The Siege Of Venice, by Jonathan Keates

The revolutionary of 1848 who got almost everything wrong
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The Independent Culture

Everyone knows about 1848, the year of revolution, but few are aware of the dramatic events in Venice, which tend to get lost in the wider narrative of the first (unsuccessful) war for Italian unification. Venice, an independent republic for nearly 1,000 years, fell to Napoleon in 1797. He then cynically ceded the territory to Austria.

Venetians did not take kindly to the Austrian yoke. Vienna seemed to go out of its way to act repressively, using Venice as a milch cow. Venice declined; there were 136,000 inhabitants in 1799 but 100,000 by 1832. The deep cause of rebellion in 1848 was that Venetian capitalism was threatened by Habsburg absolutism.

The great figure in the rising was the lawyer Daniele Manin, whose arrest in January sparked the insurrection. When Louis Philippe was ousted in Paris in February, precipitating the downfall of Metternich in Vienna, all Europe seemed to flare up. The Venetian rebels freed Manin and seized the fortress of the Arsenale, inaugurating a 17-month period when Venice was once again a republic, with Manin as president.

But Manin was unequal to managing revolution, and the Venetian rebels of 1848-49 resemble the Paris Communards of 1871 or the Dublin insurrectionists of Easter 1916 - all engaged in premature revolution. Although Manin was an idol to the common people, he made about every mistake in the book: failing to seize the Austrian fleet, failing to make common cause with other provinces of Venetia, and adopting an inept "wait and see" response to the first war of Italian unification. Manin and Venice survived as long as they did because of Piedmont's doughty military showing against Austria.

Jonathan Keates' superb history is a clear and absorbing guide to the 17 months of hope and despair. It is difficult to fault his book: it is good on the bloody campaign in 1848-49, good on the complex skein of international relations, and outstanding in his set pieces, as with the siege itself. Left to its own devices, Manin's Venice crumpled under the impact of starvation and cholera. Yet Keates leaves us to reflect on what might have been if Venice had been led by someone more impressive than Daniele Manin. This is a very fine book, illuminated by wide erudition and shot through with an obvious love of Venice in all its manifestations.

Frank McLynn's '1759' is published by Pimlico