Would you survive four radical political changes? Venetians in the early 19th century tried

If you think that you live in a rapidly changing society, consider the people who lived during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani. (Wikimedia commons)

In 1797 the French army led by general Bonaparte brought about the end of the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice. It was a shock for the Venetians, yet they did not know what awaited them. The democratic period inaugurated by the French lasted only a few months, as Bonaparte ceded Venice and its mainland to the Habsburgs. But the Austrians didn’t stay long either. In 1805, after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Austria was forced to hand over Venice and its mainland to the Kingdom of Italy, created in 1805 by Bonaparte with himself as king, as Napoleon I. In 1813, after Napoleon’s many defeats, the Venetian mainland was occupied by Austrian troops, while Venice surrendered after a six-month siege. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sanctioned the return of the Habsburgs, who ruled Venice until 1866. So, if you had been born in Venice in 1770 or 1780, you would have lived under five different regimes!

Il mondo nuovo

Il mondo nuovo (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2019).

What were the effects of these rapid political changes on society? What happened to the ruling classes of Venice and the mainland? Did they maintain their position or did other people rise to prominence? These questions led to my research which is summarized in a book entitled Il mondo nuovo. L’élite veneta fra rivoluzione e restaurazione (1797-1815) (The New World. The Venetian elite between revolution and restoration).

The ‘new world’ in Italian has a double meaning, as it refers not only to the post-1789 era, but also to a precinematic device called ‘mondo nuovo’ (or ‘niovo’ in the Venetian language), a mechanical peep-show, also called panopticon, that could entertain people by illustrating for example what happened during the French Revolution. You can see the device, which was part of the entertainment in Venice’s carnival, in this illustration by Gaetano Zompini (1700-1778), printmaker and engraver. It also features in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s murals at the family villa in Zianigo and was the subject of a decorative porcelain piece by the Frankenthal factory.

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini. (Wikimedia commons)

What will you find in this book? The first section describes the composition of the various governing and administrative bodies during the different political phases. The second section analyses the redefinition of noble status, the connection between kinship and politics (some cases are studied through social network analysis), as well as the informal power of social relations. The latter point is developed through the analysis of the networks of relations of key figures such as Giuseppe Rangoni, head of a Venetian Masonic lodge, and Giovanni Scopoli, director general of public education of the Kingdom of Italy. The last part of the book is focused on moments of crisis and transition phases. It explains how complicated it was being re-employed in such unstable contexts. It was mainly the ‘experts’ who succeeded, while the more ‘politicised’ public officials were purged.

This was the case of Giovanni Battista Sanfermo, judge at the Court of Appeal of Venice and member of a Venetian family who had rallied to the Napoleonic regime. His father, former ambassador of the Republic of Venice, was a councillor of state. In the spring of 1814, during the Austrian siege of Venice, general Seras (1765-1815), an Italian in Napoleon’s service, invited the Venetians to grow vegetables on public land to meet food supplies. Giovanni Battista decided to grow potatoes, earning the nickname ‘Count of Potatoes’. The Venetian people interpreted his act as an attempt to extend the siege, and thus their sufferings: Sanfermo became the symbol of all oppressive aspects of Napoleonic rule, so he had to be punished.

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice.

On 19 May 1814 on the bridge of Santa Caterina a straw dummy bearing the motto: ‘death to the potato farmer’, was exposed on a stage. The dummy, which represented Giovanni Battista, had a potato stuck in his mouth and in each of his ears, a potato crown on his head and another potato basket at his feet. Crowds of people rushed there, shouting: ‘death to the potato farmer!’ Once darkness fell, lanterns were turned on and a mock trial was held, ending with a death sentence. Then the dummy was hit with around fifty gunshots, set on fire and dragged along the calle (street) of Santa Caterina. In the meantime, the crowd continued to insult this effigy of Sanfermo. But far from being frightened by this popular outburst, the real Sanfermo continued to walk peacefully along Venetian calli.

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo by Angelika Kauffmann

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo (1770-1854) by Angelika Kauffmann. (Wikimedia commons)

In conclusion, how could you enter the elite? Being noble was not fundamental, but still useful; being rich (especially being a landowner) was important, as well as having skills. As the Venetian noblewoman Lucia Memmo wrote to her son: ‘You should consider that public offices are given to people of every class.’ Hence, he had to study. My book gives more information about Lucia and her husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who built a self-sufficient agricultural-manufacturing town called ‘Alvisopoli’ (‘the town of Alvise’, in Veneto) and much more.

Valentina Dal Cin (Italian Institute for Historical Studies, Naples, and Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)

A free pdf of Il mondo nuovo is available here.