The last Republic of Venice in 1848-49
In January 1848 the Austrians arrested prominent liberal leaders in Venice. News of the uprising in Vienna, of Metternich’s escape and the granting of a constitution led the Austrian authorities in Venice to relent and free them on 18 March, in particular the lawyer Daniele Manin, who was carried in triumph by the Venetians to Piazza San Marco. (He is shown in the medal here illustrated while crossing the bridge on Rio della Canonica, in front of the Bridge of Sighs which gave access to the Prison of the Piombi from the Doge’s palace). Manin mobilized the workers of the military port of the city (the arsenalotti) and the Italian troops serving the Austrian empire in Venice, who defected. The remaining German and Croatian forces were forced to evacuate together with the Austrian authorities.
The Provisional Government of Venice was formed with Daniele Manin as its leader until the city had to surrender after a year of siege, in August 1849. The coinage of the Venetian Republic of 1848-49 reflects the more autonomous and Republican approach of Manin, Tommaseo and of the Venetian population in comparison to Lombardy. This was a consequence of weaker economic links with Piedmont but also of a tradition of more than a thousand years of proud independence: the Republic of Venice had dissolved only in 1797, confronted by the French army of General Bonaparte.
When a first series of republican coins -- dated 22 March 1848, when the Provisional Government of Venice was formed -- was minted in June 1848, the 5 lire silver pieces reflected both a federalist view of a united Italy and the municipal intent of resuscitating some of the glories of the Republic. The coins were issued like their Lombard counterparts in “Italian lire” and not in a Venetian currency. They carried the slogan “Unione italiana”, but also the independentist name of “Repubblica Veneta”, surrounding the traditional symbol of the winged Lyon of St. Mark carrying an open book.
Manin aimed to proceed towards monetary unification and the replacement of Austrian currency with coins and banknotes in Italian lire, issued thanks to forced loans imposed on the richest citizens, melting down jewels and silverware handed over by Venetians during the siege. The Provisional Government of the Venetian Republic expressed its intention on 29 July 1848: “considering the desire of several citizens to have also in coinage a lasting memory of our regeneration, decrees that in the National Mint silver pieces of five Italian lire will be coined… corresponding… to those that under an identical denomination are produced in other mints in Italy”.
Times had changed in an irreversible manner, however. The main cities of the Venetian mainland had, already been restless in the eighteenth century under the centralized power located in the lagoon. In the spring of 1848 they saw the return offensive of the Austrians under Radetzky and voted in a plebiscite to be united to the Kingdom of Sardinia, just as Lombardy had already done, and regardless of what Venice thought about it. Venice found itself cut off from the mainland in June, after the Austrians defeated an Italian volunteer army led by former Pontifical troops in Vicenza, and re-occupied most of the Veneto. At that point even Venice opted to vote for annexation to the Kingdom of Sardinia in July and Manin left the Government to representatives of King Carlo Alberto.
Barely a month later, Carlo Alberto, defeated by the Austrians, abandoned Milan and Lombardy and signed an armistice in Salasco, in August 1848. Venice again proclaimed the Republic and recalled Manin as its President with a commitment to resist at all costs the Austrian siege (here illustrated in a medal of April 1849). In command of the defences of the city was placed the Neapolitan general Pepe (a veteran of the Napoleonic wars and liberal insurgencies, who had brought with him the artillery and engineering corps of the Kingdom of Naples). Roman, Bolognese and Lombard volunteers provided additional defences. A second set of silver and gold coins (5 and 20 lire) was issued, dated 11 August 1848 (the new proclamation of the Republic), but following a decree in November. This second set of coins registered the defeat of the Royalist war for unification and proclaimed an “Alliance of free people” and “Italian independence” (confirmed by the presence of volunteers from all over Italy), associated with the Republican Lion of St Mark. Smaller denomination coins were later issued under the name “Provisional Government of Venice”, both in a mixture with a low quantity of silver (15 centesimi) and in copper (5, 3 and 1 centesimi), the latter showing a seated lion facing the viewer.
To supplement monetary circulation and provide further emergency resources after Austrian paper money had been banned, a National Venetian Bank was created and tasked by the Republic with issuing paper money in lire, denominated “patriotic money”, whose value was guaranteed by loans provided by the Venetians themselves. In September 1848 patriotic banknotes with a nominal value between 1 and 100 lire were issued, all without reference to the issuer and its authority, but with the joint crests of the cities of Milan and Venice. In the back of a banknote the crest of the Republic of Venice was stamped in color with the caption “Comptroller 1848”, and only very occasionally signed by G. Barzilai, whose role has not been identified (a few decades later another Barzilai from Trieste was elected to Parliament and founded the Italian Republican Party). Later on, as the siege progressed and patriotic banknotes started to depreciate, the municipality itself issued paper money, because the Comune would survive the fall of the Republic and therefore its credit could be higher. We have here illustrated two “3 lire” banknotes of both the National Venetian Bank and of the Commune of Venice.
On 22 August 1849, Venice finally capitulated, hit by months of bombardments, a cholera epidemic and starvation, the only holdout in Europe of the 1848-49 revolutions. The Austrian Government recognized only 50% of the value of municipal banknotes and 0% of those issued under the authority of the Republic. The Austrians reintroduced the Austrian currency (including its inconvertible paper currency) in the Veneto, until it was liberated in 1866. Many Italian veterans of 1848-49 had coins of the Provisional Governments of Lombardy, of Venice and of the Roman Republic transformed into medals or insignia to wear and display publicly in the following decades. Some Austrophiles instead transformed some coins of the provisional government of Lombardy into surprise boxes, which, once opened, would mock the viewer with a portrait of Field Marshal Radetzky, who had successfully repressed revolution in Northern Italy.
Manin died in exile in France in 1857 after having founded the Società Nazionale, a political association active throughout Italy which contributed to reconciling moderates, liberals and republicans to the leadership of the new King of Sardinia Vittorio Emanuele II and to his prime minister Cavour, recognizing them as the only option for a successful liberation and unification of Italy. Daniele Manin’s body was brought back in triumph in Venice in 1868 and is now buried by the wall of the Basilica of St Mark.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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