Cicogna: The visit of the Archduke of Austria in Venice (1817)

The page of a diary written by a Venetian public official in 1817 provides us with a revealing insight into the issue of outstanding restitutions following the Napoleonic spoliations of 1797. A diplomatic visit becomes the stage to show the sense of loss and illegitimate oppression felt by the dispossessed, along with their attempt to channel such emotions into a claim instead of surrendering in weary resignation.

commented by Matilde Cartolari

Original text    Translation    Brief biography    Commentary    Sources and literature

Diario [17 gennaio 1817]

from: Correr Museum Library, Ms. Cicogna, 2845, Diari 1, cc. 4320–4321.

Ieri l’arciduca Rainieri venne a visitare i nostri luoghi. V’era con lui il Cavalier Cicognara. Ebbe a dire della Sala del Collegio ch’è l’unica al mondo per la freschezza delle pitture e dell’oro. Gli dispiacque di non vedere ritornati da Parigi i plaffoni nostri dal Consiglio di X e della Bussola.

Cicognara gli narrò la storia, ed il perché non furono restituiti e fu che il Re di Francia tenendo discorso con un pittore circa i quadri posseduti dalla Monarchia ebbe a dirgli che il quadro di Paolo rappresentante Giove che fulmina i tre vizzi (o i Giganti) è il più bel quadro della Monarchia. Allora il Re disse: e come si potrebbe fare a trattenerlo se il vogliono portar via cogli altri. È facile, soggiunse il pittore, faremo dire all’incaricato del trasporto che non si poteva levare dal luogo ove è, purché non si fosse voluto trarlo a pezzi per la vecchiezza sua – e così disse degl’altri due plaffoni, e disse lo stesso delle Nozze di Canan (o Cena) ch’erano a S. Giorgio Maggiore.

L’arciduca, o alcun del suo seguito disse che sarebbe meno male il far fare da valente artista le copie di quei plaffoni e metterle in luogo degli originali, e allora Cicognara molto a proposito rispose ch’è meno male lasciar que’ vacui che potranno mai sempre testificare della nostra disgrazia, anzi che metter copie là ove esistevano gli originali, per quanto belle si fossero.

Soggiunse che si era dato un pensiero per sostituire qualche cosa nel vacuo, ma varie osservazioni l’impedirono I° per trovar un quadro che corrisponda al sito precisamente senza avervi da togliere o da aggiungere. 2° trovarlo che sia fatto per porsi ad equal altezza da terra; 3° che abbia un lume eguale a quello che manca. 4° che porti un soggetto adatto al luogo ch’è tutto simbolico. 5° che la posizione delle figure sia orizzontale piuttosto che perpendicolare. 6° che sia ben conservato. 7° che sia di buono autore, e almeno approssimevole in merito al quadro che vi era. ecc.

Diary [17 January 1817]

translated by Matilde Cartolari

Yesterday the Archduke Rainieri [Giuseppe Ranieri of Habsburg] came to visit us. The Cavalier Cicognara was accompanying him. He [the Archduke] said that the Sala del Collegio is unique in the world for the freshness of its paintings and its gold. He was sorry not to see our ceilings from the Consiglio dei X and the Sala della Bussola returning from Paris.

Cicognara told him the story, and the reason why they had not been returned. The King of France, speaking with a painter about the paintings possessed by the Kingdom, told him that the painting by Paul [Veronese] representing Jupiter that fulminates the three Vices (or the Giants) was the most beautiful painting belonging to the Kingdom. Then the King asked: »How could we hold it if they [the Venetians] want it back together with the others?«. »It is easy – replied the painter -, we will have the person in charge of the transport tell that it could not leave the place where it is due to its antiquity, unless they want to cut it into pieces.« And [the painter] said the same of the other two ceilings [by Veronese from Palazzo Ducale], and of the Marriage of Cana (or Feast) coming from S. Giorgio Maggiore.

The Archduke, or someone from his entourage, said that it would be the lesser evil to have a talented artist create copies of those ceilings and put them up instead of the missing originals. Cicognara then quite rightly replied that it would be a lesser evil to leave the vacui [empty spaces] so that they can always testify to our misfortune, rather than putting up copies instead of the originals, no matter how beautiful they are.

He said that he had thought about how to replace the vacuum, but several reasons prevented him from finding a picture 1° corresponding precisely to the site, without the need to cut or enlarge it; 2° fitting for an equal height from the ground; 3° with the same lighting as the missing ones; 4° with an iconography suitable for the whole symbolism of the site; 5° where the figures are depicted horizontally rather than perpendicularly; 6° well preserved; 7° by a good author, and at least approximately as valuable as the missing one; etc.

Brief biography

Emanuele Antonio Cicogna (1789–1868) was a famous scholar, collector and writer of Venice. His major expertise was in Venetian history, to which he devoted many studies and publications throughout his lifetime. He started working in public administration before the fall of the Serenissima Republic of Venice (1797) and continued under the Napoleonic (1806–1814) and Austrian rule (1814–1866). He mostly kept his public activity detached from any explicit political engagement. His unpublished Diaries, conserved at the library of the Correr Museum, represent a precious source to analyze the Venetian history of that time thanks to their detailed day-by-day descriptions (Preto 1981; Collavizza 2013; Collavizza 2017).

