Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The death of the Serenissima (1797)

The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice. Canaletto, c. 1730. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Via Wikimedia.

To approve [Napoleon’s] demands, the Great Council was called for Friday 12 May. From soon after sunrise the people of Venice had been congregating in the Piazza, just as they had done countless times before in the city’s history. In the past, however, they had usually assembled for purposes of celebration. Never before had they gathered together out of fear. By now all were aware that the end had come, but none had any idea of what form that end would take. The atmosphere was one unfamiliar in Venice—an atmosphere of uncertainty, bewilderment, and-ill defined apprehension.

The Doge called the meeting to order, apprised it of Bonaparte’s demands, and proposed the motion by which the oligarchy surrendered its powers to a provisional democratic government. At once all was confusion, all had one single object in view: to escape from the palace, in disguise if necessary, while there was still time. As the panic began, reassurances were useless. The remaining legislators of the state they had claimed to govern were already slipping discreetly out of the palace, and to an almost empty chamber, the Doge declared the resolution adopted. The Republic of Venice was no more.

The Doge himself made no attempt to flee. Almost alone of all his fellow nobles he had maintained a quiet calm, perhaps born of fatalism or even despair. He slowly gathered his papers and withdrew to his apartments. There he carefully untied the ribbons of his cap, laid down his insignia, handed them to his valet, and with sad words, which more than any others, seemed to symbolize the fall of Venice, said “Take these; I shall not be needing them again.”

Abstracted from A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich

Winter 2024



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