Sanesi - La proclamazione della Repubblica di San Marco, Marzo 1848 - litografia - ca. 1850


The story of Republic of San Marco had its antecedent in what happened since the end of 1796, when General Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Italy with an army of 45,000 soldiers, to transform the old kingdoms present on the peninsula in the republics inspired by values of the French revolution.

It was the year in which the Venetian territory became a battleground between Austrian and French with the Venetian authorities trying to manage without siding with either of them, aware of their military weakness. Already in mid-year Venice considered lost the mainland who, after several clashes between the Austrians and the French army, came under the control of Napoleon’s troops. The Venetians concentrated defense of Venice and its lagoon, having weak ground forces but a mighty fleet.

The attitude of Venice was ambivalent. On the one hand it proclaimed its neutrality to prevent the French, who however already controlled most of the territory, to give the final hit occupying it, on the other hand it urged the various cities of the Republic of resist and rebel against Napoleon’s troops. A cargo of weapons, seized by the French on a Venetian boat on the Garda lake, offered to Napoleon the pretext for declaring the lagoon city was  not neutral in the conflict with the Austrians.

May 12, 1797 Venice accepted the French ultimatum and the following day the Napoleonic troops entered the city.

On 17 October, although the Venetian people had given its agreement to join the Cisalpine Republic, the Treaty of Campoformio was signed between Napoleon and the Austrians which established the passage of the former Republic of Venice under the control of the Austrian Empire . Austria did not last long in Venice, as in 1805, with the return of Napoleon in Italy, Venice and the Veneto were united in Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Marche, forming the Kingdom of Italy. Napoleon, Emperor of France, proclaimed himself king of Italy.

In 1814 the Veneto returned for the second time to the Hapsburg merged in Lombardo-Veneto Kingdom, with the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig. Venice became the second capital of the kingdom after Milan.

Despite the good governance of the Austrians in Venice, the italianity seed she had taken root in the ancient Serenissima Republic, so after 1814 until 1848 a feeling against Austria and in favor of Italy unit developed in the minds of many patriots.

On 13 March 1848 the news arrived in Venice that revolts were happening in Europe, especially in Vienna where the people had risen in the streets against the Hapsburg monarchy. On March 17, the citizens of Venice, taking advantage of the weakness of Vienna at that time was struggling with its revolutionaries, it rebelled against the Austrians.

Croatian militias in the city opened fire on the protesters, killing 5 people. A crowd of Venetians crowded around the government palace where the governor, the Hungarian Count Aloisio Pallfy, housed asking the release of two patriots: Daniele Manin and Niccolo Tommaseo. Fearing for his life, the governor made immediately free the two prisoners, who were brought in triumph from the crowd to Piazza San Marco. The two patriots had not had time to figure out the reason for their release so things went quickly. The Count Pallfy granted to the rebels the immediate institution of a city guard composed of Venetians.

Daniele Manin, the natural leader of the insurrection, was urged by the governor Pallfy to make agreements with him, making major concessions. The Manin, convinced that this was just a way to buy time and allow the arrival of other troops, refused the offers of Count Pallfy.

On March 22 the Arsenal workers rebelled occupying the shipyards with the help of officers of the Austrian navy with Italian nationality who was joined with the insurgents. The hated commander of the arsenal Giovanni Marinovich was killed in the riots. Meanwhile Manin invaded the government house in Piazza San Marco with the help of the newly formed city guard, forcing the capitulation of the Habsburg troops that same day began to leave the city. About three thousand Austrian soldiers of Italian nationality joined the rioters.

Daniele Manin was elected head of the provisional government together with Ministers Niccolò Tommaseo, Jacopo Castelli, Francesco Camerata, Francesco Solera, Antonio Paolucci and Pietro Paleocapa. As president of the newly formed Republic of San Marco was elected the same Manin.

Meanwhile Carlo Alberto had gone to “help” the people of Milan that with the revolt of “five days” between 18 and 22 March, had freed Milan by Austrian troops. Carlo Alberto, “Re Tentenna (hesitating King)”, arrived in Milan without a fight, rather than chasing the Austrians to defeat them permanently, he stopped in town to organize a referendum and proclaim himself King of Lombardy.

The Austrian defeat and the Piedmontese intervention, which in fact opened the first war of independence, awakened patriotic minds of many Italians throughout the peninsula, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples sent troops in support of Milan and Venice. The king of Naples was the one that sent the larger army, consisting of 16,000 soldiers, commanded by General Guglielmo Pepe, supported by a fleet headed to Venice to defend it from the sea.

The king of Naples Ferdinand II, mindful of the ancient links between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs of Austria, found a good excuse to call back his troops in the declaration against any war that Pius IX did in front of the consistory on 29 April. Not all men of the Neapolitan army obeyed the order to return. General Guglielmo Pepe, commander of the expedition, decided to go to the aid of the Republic of San Marco, leaving his officers and soldiers to follow him or to return to Naples. Officers Enrico Cosenz, Alessandro Poerio, Girolamo Calà Ulloa, Luigi and Carlo Mezzacapo and Cesare Rossaroll with the troops of the artillery and engineering detachments followed General Pepe.

In the “quadrilatero (quadrangle)”, where the Habsburg troops had taken shelter, undisturbed by the Piedmontese troops firm in Milan while Carlo Alberto was waiting for the referendum, the Austrian had time to regroup and wait for reinforcements. The Venetian cities of the mainland, conscious of the danger that represented the Austrian army, which  would move to win them at any moment, were favorable to the immediate annexation to Piedmont, hoping in this way to obtain protection from the forces of Kingdom of Sardinia.

