Siege of Venice (August 1848–August 27, 1849)

Austrian fleet bombarding rebellious city of Venice during siege in 1849, by Giovanni Battista Borghesi

The siege of Venice, during August 1848–August 27, 1849, was part of the nineteenth-century movement to unify Italy known as the “Risorgimento” (resurgence). When the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Era began in 1792, Italy was little more than a geographical expression—a patchwork of 15 small states, each in rivalry with, if not openly hostile to, the others. Not since the days of the Roman Empire had the Italian peninsula been united politically.

The wars of the period 1792–1815 had profound impact. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, the French had conquered much of Italy, and Napoleon introduced a uniform system of laws and administration. He also reduced the number of states to three. Parts of northwestern and east central Italy were incorporated into France, and there was the Kingdom of Italy in the northeast and the Kingdom of Naples in the south. Yet the Congress of Vienna of 1814–1815, called to redraw the map of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, resurrected the old Italy of many different monarchal states.     

In northern Italy, the Austrian Empire dominated. Lombardy (with its capital of Milan) and Venetia (capital of Venice) passed under its rule as the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia. Venetia included the city of Venice, Istria, and Dalmatia. Although Vienna had held out the prospect of home rule, this soon disappeared when it was clear that the people of Lombardy and Venetia wanted independence. Although Austria rule was not harsh, it was exploitive. By 1848 a broad coalition of intellectuals, manufacturers, bankers, and agrarian leaders had come together demanding change.

Attempts in the early 1830s to shake off foreign rule had been crushed, but the dreams of a unitary state remained and in late 1847 unrest broke out throughout Italy, ushering in the revolutionary wave that swept much of Europe in 1848. Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany and King Charles Albert, ruler of the Kingdom of Sardinia (most often known at the time and since as Piedmont-Sardinia or Sardinia-Piedmont for its two component territories) were both forced to grant constitutions. In January 1848, the reactionary ruler of Sicily, King Ferdinand II, was also forced to grant a constitution.       

On March 18, revolt broke out in Milan. In the so-called Five Days of Milan, Austrian field marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz was forced to withdraw his troops from the city. They retreated to the stronghold at the foot of the Alps, known as the Quadrilateral, comprising the cities of Mantua, Verona, Peschiera, and Legnago.

With the unrest and seeming success of revolutionaries in various parts of Italy, on March 22, King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia declared war on Austria in what he believed would be a war of national liberation won by Italians alone. Indeed, he boasted “Italia fera da se” (Italy will do it by itself). Thousands of volunteers from other parts of Italy, including troops from the Papal States, joined the Army of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Also, on March 22, fortified by what had happened in Milan, revolutionaries in Venice seized control of the arsenal, the great naval yard and munitions depot, and proceeded to organize both a civic guard and then a provisional government. This embraced all Venetia save Verona, which was the key to the so-called Quadrilateral of fortresses and under firm Austrian control.

Austrian forces evacuated Venice on March 26, and Venice declared independence as the Republic of San Marco under the leadership of Daniele Manin. The Venetian Assembly then voted to join the rest of northern Italy and merge their new republic with Piedmont-Sardinia in a new Kingdom of Alta Italia (Upper Italy).

In mid-June, however, Radetzky assumed the offensive and defeated Charles Albert’s poorly trained and ineffectively led troops in the Battle of Custoza near Verona during June 24–25. Soon Radetzky reestablished Austrian control in Lombardy and in most of Venetia, save Venice. The Austrians then concluded an armistice with Sardinia-Piedmont in order to concentrate on the revolution that had broken out in Hungary.

Revolt also occurred in Rome and Pope Pius IX fled the city. In February 1849, a constituent assembly declared Rome a republic. The effects of this were great, especially in northern Italy, where Charles Albert, under considerable pressure from radicals in Piedmont, renounced the armistice and again took up arms against Austria. Radetzky then invaded Piedmont and defeated again Charles Albert’s army in the Battle of Novara (March 22–23). Charles Albert was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II. His victory allowed Radetzky to send part of his forces north to assist against the Hungarians. Then on July 3, French troops, having been sent to Italy by Emperor Napoleon III to assuage French Catholics, marched into Rome and ended its republic after a two-month siege.

Meanwhile, Venice kept the Republican cause alive in northern Italy. Although the city had come under Austrian blockade by land the previous August, the Republic of San Marco remained intact. Radetzky’s victory at Novara, however, changed all that. On March 26, 1849, soon after news was received of the battle, the Venice Assembly, which had been elected on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot, met at the Doge’s Palace. Manin presented an honest appraisal of the situation. There was hope that the situation in Hungary would inhibit the Austrians or that France or Britain might intervene, but these possibilities seemed remote. He then asked the Assembly members whether they wanted to continue to resist. They replied unanimously in the affirmative and passed a resolution calling on resistance “at all costs” and investing Manin with “unlimited powers.” This sentiment met strong public support from Venetians of all classes.

