In Venetian history

The Ateneo Veneto in a cultural emergency

The Ateneo Veneto is one of those historical institutions in Venice which I have always taken for granted and yet the pandemic has strongly struck its activity and changed the way the institution is now offering its high-end cultural events. Its annual course on the history of Venice led in the last weeks was run on the Ateneo’s YouTube channel and was indeed very successful, as over 400 computers were connected during the live talks and thousands more watched the event later. But, there is always a but.

The façade of the Ateneo Veneto in Venice

The president of the Ateneo Veneto sent a letter at the end of January clearly explaining the difficult financial situation this institution is suffering from. On one side, the income stemming from the rental of the rooms in the Ateneo has drastically dropped —especially as the Biennale exhibit was cancelled—, on the other side, by statute, all the cultural events offered are for free and, right because of that, the Ateneo Veneto could not receive any financial help from the Italian State. Quite a paradox. 

The Ateneo Veneto and its history in 1848

Should you not be familiar with the Ateneo Veneto, consider its position, first. It stands next to the Fenice Opera House and a few minutes away from St Mark’s square, where the Florian cafe, also struck by the pandemic, lies, sadly closed. The three locations would be, together with the Arsenale, the first ones that would come to my mind if we talked about the revolutionary events that took place in Venice in 1848. 

Bas-relief with Mary and St Jerome on the façade of the Ateneo Veneto in Venice

The beginning of the Ateneo Veneto and its goals

Starting in 1810, the Ateneo Veneto à la façon of the Académie de France was founded and never closed till nowadays. In 1812 the Venetian Society of Medicine, together with the Academy of Fine arts, and that of the Filareti were all unified. Together with the Fondazione Levi, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, The Istituto Veneto Scienze Lettere ed Arti, and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, the Ateneo Veneto is one of the academies of national interest, all located in Venice. Since its beginning, the goals of this institution were to promote scientific research and to fuel projects for the benefit of Venice.

The library reading room at the Ateneo Veneto with the painting by Tintoretto, Venice

In the early years, the members of the Ateneo Veneto (even a woman!) coming from different social classes were mainly professional lawyers. After the creation of the toll-free port in 1830, once the situation in Venice improved, they were all very worried about Venice’s commercial survival and strongly supported the project of the railway connection between Venice and Milan. 

Just before the revolution in 1848

The first two steps that led to the revolution in 1848 for the liberation against the Hapsburg domination took place in 1847 and were both connected to the intellectual milieu of the Ateneo Veneto. 

The leading apostle of free trade, the English MP Richard Cobden arrived in Venice in June. He had fought against the protectionist Corn Laws and this was very inspiring for the members of the Ateneo Veneto. The abolition of the fee on corn would be, as in England, a very important sign of support towards the poorest social classes. 

But it was in September 1847 that Venice hosted the ninth of the scientists’ congresses held in Italy since 1839. This event created a great euphoric atmosphere. Science, medicine, technology and social reform were discussed. Over 800 participants, each of them receiving three large volumes entitled “Venezia e le sue lagune”. In the book the anti-Austrian narration was clear. When talking about crops, criticism in the book was expressed towards potatoes and their nutritious characteristics, too. “In our country only the Germans really like potatoes”, as the local poet Giovanni Prati seemed to have reported. 

Niccolò Tommaseo and his speech on press censorship laws

Niccolò Tommaseo was a major literary figure at his time.

Ugolino Panichi, Nicolò Tommaseo, 1867, Ateneo Veneto, Venice

As a very active member, he held a famous speech in the room which today bears his name, upstairs in the Ateneo Veneto. The room is relatively small and chronicles report that there were so many people attending that they were crowding in the room nearby, where the library nowadays is. Starting praising the existing legislation on censorship compared to that of the other Italian States, he cleverly pointed out the law was actually not properly honoured. 

The honor for the nation requires acts of civil courage. (…) Time is pressing and our rulers know it. (…) Italy must either learn to know her own rights or else, after an agony as long as it is accursed, perish utterly.

Daniele Manin, the lawyer with a sense of civil disobedience

The other undiscussed protagonist of those days was Daniele Manin, someone who, once the Austrians left Venice, would be the only leader. His father’s parents were Jews who converted in 1759: Samuele Medina and his wife Alegra Moravia became Manin in honour of Ludovico Manin’s brother who sponsored their conversion. Quite ironic that Ludovico would become the last Doge of the Serenissima. 

Carlo Lorenzetti, Bust of Daniele Manin, bronze, 1936

An utterly different person from Tommaseo, Manin never liked Tommaseo and viceversa, but they both supported the cause of Italian independence. Manin’s approach however would be a legal attack against the foreign domination, a sort of civil disobedience. He wrote to governor Palffy

It is not to be wondered at that the country, having waited quietly and in vain for thirty-three years, should now show itself impatient and dissident.

The next step was to ask for a form of devolution for Lombardy-Venetia. 

His words and Tommaseo’s explain why both were arrested on January 18th in 1848 and brought to the police headquarters at San Lorenzo. The revolution started almost two months later. The Austrians left Venice and, planning to reconquer it, could not succeed in doing so till they isolated the city, bombed it also (or tried to) and let cholera do the rest. Their return would be on August 23rd, 1849. For 17 more years the Austrians controlled the Venetia region till the liberation in 1866.

The Scuola dei Picai or Santa Maria della Giustizia and San Girolamo

When you move around the rooms of the Ateneo Veneto, there is a sense of quiet, great dignity that overwhelms you. It is the marble slabs that cover the walls. It is the art works by Palma il Giovane in the dark wooden frames. Or when sitting in the library, the wonderful painting by Tintoretto or the work by Paolo Veronese.

Leonardo Corona, Jesus being crucified, Scuola san Fantin, Venice

Before becoming the seat of the Ateneo Veneto, it was a powerful “scuola” brotherhood. The goal was extraordinary and tough. The brethren, moved by Christian charity, accompanied the ones sentenced to death (“picai”, hanged), during their last days till the very scaffold and then took care of their body and soul with a proper burial. 

Jacopo Palma il Giovane, Pope Pious V giving out the indulgences for the souls, Ceiling of the Scuola san Fantin or “dei picai” in Venice

A tough present for the Ateneo Veneto

When thinking of its past, one tends to think the Ateneo Veneto cannot be a fragile institution. Now it is. The beauty is that it belongs to the Venetians and to the ones that care for Venice, which means, as long as we do not forget that it is our past and a major space to promote projects for the Venice of the future, it will certainly overcome this difficult time.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Special thanks to Dr. Michele Gottardi, former president of the Ateneo Veneto for his insightful advice!
For English speaking readers, I highly recommend The Siege of Venice by Jonathan Keates, 2006 for its lively and accurate narration of the 1848 events

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