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Venice and the Revolution of 1848-1849

Venetia, as far as the Adige River, including the city of Venice, Istria and Dalmatia, were ceded by Napoleon to Austria by the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 17, 1797 and confirmed as Austrian possessions at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Initially, Austria thought she could gain the confidence of Venetians and Milanese by promising them eventual home rule. Mature reflection and experience confirmed that Venetians would accept nothing short of complete separation, in the long run. As a result, Austria reneged on the pledge. Although Austrian domination was not the unmitigated disaster once alleged, on balance it was injurious and fueled the flames of agitation demanding independence. Austria systematically exploited Venetia financially, economically, and politically, using it merely as a source of raw materials for the Hapsburg economy. Trieste was favored over Venice as the imperial seaport. By 1845, Austria took 45,000,000 Austrian lire more from the region than she spent. By refusing to grant credit to progressive entrepreneurs, the slow, bungling Austrian bureaucracy impeded the growth of Venetian capitalism. Towards the end of the 1840s, a dynamic amalgam of intellectuals, urban-based manufacturers, bankers, merchants, and provincial agrarians, although using non-violent means, accelerated the clamor for political change and greater economic openings.

Against this background of provocation and civil unrest, Venice was swept up in the revolutionary tide crashing over the peninsula and the continent in 1848-49. To Daniele Manin belongs credit for the dramatic transition from the legal struggle to outright revolt; born May 13, 1804, son of Pietr Manin,he descended from a Veronese Jewish family, which had converted to Christianity in the eighteenth century, and Anna Maria Bellotta of Padua. On March 22, 1848, Manin and a number of public-spirited Venetians entered the arsenal, Venice's great navy yard and munitions depot. It was a direct, daring, and significant challenge to the Austrian authorities. Since the Italian workers, the Arsenalotti, detested the Austrian overseers and the Italian military contingents in Austria's service were pro-Venetian, Manin and his supporters moved about at will, unharmed. Believing that historical circumstances were most favorable, Manin led his followers out of the compound with the cry, "Long Live St. Mark!" Venetians, if not Austrian officials, accepted this to mean restoration of the once renowned Venetian republic. Venetia's seven provinces, save Verona, immediately sided with the lagoon and threw off the Austrian yoke. The firm grip of Marshall Radetzky over Verona, the key to the Quadrilateral defense perimeter, made it extremely difficult for Veronese nationalists to launch an insurrection. The new regime acclaimed Manin president and endowed him with the dictatorial authority during the emergency. The middle class strongly approved the political overthrow; this in turn marked a permanent break with the powerful old commercial aristocracy. Manin prudently provided for the lower class needs, while he promised the bourgeoisie to enforce law and order strictly. Appearance of the Venetian republic was a startling surprise and remarkable achievement of nearly 2,000,000 people.

Manin's strategic and tactical role was both a source of strength and the symptom of weakness. All knew that he had conceived and masterminded the coup which had reinstated the republic. Manin could function as a rallying point, a centripetal and coordinating element, but the relationship was of limited practical value, because the fate of the revolution was inextricably bound up with the fortunes of a single man, who could inspire but who had no experience. He was alternately wise and excessively trusting of subordinates, action-oriented and yet given to procrastination, farsighted and simultaneously slow to understand the complexity of men and events, unable to place them in sharp perspective. Destiny rested uncomfortably on the shoulders of one individual, of frail countenance and often bedridden. Perhaps the republic was doomed from the outset, but ineffectual leadership made it a certainty.

In the ebb and flow of a very complex revolutionary situation, the Venetians' several fatal misperceptions produced miscalculations. They allowed the Austrian fleet stationed at Pola a privileged sanctuary. Manned primarily by Austrian Italians friendly to the revolution, Venetians should have commanded and steered the fleet, thus depriving Austria of a formidable weapon which she later employed in the siege of Venice. The revolutionaries should have prevented the dispersal of the Italian soldiers under Austrian command. Had Manin and his associates acted promptly and shrewdly, as they had in the opening assault on the arsenal, Venetia would have had the trained and disciplined regulars. Reforms solidified and transformed, at least momentarily, provincial enthusiasm into the willful and concerted submission to the common cause, but the revolutionary pioneers tragically failed to recruit a military force from the provinces that was capable of taking the field alongside papal guards and Neapolitan soldiers who comprised the bulk of General Pepe's expeditionary army. While Austria was pressed on every front, the Italians allowed her time to regroup and to reconquer Venice and the other troubled areas of the empire one by one.

