Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Fall of Venice



Contemptible Cowardice of the Patricians Who Had Ruled With Such High Hand — The French Conqueror Declared the Venetians Unfit For Liberty.

Since the days of Carthage no government like that of the Venetian oligarchy had existed on the earth. As its best it was dark and remorseless. With the disappearance of its vigor its despotism had become somewhat milder, but even yet no common man might draw the veil from its mysterious, irresponsible councils and live. A few hundred families administered the country as they did their private estates. All intelligence, all liberty, all personal independence, were repressed by such a system. The more enlightened from the mainland, many even in the city, had felt the influences of the time and had long been uneasy under their government, however smoothly it seemed to be running.

Now that the earth was quaking under the march of Bonaparte's troops that government was not only helpless, but it actually grow contemptible in its panic. There was indeed the most urgent necessity for a change. The senate had a powerful fleet, 3,000 native troops and 11,000 mercenaries, but they struck only a single futile blow on their own account, permitting a rash captain to open fire from the gunboats against the French vanguard when it appeared. But immediately, as if in fear of their own temerity, they dispatched an embassy to learn the will of the approaching general. That his dealings might be merciful they tried the plan of Modena and offered Bonaparte a bribe of 3,000,000 francs; but, as in the case of Modena, he refused. Next day, the grand council having been summoned, it was determined by a nearly unanimous vote of the patricians (690 to 21) that they would remodel their institutions on democratic lines. The pale and terrified doge thought such surrender to be the last hope of safety.

Not for a moment did Lallemont and Villetard, the two French agents, intermit their revolutionary agitation in the town. Disorders grew more frequent, an uncertainty both paralyzed and disintegrated the patrician party. A week later the government virtually abdicated. Two utter strangers appeared in a theatrical way at its doors and suggested in writing to the great council that to appease the spirit of the times they should plant the liberty tree on the place of St. Mark and speedily accede to all the propositions for liberalizing Venice which the popular temper seemed to demand. Such were the terror and disorganization of the aristocracy that instead of punishing the intrusion by death, according to the traditions of their merciless procedure, they took measures to carry out the suggestion. The fleet was dismantled and the army disbanded.

By the end of the month the revolution was virtually accomplished, for a rising of their supporters having been mistaken by the great council in its pusillanimous terror for a rebellion of their antagonists they decreed the abolition of all existing institutions, and after hastily organizing a provisional government disbanded. Four thousand French soldiers occupied the town, and an ostensible treaty was made between the new republic of Venice and that of France.

This treaty was really nothing but a pronunciamento of Bonaparte. He decreed a general amnesty to all offenders except the commanders of Port Luco, who had recently fired on the French vessel. He also guaranteed the public debt and promised to occupy the city only as long as the public order required it. By a series of secret articles Venice was to accept the stipulations of Leoben in regard to territory, pay an indemnity of 6,000,000 francs and furnish three ships of the line and two frigates, while, in pursuance of the general policy of the French republic, experts were to select 20 pictures from her galleries and 500 manuscripts from her libraries.

Whatever was the understanding of those who signed those crushing conditions the city was never again treated by any European power as an independent state. Soon afterward a French expedition was dispatched to occupy her island possessions in the Levant. The arrangements had been carefully prepared during the very time when the provisional government believed itself to be paying the price of its new liberties. And earlier still — on May 27, three days before the abdication of the aristocracy — Bonaparte had already offered to Austria the entire republic in its proposed form as an exchange for the German lands on the left bank of the Rhine.

Writing to the directory on that day, he declared that Venice, which had been in a decline ever since "the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope and the rise of Triest and Ancona, can with difficulty survive the blows we have just given her. This miserable, cowardly people, unfit for liberty and without land or water — it seems natural to me that we should hand them over to these who have received their mainland from us. We shall take all their ships; we shall despoil their arsenal; we shall remove all their cannon; we shall wreck their bank; we shall keep Corfu and Ancona for ourselves."

On the 26th a letter to his "friends" at the Venetian provisional government had assured them that he would do all in his power to confirm their liberties, and that he earnestly desired that Italy, "now covered with glory and free from every foreign influence, should again appear on the world's stage and assert among the great powers that station to which by nature, position and destiny it was entitled." Ordinary minds cannot grasp the guile and daring which seem to have prearranged and foreseen all the conditions necessary to plans which for double dealing transcended the conceptions of men even in that age of duplicity and selfishness. — Professor W. M. Sloane in Century.

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