, saw Venice and the Veneto melded into the puppet state of the 'Kingdom of Italy' under the Peace of Pressburg. The change was scarcely beneficent. Telling is the visit that Napoleon made to Venice in 1807, his preoccupations characteristically combining Enlightenment science and revolutionary rapine. The cemetery island of San Michele was modernised at his command, so that the dead could rest in order and efficiency. His agents checked the murazzi or sea walls off the Lido for wear and tear, high water or acqua alta having lapped into Venice on 3 December while Napoleon was in residence. Within the city's bounds, the emperor commissioned the covering of the main canal that ran into the sestiere of Castello, opening in its place the spacious Via Eugenia, named in honour of his stepson and viceroy in Venice and Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais. More than seventeen metres wide, it was planned by its local architect to be 'the most beautiful road in the city', its form illustrating that even Venice's narrow and twisting, congested 'medieval' calli could be readjusted to become as rational and spacious as Enlightenment urban vision demanded. Nonetheless, critics soon condemned the Via Eugenia as un-Venetian and leading nowhere. Nearby, Napoleon fostered another Enlightenment urban ideal, a public park, the origin of what was to become the Giardini and from the end of the nineteenth century the site of the Biennale exhibitions. Of similar lasting impact was the reconstruction of the western end of Piazza San Marco, where seven bays of the Procuratie Vecchie and the Sansovino church of San Geminiano were demolished and replaced by the Ala Napoleonica, its name indicating that not even the city's most celebrated square had passed into modernity 'comera e dov'era'. While French rule prospered, the new wing housed a ballroom and extra office space in Beauharnais's palace and administrative centre; today it is the home of the permanent and special exhibitions of the Museo and Pinacoteca Correr.

At the same time as drastically rebuilding the heart of the city in proof that modern times and scientific planning had taken hold in Venice, the French were ruthlessly stripping the city's churches and galleries of such artworks as Veronese's Marriage at Cana, a huge canvas still kept at the Louvre, and numerous beautiful Titians, Tintorettos, Bellinis and Carpaccios. With overweening arrogance, they carried back to Paris the 'Quadriga', the four bronze horses that sit above the grand portal of the Basilica di San Marco, sculptures purloined from Constantinople after its brutal sack in 1204 by Doge Enrico Dandolo, who had diverted the Fourth Crusade there. For this and other reasons, in 2003 particularist elements in Venice, seeking their own usable past with modish reference to the advantage of historical closure, put Napoleon on trial for political and cultural 'war crimes' against Venetians, finding him guilty in December of that year.

In more academic circles, French revolutionary rule in Italy has been subject to equally withering criticism, current interpretations placing less emphasis on modernity and Enlightenment rationality than on pillage and death. Rather than acting as a prompt towards national unification in the Risorgimento, the French are deemed cultural imperialists of the crassest kind, racist in their assumption of Italian inferiority. On occasion, revisionism may go too far, however. Certainly, the two decades following 1797 saw many changes in the city and thereby did much to frame Venice's path to 1866 and beyond. Early modern Venice may not have been wrenched into a new Enlightened shape. But it was jostled, physically and spiritually.

Largely destroyed was the fabric of religious welfare that had helped to salve (and to preserve) the gaps between rich and poor in the early modern city, whether provided by the 337 extant confraternities and Scuole Grandi (all were formally suppressed in 1806, while the city parishes were reduced from seventy to thirty) or by the numerous monasteries and nunneries. The number of religious who lived in the city halved and then halved again by the 1850s, when only 471 priests retained office in Venice. In addition to San Geminiano, tens of other churches were demolished or transferred to lay control. As befitted an age of war, the house of the Benedictine nuns of Santa Maria della Grazia, occupying its own island between the Giudecca and San Clemente, was converted into a barracks. This process of secularisation, once begun, continued under Austrian and national Italian rule. According to Alvise Zorzi's careful reckoning of 1977, only 101 of the 187 churches that had been open under the Republic were still available for worship by that year, 70 having been razed to the ground (45 in Venice itself, 13 in Burano–Mazzorbo–Torcello and 12 in Murano). Seventeen survived in usage that was not religious, San Leonardo having become the practice venue for the municipal band, Santa Marta, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Lorenzo warehouses, Santa Croce alla Giudecca a prison and Santa Margherita a cinema. Still mouldering is the Scuola Vecchia della Misercordia in Cannaregio, which no longer serves as a basketball court and gymnastics stadium (its fate before the First World War, when modern sport entered the city), but whose more profitable use still remains unresolved.