No sooner had he created the Venetian republic than Manin retreated, reluctant to offend the monarchial sensibilities of Piedmont's Charles Albert. The president's maneuver was obviously transparent and insulting, pleasing no one. He persisted in believing that Piedmontese military assistance, and papal as well, would be forthcoming, oblivious to the fact that Charles Albert could hardly be disposed to sacrifice his own lands to fight for the survival of a republic that adjoined Lombardy, whose republican principles he naturally despised, any more than Pius IX could be expected to break with the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs.

A major contributory factor to undermine the republic was her inability to fuse Venice and the provinces, lagoon and mainland. Many mainlanders mistrusted Venice's suposed monopoly of power, an apprehension originating in old suppositions, exacerbated by irregulars and defectors' wanton destruction of forest and countryside. Venetians unnecessarily provoked anxiety, whereas a united and expansive army might have removed in advance the debilitating effect of this distrust. When Charles Albert as a last resort dispatched a force under General Giovanni Durando to stop General Nugent's march on Verona, Venice could only offer a rabble of volunteers to supplement Durando's soldiers, who were later joined by Colonel Andrea Ferrari's papal regulars, all to no avail, as Nugent linked up with Radetzky. The republic was increasingly isolated. On July 4, 1848, by a 127-6 vote, the Venetian assembly, guided by Manin, abandoned the republic to merge Venetia into Charles Albert's ephemeral improvisation, the Kingdom of Northern Italy. In early October, Manin crushed the Mazzinians who dared to claim that a demonstration of unanimous republican sentiment would compel the new French republic to intervene to rescue the beleaguered Venetians, and would have converted Venice into the center of Italian liberation and inspire Garibaldi and other patriots into an anti-Austrian crusade. When Piedmont's premier Vincenzo Gioberti invited the Venetian republic to send delegates to a federal congress, sponsored by the national society for the union and confederation of Italy, scheduled for Turin, October 12, 1848, the Venetian ministers declined. Manin and his cabinet's reaction to Piedmont's declaration on Austria illustrated their failure to grasp realities: the Venetians recessed for two weeks. Radetzky's rout of Charles Albert at Novara on March 23, 1849, sealed the fate of Piedmont, Lombardy, Venetia, and possibly all Italy. As the price for sparing Piedmont a humiliating occupation, the Piedmontese agreed to withdraw their warships from Venetian waters. On April 2, 1849, the Venetian assembly, personally addressed by Manin, chose to fight on. The gesture was in vain, as the deadly Austrian boycott and bombardment of the lagoon accelerated. Between May 4-27, 60,000 projectiles were hurled into the port. Citizens faced starvation and an epidemic of cholera. Manin used the special powers conferred on him to negotiate the surrender of Venice with Radetzky, effective August 27. General Gorzkowsky's entrance into Venice on the following day marked the complete submission of Venetia to Austrian rule. Manin, his family, and thirty-nine of his closest collaborators were compelled to seek asylum out side of the peninsula.

Ronald S. Cunsolo


Bassani, Ugo Venezia nel 1849 Milan: Ceschini, 1938.

Ferrari-Bravo, Umberto Daniele Manin e i suoi tempi Venice: Nouva Tipografia Commerciale, 1904.

Forge, Anatole de la Histoire de le républic de Venise sous Manin Paris: Amyot, 1852.

Marchesi, Vincenzo Storia documentata della rivoluzione e della difesa di Venezia negli anni 1848-49, tratta da fonti italiane ed austriche Venice: Istituto Veneto di Arti Grafiche, 1913.

Pascolato, Alessandro Manin e Venezia nel 1848-49 Milan: Alfieri & Lacroix, 1916.

Pepe, Guglielmo Narrative of Scenes and Events in Italy from 1847 to 1849, Including the Siege of Venice.London: Colburn,1850, 2 vols.

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