Venice, more secure location for its lagoon which made possible the defense of the city, was not favorable to the annexation to Piedmont, given the proclamation already made of the San Marco Republic. On July 4, 1848, the town meeting approved the annexation to the Kingdom of Sardinia, against the advice of Niccolo Tommaseo, also to prevent the Piedmont exchanged Veneto with its annexation of Lombardy.

Piedmont signed the armistice Salasco abandoning to its fate Venice because of Carlo Alberto hesitation, which had led to the defeat in the battle of Custoza. In the lagoon city was formed a triumvirate with Manin, Cavedalis and Leone Graziani because of the departure of the royal commissioners and the Piedmontese fleet from the lagoon.

In those days the Neapolitan troops, who chose to continue traveling to Venice, came in the city. The Venetians, taking advantage of the experience of the Neapolitan officers, organized the defense of the lagoon: Marghera Fort was presided by Colonel Girolamo Ulloa with 2,500 men, Mestre was presided by 2,600 men with General Mitis, also a small fleet commanded by captain Basilisco was armed.

October 22, Venice was under siege of the Austrians for several months. The first attack was by the Venetians. 250 men led by Girolamo Ulloa, escorted by two armed ships, assaulted the place named Cavallino where 250 Austrian soldiers were billeted. The Austrians were defeated, by withdrawing; they left behind several dead and wounded. After a few days a major offensive followed on the mainland to liberate Mestre occupied by more than 2,500 Austrian soldiers commanded by General Mitis. The offensive of the Venetians succeeded in full, Mestre and Marghera returned under the control of the republic. Alessandro Poerio was wounded died after a few days in this battle, one of the Neapolitan officers hastened generously in aid of Venice.

Venice was other months in siege, the Austrians meanwhile strengthened their lines by collecting 30,000 men at the gates of Marghera. May 4, 1849 General Radetzky took command of operations. The following day began the Austrian offensive. The fort of Marghera commanded by Girolamo Ulloa was attacked, a young Neapolitan officer was in command of the artillery, Major Carlo Mezzacapo. The Mezzacapo, with the fire of his guns, caused serious losses to the enemy forces.

Radetzky, considering the difficulty to conquer Venice and the inevitable numerous casualties in the clashes necessary to military operation, presented to the Venetian a proposal which offered to their an unconditional surrender with the surrender of the forts, the fleet, the arsenal and delivered of the weapons providing  in return the opportunity to leave the city whoever wished its and he offered a general pardon to the soldiers and NCO of the Venetian forces. Manin responded with “resistance at any cost” as had been decided by the town meeting on April 2.

Several clashes followed between the two armies, where the Venetians were known for initiative and courage. On May 26, 30,000 Austrians assaulted the Fort of Marghera in which you were defending 2,500 men commanded by the Neapolitan Girolamo Ulloa. They were fired a lot of cannon that killed more than 500 defenders of the fort, the population of Marghera was also involved in bombing, where there were approximately 1000 victims. The first aerial bombardment was in history. The Austrians headed for the fort some Ballooning armed with bombs, which fortuitously did not hit the defenders because of a sudden wind which directed the balloons off course.

The defense of Mestre and Marghera became impossible. Girolamo Ulloa left the fort of Marghera, to position himself with his men in Venice. During the retreat some arches were destroyed of the bridge that connected (and still connects) the city with the mainland, to prevent the Austrians to use it. Meanwhile, Garibaldi and his soldiers tried to bring help to Venice, but they were blocked by the Habsburg troops in Comacchio.

Venice suffered a bombardment that lasted more than twenty days, performed with the batteries of cannons and with balloons. This bombardment caused the destruction of many buildings in the historic center of the city, also because of the many fires that developed as a result of the bombing.

On August 6, 1849 Daniele Manin called the town meeting to propose the surrender of the city to the conditions that Radetzky had dictated on May 4. The assembly refused to surrender, but the situation in the city was tragic: cholera, typhoid, many deaths, the food almost completely finished also for the civilian population. In the following days Manin invited the representatives of the citizens to take note of the dramatic situation and not to compel the Venetians to additional and unnecessary sacrifices.

After dramatic negotiations between representatives of Venice and General de Bruck, the city surrendered on August 22, 1849. The Austrians respected the terms of surrender dictated at the time by Radetzky, permitting, to all those who wanted to leave the city, to leave by boat. The epic of the Republic of San Marco ended that day. It took another 17 years of Austrian occupation before Venice and the Veneto became Italian following the third war of independence.

Near Piazza San Marco, a Calle Larga Ascension, there are six bas-reliefs on the facade of the Palace of Post and two on the facade of the building of the Directorate of Fine Arts who remember the valiant epic of the Republic of San Marco: the first is dedicated to the Neapolitan officers who participated in the defense of Venice: Guglielmo Pepe, Carlo Mezzacapo, Enrico Cosenz, Girolamo Calà Ulloa and Cesare Rossaroll, with the inscription “… Ufficiali napoletani, offersero vita e sangue a Venezia (Neapolitan officers, they offered life and blood in Venice) …“.

(Picture at the top: Sanesi – La proclamazione della Repubblica di San Marco, Marzo 1848 – litografia – ca. 1850)