Perhaps the most profound alteration in the religious fabric of the city was the transfer of cathedral status from San Pietro in Castello to San Marco in 1807, an action that sparked discussion whether the latter church needed alteration to permit greater numbers access to religious services. After the Austrians took over, the new patriarch, Ján Ladislaus Pyrker, pressed in 1822 for the removal of the fourteenth-century iconostasis, bearing statues of the twelve apostles, the Virgin and St Mark but also blocking visual and physical access to the high altar and the celebrated Pala d'Oro (another gorgeous piece filched from Constantinople, which the guidebooks list as containing 1,927 gemstones). As for the expeditious movement of people – so much a priority of all government in that era – a local planner, Luigi Casarini, now argued that only a modern road cut through from Piazza San Marco to the mainland could save the city from complete ruin. As Alvise Zorzi has ruefully remarked, Casarini would have many successors anxious to urge that the city had been 'enslaved by its own beauty' and should not remain a medieval relic.

Further repugnant aspects of French rule included conscription for Napoleon's endless and bloody wars and a harsh but effective taxation system designed to pay for them and for costly 'benefits' being introduced in Paris and the rest of the empire. Neither was likely to win immediate popular backing from Venetians, rich or poor. The opportunity for the French to more permanently implement revolutionary programmes in the territories once governed by the Republic was quickly thwarted by events, however, the Kingdom of Italy collapsing early in 1814 after Viceroy Beauharnais had taken 27,000 Italian troops with him, most of them to their deaths, on the disastrous invasion of Russia, and after the residue of the imperial French forces had fallen to their enemies at the Battle of Leipzig, 16–18 October 1813. As a result, Venice and Venetia were again passed like a parcel back into Austrian hands, a possession confirmed at the grand peacemaking at Vienna in 1815 by which the revolutionary era was brought to an end.

The Austrian government of Venice has a mixed press. The traditional line has emphasised the general inability of the Habsburg Empire to adapt to the new age of the nation and identified a specific failure to grant Venice serious priority in the plotting of imperial policies. Klemens von Metternich, chief minister of Austrian rule and architect of the Peace of Vienna, accompanied his emperor, Francis I, on an exploratory visit to their new lands in December 1815. Venetians greeted their latest rulers with applause and decorum. But Metternich wrote the city off as 'one great ruin', not therefore, he implied, worth the cost and effort of resurrection.

In the decades that followed, Metternich and his emperor, despite some thought that 'Italy must be Germanised', became preoccupied with stifling the rise of nationalism, both in Austria's extensive Italian territories and elsewhere. Among the victims was Silvio Pellico, a Piedmontese writer and patriot, harshly imprisoned by the Austrians for some months in Venice and then from 1822 to 1830 in the bleak and forbidding Spielberg fortress near Brno in what is now Slovakia. On his release, Pellico wrote Le mieprigioni, a book that, whatever its intended or literal meaning, was read by patriots in Italy, before and after the Risorgimento, as a vehement condemnation of Austrian tyranny. A plaque in the sestiere of San Marco reminds passers-by of Pellico, his imprisonment in Venice and a visit that he made there while still a free man in September 1820. Its patriotic intent, however, forbears to mention that Pellico had been less than flattering about the Venetians, dismissing them as a people who 'live in idleness, joyously forgetful of any dignity.... They do not think, they do not feel.'

As Pellico's words implied, Venice was, in quite a few senses, the least of the Habsburg regime's worries. Although the city was meant to be, with Milan, a twin capital of an imperial province grandly called the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, Milan was the more bustling centre of political and economic activity. More threatening was Venice's increasing subordination to the rapidly growing and notably cosmopolitan port of Trieste, away to the east, where the Venetian plain metamorphised into the rocky hills of the Balkans, a territory that, unlike the rest of Istria and Dalmatia, had never been subject to the rule of St Mark. The Austrian Lloyd shipping company grew rapidly after its foundation in Trieste in 1836, while the Südbahn railway connected the port with Vienna from 1857, underlining that Trieste rather than Venice was the Habsburgs' preferred transit point for all southern trade. Still grander in its capitalist future was the insurance firm, the Regia Privilegiata Compagnia di Assicurazioni Generali Austro-Italiche, or Assicurazioni Generali, as it was more familiarly known, which opened for business in Trieste in 1831 (Venice became its second base).


Excerpted from Italian Venice by R.J.B. Bosworth. Copyright © 2014 R. J. B. Bosworth. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of illustrations and maps, vi,
Introduction, x,
1 Awaiting an Italian destiny: Venice to 1866, 1,
2 The lights and shadows of Liberal improvement in Venice, 1866–1900, 23,
3 Venice in the belle époque, 51,
4 Venice and its First World War, 77,
5 Peace and the imposition of Fascism on Venice, 1919–1930, 105,
6 Venice between Volpi and Mussolini, 1930–1940, 135,
7 Venice, Nazi-fascist war and American peace, 1940–1948, 158,
8 The many deaths of post-war Venice, 1948–1978, 185,
9 Death postponed through globalised rebirth (and mass tourism)?, 213,
Conclusion, 244,
Notes, 250,
Bibliography, 290,
Acknowledgements, 311,
Index, 314,

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