Springtime of Nationhood

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Review of 'The Siege of Venice', Jonathan Keates, Chatto and Windus £20

Today Venice is one of the great tourist centres of Europe, seemingly more a museum than a living city. Its role as one of the storm centres of the fight for Italian unification is largely forgotten, with little on the islands to remind a visitor of its past heroism.

Yet in a year of European revolution, which began in 1848, to Venice went the glory of holding out the longest of any city against the forces of reaction. Republican forces of liberation rose up in March 1848 against their Austrian overlords and held the city for over a year before it was reconquered after a bitter siege. The central leader of the Venetian revolution was Daniele Manin. Today there are many piazzas named after him but he is far less well known than other heroes of the Risorgimento (the unification struggle) like Garibaldi and Mazzini.

Manin was a Jew. Until Napoleon seized Venice in 1796 Jews were confined to a ghetto, with severe limitations on their movement and civil liberties. Until Rome was taken from the pope by the Italian state in 1871 Rome's Jews remained trapped in a ghetto too. The liberation of the Jews was one of the great achievements of the creation of a united Italy. Yet within nine decades of Manin's heroic fight for freedom his descendants would find themselves stripped of their hard won citizenship and sent north to the Nazi death camps. Venice was 'cleansed' of its ancient Jewish population by Italian fascists acting independently of the Germans.

Jonathan Keates's The Siege of Venice looks at the springtime of nationhood when heroic liberal bourgeois and petty bourgeois took up arms to free their land in 1848. They were out to disprove the quip of the Austrian chancellor Metternich that Italy was a mere geographical expression. Keates brings the city alive, and particularly its people, including its unruly working class.

The 1848 revolutions began in Vienna and Paris. The brief rebirth of a French Republic gave hope to all those inspired by the great French revolutions of 1789 and 1792. Revolution in Vienna struck at the heart of the Austrian Empire, one of the bulwarks of reaction in post-Napoleonic Europe.

The liberal middle classes of Venice seized the chance to declare Venice's independence from Austria, to whom Napoleon had handed it. As revolution spread to Palermo, Milan and Naples it seemed as if the people of Italy could break the domination of the myriad of foreign rulers and domestic autocrats. The various towns and cities of north eastern Italy rallied to the revolution in Venice as the Austrian Empire seemed to disintegrate.

Daniele Manin was rescued from the prison to which he had been consigned by the Austrians for criticising their rule, and became the leader of the Venetian Republic. This book is a tribute to his own heroism, but Keates also indicates his hesitancies which flowed from his class position. Manin spent almost half his time looking over his shoulder at the prospect of the lower orders escaping his control and falling into the hands of communism. More radical forces were expelled from the city.

One of the liberal middle class leaders of the republic summed things up like this: 'No communism. No social subversion. No government in the Piazza. Respect for property. Equality for all in the face of the law - Full liberty of thought and word - Free discussion without tumults - Improvement in the condition of those poor who want to live from their work.'

Manin kept a lid on the social tensions within Venice, but reading this book you understand why those who viewed the world in this way should move away from revolution after 1848 and pin their hopes on Piedmont (the kingdom in north eastern Italy with Turin as its capital) unifying Italy.

Venice eventually surrendered and Manin died in exile in Paris. Keates writes a conventional history, but it is a stirring read, and Manin deserves it.