1797 and onwards

Just Another Provincial Capital

Acqua Alta in St Mark's Square

Continued from A Decline to Remember

I will have no more Inquisition, no more Senate. I will be an Attila to the Venetian state.Napoleon

What was it about Venice that made the little fellow so mad? Was it the brute’s contempt for weakness or his basic instinct to vandalize things he did not understand – or was it simply that Napoleonic types cannot stand the idea of people who refuse to drill and salute and who insist on the right to enjoy themselves?

Whatever the reason, Napoleon went after Venice and its symbols with a greater relish than he showed for any of his other conquests: contractors were paid to chop down all the evangelical lions (in Venice itself they took the money but never did the work); the horses of St Mark’s were removed to Paris; the French even burned the doges’ state barge, the glorious Bucintoro. Philistine that he was, Napoleon only visited the city once – his men looted tons of paintings and sculptures just the same, and it is frightening to think how much Napoleon would have fancied had he ever seen it.

For all his ideological posturing, Napoleon had few scruples about handing Venice over to Austria in the Treaty of Campoformio only five months after he had taken it.

Austrian Rule

During the rest of the Napoleonic wars, Venice remained a sullen, forgotten backwater under the Austrians and later under the French again. No more carnivals and intrigues, no more masked balls, only the despair of a city from which ambitious men had wrung the last drops of pride and gaiety. When the 1815 Congress of Vienna made its decisions over post-Napoleonic Europe, Venice’s rightful independence was naturally forgotten. She was to be an Austrian province, and as such she found little to do but serve as a curiosity to entertain foreigners.

To the Venetians, the English were their ‘swallows’, because they always came back with the season. After Napoleon, they flocked to Venice in even greater numbers – Byron swimming down the Grand Canal, Shelley neglecting his children, and later John Ruskin, climbing ladders to scrutinize Gothic arches. By 1840s, tourists were outnumbering the locals.

The visitors must often have been the best show in town, for Venice, under the leaden rule of the Austrians, could never regain anything of its accustomed gaiety. Though not particularly oppressive, neither were the Austrians very sympathetic: high taxes and dreary censors were Venice’s lot, along with an administration largely manned by Germans or Slavs who often knew no Italian. Business dwindled to almost nothing, as the Austrians consciously favoured the port of Trieste.

But while Venice was perfecting its touristic vocation, packaging romantic melancholy for northerners, another invasion was plotted: modernity mounted its attack in 1846, when an Austro-Italian syndicate built the railway causeway over the Lagoon to the city. Along with its independence, Venice’s beloved sense of separateness was gone for ever.

The Revolt of 1848

Gone, though not forgotten, and there was a chance for a heroic interlude, a last ‘Viva San Marco!’ before the city finally surrendered to history and old age. In March 1848, when revolts convulsed Europe, Venetian patriots seized the Doge’s Palace and the Arsenal, and declared the Republic reborn.

Their leader, who had been stewing in the Doge’s old dungeons for anti-Austrian activities, was a Jewish lawyer named Daniele Manin. Though ironically sharing the surname of the last, disgraceful Doge, this Manin would help redeem Venice’s honour, in a brave defence that lasted long after the other revolts around Italy had been crushed. Towns and villages in the Veneto sentimentally raised money and sent soldiers. In Venice itself, Manin organized a democratic government, and some of the old noble families sold their treasures and even their palaces to help finance the cause.

The Venetians blew a hole in the new causeway, and the Austrians were reduced to mounting a blockade and bombarding the city from the mainland. British shipping, of course, ignored the blockade, and there was a hope that Lord Palmerston’s sympathetic government might intervene – Venetians later blamed the failure to do so on the British consul in Venice, a friend of the Austrians named Dawkins, who wrote back to London deriding the revolutionaries as ‘unprincipled adventurers’. Along with Kossuth and the Hungarians, Venice was the last to hold out in the great year of failed revolutions. Hunger, and a raging epidemic of cholera, forced Manin to surrender in August 1849.

When the Austrians returned, they did their best to behave, though with Italian unification reaching its climax, they knew their days were numbered. Still, Venice and the Veneto remained one of the last bits to join the new Italian kingdom. That came courtesy of the Prussians, when they defeated Austria in 1866.

Italy in Charge

View of Stazione Santa Lucia

Under Italian rule, business began to improve. A new port was begun at Marghera, a prelude to the industrial areas, the oil port and the road causeway, all built between the wars when Venice was in a mood to catch up with the modern world, although life in the early 20th century was still as picturesque as ever. Not everyone was pleased; in 1910 the Futurist F.T. Marietti published an anti-Venice manifesto, declaring 'Let the reign of holy Electric Light finally come, to liberate Venice from the venal moonshine of furnished rooms.'