The area of the republic was now limited to the lagoon some 90 miles in circumference with its several hundred small islands and population of 200,000 people in all with the 125,000 in Venice itself and 50,000 at Chioggia at the other end of the lagoon. The lagoon contained some 60 forts manned by 18,000 men. The most important of these were Fort Brondolo at Chioggia guarding the southern approaches and Malghera on the mainland end of the railroad bridge to Venice.

On May 4, the Austrians had begun a bombardment of Malghera. In just a few hours, they fired some 7,000 shot and shell. Radetzky fully expected the inexperienced Venetians to surrender. That was not the case, and indeed by the end of the bombardment more Austrian than Venetian guns had been put out of action.

The next day, Radetzky called on the Republic of San Marco to surrender. He offered only a general pardon and permission for those wishing to emigrate. There were no concessions to the Venetians regarding their government, and the general feeling was that this would simply be a return to the status quo ante bellum. The Venetians were determined to continue resistance in the hope that eventually foreign intervention and diplomacy would work in their favor.

The siege of Fort Malghera then continued. After three weeks, the Austrians had expended some 60,000 shot and shell, killing 400 of its 2,400 defenders. Venetian sorties from the fortress had cut dikes and flooded the plain but the shelling continued, and, although working waist-deep in water, the Austrians built new artillery emplacements closer to the fort and on May 24 opened fire from these. On May 25 alone, they fired some 15,000 rounds. By now, the fortress walls were crumbling.

With the Austrians massing men for an infantry assault on May 27, Manin ordered Malghera abandoned on the night of May 26–27. Slow matches kept the Venetian guns firing over a three-hour span, masking the withdrawal across the exposed railroad 2.5-mile long bridge. The Venetians turned one of the five repair stations on the bridge into a fort with seven guns and two mortars and blew up the part of the bridge between it and the mainland.

This placed the Austrians in a difficult position, as their artillery normally had not the range to reach the city 2.5 miles distant. The real danger to the Venetians would be securing adequate food for the population. For a month the Austrians bombarded the station, now named Fort St. Antonio, and a battery on the small island of San Secondo. Damage inflicted by the Austrian guns in daytime was repaired by the defenders at night.

The Austrians tried an attack on Fort Brondolo at Chioggia, but it proved even stronger than Malghera, and they soon gave up. They then tried sending balloons with bombs on fuses all sent aloft from a frigate in prevailing winds, but these proved a failure. Food shortages had brought a riot in June and by July the population was subsisting principally on bread. On July 10, bottles drifting in the lagoon brought news of the fall of Rome and the defeat of Hungarian forces by the Austrians and Russians.

On the night of July 29, with Austrian guns mounted at 45-degree angles and firing from makeshift carriages, hot shot and shells began falling on the western two-thirds of Venice itself. During the next three weeks, the Austrians fired some 25,000 shells. The Venetians could not respond as their homemade powder was too weak. Damage was slight in the shelling, but it did force a majority of the city population to relocate. Sanitary conditions now rapidly deteriorated and cholera broke out.

The only hope for the Venetians was breaking the Austrian naval blockade. Ironically, the Venetian navy, once the pride of the city, was now its weakest link. At the beginning of the revolt, most of the officers and sailors had been tricked by the Austrians into remaining at their posts at Pola and Trieste. Others at Venice were dispersed among the lagoon fortresses, and until the Battle of Navaro, building up the navy had not been a priority as the Piedmont-Sardinian fleet was blockading the Austrians at Trieste. But even after Novara, Manin was slow to recognize the threat. When the Piedmont-Sardinian ships were withdrawn from the Adriatic, the Austrians were able to attack Venice from the sea. Twice in August, Manin ordered what ships were available to engage the Austrians, but each time the admiral in command returned without having battled the far more powerful Austrians.

On August 24, 1849, with food and ammunition now both exhausted and having received authorization to do so, Manin negotiated the city’s capitulation to go into effect on August 27. The Austrians granted amnesty for all save Manin and 39 others who were nonetheless allowed to go into exile. Manin departed Venice with his family on August 28 in a French ship; his wife died of cholera within a few hours of sailing, and Manin died almost destitute in exile at Marseille, France, in 1857 having abandoned republicanism in favor of the unification of Italy under the Piedmont-Sardinia monarchy.

The Risorgimento continued, however. In 1859 Austrian stumbled into a war with France and Piedmont-Sardinia. Austria was then forced to cede Lombardy to Piedmont-Sardinia, which with other territories added in northern Italy became the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. An Italian alliance with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War (1866), at last brought the kingdom Venetia. Rome followed in 1871.

Further Reading

Bassani, Ugo. Venezia nel 1849. Milan: Ceschini, 1938.

Beales, Derek Edward Dawson. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.

Davis, John A., ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century, 1796–1900. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Holt, Edgar. The Making of Italy 1815–1870. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Keates, Jonathan. The Siege of Venice. London: Pimlico, 2006.

Martin, George. The Red Shirt & the Cross of Savoy: The Story of Italy’s Risorgimento (1748–1871). New York: Dodd, Mead, 1979.

Pascolato, Alessandro. Manin e Venezia nel 1848–49. Milan: Alfieri & Lacroix, 1916.

1849: Austria Drops Balloon Bombs on Venice