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  • “Making a People What It Once Was”: Regenerating Civic Identity in the Revolutionary Theatre of Venice
  • Franca R. Barricelli

I. Introduction

On 23 May 1797, Antonio Simone Sografi dispatched a proposal to the Committee of Public Instruction in Venice offering to lend his talents to the new democratic stage. One of the most prolific playwrights in the last decades of the eighteenth century, he capitalized on the political potential of the theatre unleashed by revolution in the city:

Citizens, the pulpit of the good French has always been the theatre. Could you who are intent on the good of the public with your assiduous care forget that in such a moment? From the theatre it is time that the voices of liberty and equality sound again; from the theatre it is necessary that the people draw the recognition of their rights, which have been usurped, poisoned, abused. 1

His appeal was as opportunistic as it was timely, for just eleven days before, the “Most Serene” Republic of Venice collapsed in the wake of French revolutionary expansion. Napoleon ostensibly saw the creation in Venice of a “sister Republic” with France, but his gesture was based on his de facto war against the Serenissima. The weakened city had no choice but to accept his terms or face military retaliation, notwithstanding the irony that the universal principles by which the French “liberated” Venice constituted the city’s first experience of foreign domination in its thousand-year history.

The Municipal Government established in the wake of Napoleon’s Italian campaign apparently freed Venice of the aristocratic trappings of its oligarchic past. But the months from the arrival of the French to the Treaty of Campoformio, which ceded Venice to the Habsburg Empire in January 1798, actually involved a more complicated response to the Revolution. The brief period constituted a significant interval during which Venice’s mythic origins and unique history served the strategic function of justifying contemporary social change. If not necessarily accurate, the construction of a “historical” explanation for revolutionary events nevertheless acknowledged social transformation as precipitated by France, while claiming Venetian precedence for revolutionary “liberty” in the collective memory of its historic community. [End Page 38]

The historical literature about this period emphasizes the passivity of Venetians and their government, a profound conservatism of the ruling class in particular, which made inevitable the demise of the old republican state. 2 French intervention, historians commonly maintain, merely precipitated the final expiration of a polity long in the throes of decadence and decline. By most accounts, the Municipal Government established under Napoleonic auspices never realized its potential both because of its short duration and its failure to formulate a precise plan of reform. Politically moderate intellectuals served on its various committees, including bearers of such patrician names as Dandolo, Gritti, Mocenigo, and Giustinian from the old Republic’s Libro d’Oro. It is customary to note their inability to formulate a progressive agenda based on a precise revolutionary ideology, neither asserting themselves decisively in the diplomatic events shaping their new government nor seeking popular support through economic and social reforms. Merely resigning itself to the political will of France, the Municipality acquiesced in this interpretation to the role of “astonished but passive witness” to its own existence. 3

The attribution of political impotence, however, implies a significant and debatable corollary: namely that with political collapse—the resignation, that is, of Doge Manin and the abdication of the Grand Council—the Venetians themselves folded in some kind of collective social and cultural defeat. The short life of the Municipality tends to support this view, particularly since the city and its territories became pawns in the subsequent diplomatic machinations of France and Austria, to which Venice would remain subjected until the unification of the peninsula. All the achievements associated with eighteenth-century Venetian culture—music, theatre, carnival—tend to slip in our historical minds from their peacetime heights to the oblivion caused by military intervention in the 1790s.

More than the axiomatic notion of decline and fall, however, or of Venice’s failure to posit a viable alternative to Napoleonic politics, the significance of the municipal period lies in the cultural adaptation of Venetians to their...

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