In 1945, Venice was not liberated until the final German collapse. Legends have grown up about it: one has it that the British forces arrived in gondolas, as the various Allied contingents raced to get in first, to have their pick of the best hotels. The New Zealanders won: as they sped their tanks over a bridge in Mestre they passed the entire German occupation force, marching out beneath them.

After the war, the earlier improvements began to have some unforeseen consequences for the city. Venetians moved into less expensive, newer housing close to their jobs on the mainland, and Mestre and Marghera grew into huge toadstool suburbs while their industries fouled the air and water of the lagoon.

One plague after another tormented the city: the great flood of 1966, the scare that the city was sinking, the disgusting algae invasions of the 1980s and 90s, the Pink Floyd concert of 1989 that trashed Piazza San Marco, and of course all the good and bad that comes with the indispensable tourists themselves, whose average daily numbers continue to soar, yet without whom Venice would be an empty shell.

Venice in the 21st Century

The city that had 170,000 people in 1936 in 2009 dipped below 60,000 for the first time in centuries. The metropolitan area of which it is the centre has developed a unique and troubling split personality: on the shore, a dull Italian anytown, rather unsympathetic towards Venice and fond of initiating referenda to secede from it (the last one failed in 2003).

Over the causeway, there is the fabulous invalid herself, with international legions of planners, restorationists and bureaucrats constantly checking her pulse and X-raying her tissue, and wealthy foreigners buying up second homes and sending prices sky-rocketing, forcing many working-class Venetians who would love to stay in the city on to the terra firma.

The doomed 2000 Expo, a proposal withdrawn at the last minute by the Italian government, was supposed to have served as a catalyst for economic reconstruction, with such extravagant but potentially useful proposals as an underground to unite the city with the mainland.

Probably more restoration work has been done here than in any other Italian city – although the need for more is still greater here than anywhere else. Troubles caused by neglect in the walls, canals and general infrastructure since the Second World War and the disastrous dredging of canals in the lagoon for oil tankers are coming home to roost.

All debates are so highly politicized that action of any kind is extremely difficult, but current environmental paranoia, largely justified, has reached the stage where some action may result: already two new aqueducts to the mainland have ended the need for Mestre and Marghera to take so much water out of the Lagoon, thus stabilizing it and saving Venice’s foundations from sinking. ‘MOSE’, the huge new sea gate that is supposed to protect against further disastrous floods, will be functioning in 2016 – although some doubt if it will work at all. It's also cost way too much money: corruption and kickback allegations linked to MOSE led to the resignation in 2014 of centre-left mayor Giorgio Orsoni.

For all that, the city may be doomed by one of the very few things that can’t be blamed on the Italian disdain for long term planning: rising sea levels, a worry confirmed in May 2016 in UNESCO's warning about the threat posed to numerous World Heritage Sites by climate change. A 27-inch tide is enough to flood Piazza San Marco, which happened only seven times in 1990, and 99 times in 1996. Not only are the floods or acque alte more frequent, they are deeper and more severe. Nearly everyone who has remained in the city has abandoned their ground floors.

It has also become a popular cruise ship port: one of the biggest controversies is the size of the gargantuan modern dreadnoughts that sail into Venice, right up the Giudecca Canal past St Mark's Square, dwarfing the city and deplacing huge amounts of water. Calls to divert them as an accident waiting to happen became more urgent after the wreck of the Costa Concordia on the Tuscan island of Giglio in 2012, resulting in a brief ban of ships over 96,000 tonnes but the election in 2015 of pro-cruise ship mayor, businessman Luigi Brugnaro, may well see a new channel dredged for the ships, much to the consternation of environmentalists (although the ban was overturned by a regional court, at the time of writing, cruise companies are themselves are limiting arrivals to ships under 40,000 tons). As the permanent population of the city dips below 50,000 (in 1950, it was 150,000), residents are fighting his plans to transform one of the last public islands, Poveglia into a private clinic.

While engineers and environmentalists argue and struggle to keep the city afloat, Venice has found a new role as an increasingly important stop on the contemporary arts scene, thanks to the growth of the Biennale and new museums and galleries, mainly clustered in Dorsoduro and the Peggy Guggenheim, including the Pinault collection in the Dogana di Mar and Palazzo Grassi, and the Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova in the Magazzini del Sale.

Recently a competition on what to do with the city, called Venice CityVision, was held among architects and planners and yielded some thought- provoking results. Other ideas are in the air: a free-trade zone, or a headquarters city for international organizations. Venice’s unique experience should not be wasted, and in the decades to come it may be that the Serenissima may find some real work to do once again.

And there are some who strongly believe the best way of going about this is to revive the independent Serenissima. In March 2014, an online referendum organized by the nationalist group Plebescito2013 was held, asking residents of the region of the Veneto (including most of Venice's historic terra firma possessions) whether or not they wanted to be independent. 89.1% said yes.

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