Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIX, 19

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XXXIX, 18 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXXIX, 20


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXIX, chapter 19
Nine centuries of Venice seen from the Piazzetta – The decline and fall of Venice



Venice, the 10th to the 17th of September 1833.


Sunday was not yet over, and I was afraid to visit the great square and its three hundred beautiful women. Henri IV said of Catherine de Médici’s Maids of Honour: ‘I have never seen a more dangerous squadron.’ After dinner I ventured an exit via the stairs to the Piazzetta. The weather was equivocal; it rained at intervals; the wind authorised extra clothing. His Eminence, wrapped in a cloak, happily made his descent without being recognized. The grey sky seemed as if in mourning: I was struck more than ever by Venice’s enslavement, while walking in front of the Austrian cannons, at the foot of the Ducal Palace.

Monsieur Gamba had suggested that if I wanted to see nine centuries of Venice’s history at a glance, I should stand near the two large columns, in the place where the Piazzetta café borders the Lagoon. I read around me those chronicles in stone, written indeed by time and art.

Eleventh century.

Il Campanile, or the bell-tower of St Mark: commenced by Nicolas Barattieri a Lombard architect.

Twelfth century.

The façade along one side of the Basilica of St Mark: architects unknown.

Thirteenth century.

The Ducal Palace: by Filippo Calendario, a Venetian.

Fourteenth century.

The Torre dell’Orologio: built by Piero Lombardi.

Fifteenth century.

The Procuratie Vecchie: by Bartholomeo Bono of Bergama.

Sixteenth century.

The Libreria(currently the RoyalPalace) and the Zecca, or Mint: by Sansovino, a Florentine.

Seventeenth century.

The church of Santa Maria della Salute on the opposite side of the Grand Canal: the work of Baldassare Longhena.

Eighteenth century.

The Dogona di Mare: by Joseph Benoni.

Nineteenth century.

The Café or Pavilion, beside the gardens of the RoyalPalace on the Lagoon: by a living architect, Professor Santi.


Venice begins with a bell-tower and ends with a café: via successive ages and masterpieces she has progressed from the Basilica of St Mark to a coffee-house. Nothing bears greater witness to the genius of the past and the spirit of present times, the character of ancient society and the mode of modern society, than those two monuments; they give out their centuries.

Three Venices, the Venetia of the Romans, the Venetia of the Lagoon created by people escaping from the flail of God, Attila, and the Venetia or core Venice that superseded the other two; this latter Venice which Petrarch called Aurea, and whosestones were gilded and painted, according to Philippe de Comines; the Venice that possessed three Kingdoms, the Venice whose inland towns sufficed to win fame for Bonaparte’s generals; that Republic perished not, as with so many other States, by a feat of French arms: attacked by mere threats, she succumbed without even making a stand.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Venice was all-powerful at sea, and in the fifteenth on land; she maintained power in the sixteenth, declined in the seventeenth and degenerated in the eighteenth, during which the old European order was eaten away and dissolved. The nobles of the Grand Canal became pharaoh’s money-gatherers, and merchants, for the idle countryside of the Brenta. Venice merely lived on its Carnival, its Punchinellos, its courtesans and its spies: its Doge, a powerless old man, renewed his marriage with the adulterous Adriatic in vain. And yet the Republic was still not lacking in material assets.

When, in 1797, she allowed her continental territory to be invaded, there remained, as defence for her island possessions, 205 fortified buildings with 750 artillery pieces manned by 2,516 artillerymen; seven batteries and fortresses, 11,000 Dalmation soldiers and 3,500 Italians; a population of 150,000 souls; and 800 ordinance pieces installed around the Lagoon. Out of effective range of cannon and incendiary device, Venice was the more impregnable in that she lacked ground from which to board her: the besiegers, only able to approach in boats, would have been exposed, on the narrow canals, to projectiles fired by the besieged ensconced in the houses, churches and waterside buildings. Master of St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, the Arsenal, one would still be master of nothing. If Venice defended herself, she could be burnt but not taken; the inhabitants would have had a further safe refuge in their vessels. At such times the thought of national glory is truly powerful: indeed the shades of the Barbarigos, Pesaros, Zenos Morisini, and Loredanos, re-peopling their imperilled hearths and fighting from the windows of their palaces, would not be idle shades.

Venice, in 1797, besides the forces I have just enumerated, had money to swell them, and credit greater than her reserves. England, at war with us, would have hastened to supply her with soldiers and ships; Austria which sought her alliance, could have landed 10,000 Hungarian grenadiers from the harbours of Fiume and Trieste. Would the Directory, incapable of seizing a reef on the Normandy coast defended by a handful of English marines, have been able to take a Venice fully armed and protected by her vessels? The French only had 300 men and a single small-calibre artillery piece at Malghera; they even lacked boats.

Venice was not possessed of all these means of defence in 1700, when Addison found it already impregnable: ‘it has neither rocks nor fortifications near it, and yet is, perhaps, the most impregnable town in Europe.’ he remarked that on the landward side one could not reach it across the ice as in Holland, and on the Adriatic side the entrance to the port is narrow, the navigable canals difficult to explore; that at the approach of an enemy fleet they would hasten to free the buoys that mark out those canals. If one assumed a rigorous blockade by land and sea, Addison goes on to say, the Venetians could still defend themselves against all except famine; even the latter would be greatly mitigated by the shoals of fish with which the waters abound and which the city’s island inhabitants catcheven ‘in the midst of their very streets.’

Well! A few contemptuous lines from Bonaparte’s hand sufficed to overthrow the ancient city ruled by one of those fearful magistracies which, according to Montesquieu, returned the State forcibly to Liberty. Those trembling magistrates, once so firm, complied with the injunctions in the note written on a drumhead. The Senate was not convened; the Signoria wept, betrayed and dismayed; Ludovico Manin, the one hundred and twentieth, and last, Doge, in the midst of sobs and tears, offered to abdicate, in a tremulous voice; the Dalmations were dismissed, the ships withdrawn. On the 12th of May 1797, the Grand Council adopted the representative system of provisional government, in order to meet Bonaparte’s wishes, s’empreché con questo, s’incontrino i desiderii del general medesimo. The enslavement of the Republic, victorious for centuries, Dandolo’s immortal country, was achieved not on the field of battle, or in the negotiations of some new League of Cambrai, but in Venice itself, by an obscure embassy secretary, who has since died in the madhouse at Charenton.

Four days after the Council decision, on the 16th of May, our soldiers embarking peacefully in gondolas, weapons on their shoulders, and without firing a shot, took possession of the virgin colony of the ancient world. What delivered her to the yoke in a manner that seems so inexplicable, so extraordinary? The age, and a destiny fulfilled. The contortions of the great French revolutionary phantom, the gestures of that foreign masker arriving at the shore-side, terrified a Venice weakened by the years: she fell through fear and hid in the swaddling clothes of her cradle. It was not indeed our army that crossed the sea, it was the century; it strode across the Lagoon and installed itself in the Doge’s armchair, with Napoleon as its representative. The Council said naught of putting the two new arrivals to the question or imprisoning them under the leads; it handed over to them the Lion of St Mark, the keys of the Palace and the ducal hat: the Bridge of Sighs heard none pass through.

Since that time, decrepit Venice, with her hair sprinkled with bell-towers, her marble brow, and her gilded wrinkles, has been sold and re-sold, like a pile of old wares: she has gone to the highest and latest bidder, Austria. She languishes now in chains at the foot of the Alps of Friuli, as once the Queen of Palmyra did at the foot of the Sabine mountains.