Commentary – Empty spaces as an open wound

Emanuele Antonio Cicogna describes the visit of the viceroy Archduke Ranier of Austria in Venice, which at that time was part of the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom. The Republic of Venice lost its independence in 1797, when it was occupied by Napoleonic troops, and was never restored. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat, the region became part of the Austrian empire. The Archduke Ranier was the Viceroy of the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom and, consequently, his visit represented a crucial moment of interaction between central and local authorities (Mazzocca 1989).

According to Cicogna, Ranier was visiting the Ducal Palace of Venice, a widely renowned symbol of the former Republican power and history, when he remarked on the absence of some paintings by Veronese created for the Palace at the end of the sixteenth century. Not only did Paolo Veronese work for the Serenissima, he was also one of the most internationally admired and influential masters of the Venetian Renaissance (Ton 2011). The absence of some of his most important paintings, therefore, could not pass unnoticed.

Leopoldo Cicognara, who accompanied the Archduke during his visit, was a scholar of Venetian art and president of the Academy of Venice. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the Academy of Fine Arts was in charge of the education of young artists as well as of the protection of local heritage. Cicognara had abandoned his political career after being disappointed by the Imperial turn of French politics under Napoleon and had joined the Venetian administration of Fine Arts in 1808. From that moment onwards, he worked tirelessly for the promotion of Venetian artists and the Galleries of the Academy, which opened as a public museum in 1817 (Marini, Mazzocca, De Feo 2017).

As Cicognara pointed out, the absence of Veronese’s paintings from the Ducal Palace was the consequence of Napoleonic spoliations that had taken place in 1797. Following the defeat of the Republic, the French government selected some of the greatest masterpieces of Venetian art and took them to Paris, where they were mostly exhibited in the Louvre museum. In 1815, Napoleon’s defeat triggered the process of restitution of the confiscated artworks. Despite the French reluctance, the Austrian government achieved the return of most of its precious treasures to Venice. However, some paintings were never returned (Gabbrielli 2009).

In the short anecdote by Cicognara we recognize the Venetian perspective on the issue of outstanding restitutions. The French government refused to return Veronese’s paintings due to allegedly insurmountable conservation issues. In order to be returned, those large-format paintings would have to be cut into smaller portions and face a month-long journey across the Alps, as they already had done after their removal in 1797. This was the reason given by the French conservators to prevent the Venetians from removing the paintings. Cicognara believed that such an explanation (given both for the large canvasses from the Ducal Palace and The Wedding at Cana from S. Giorgio Maggiore) was just an excuse to maintain ownership of those great masterpieces.

The artistic excellence of the missing paintings by Veronese, their site-specificity and their integration within a wider iconographical program made it nearly impossible to find a suitable replacement. Cicognara thus decided to leave the empty spaces (»vacui«) left by the missing canvasses on the ceilings instead of replacing them with copies. Those »vacui« remained as a visible trace of the consequences of the French spoliations. One year after the return of many of the confiscated artworks, the issue of outstanding restitution was still an open wound in the Venetian public space. In these respects, replacing the originals with copies would have been an act of acceptance and surrender towards an absence perceived by the Venetians as illegitimate and unjustifiable.

The empty space, however, represents not only a symbolical memento, but also acted as a powerful emotional trigger towards the international visitors and particularly the Viceroy, who was still in a position to claim the missing paintings from Paris. Cicognara was well aware that the French spoliations in Italy had raised many controversies in the international community already in 1797. Many scholars, headed by the French Quatremère de Quincy, underlined the importance of preserving the original contexts for which those artworks had been intended in the first place. At that time, a successful restitution process must have still appeared as an achievable goal. Such a perspective is shared by the narrator himself, Cicogna, who fully supports Cicognara’s reply to the Archduke (»molto a proposito rispose«, »he replied quite rightly«).

In contrast to Cicognara, however, Cicogna kept his opinion to his private diaries, which he never intended to publish. It was only in 1859, after Cicognara’s death, that the Academy of Venice replaced the missing paintings with copies by Venetian artists, according to a suggestion made by Cicogna himself. Many decades after 1817, the empty spaces on the ceilings became a source of embarrassment no longer suitable for such a representative venue, whereas at that point any claim for restitution represented merely a futile effort (»fatica gittata al vento«, in Collavizza 2014, p. 35).

Matilde Cartolari is a PhD student at Technische Universität Berlin in co-tutelle with the University of Udine. She is currently working on the Italian Old Master exhibitions organized for propaganda purposes by the Fascist régime in the 1930s.

Sources and literature

Isabella Collavizza, »La conservazione delle opere d’arte e il dibattito intellettuale a Venezia nell’Ottocento: il ruolo di Emmanuele Antonio Cicogna«, in: Maria Beatrice Failla, Susanne Adina Meyer, Chiara Piva, Stefania Ventra (eds.), La cultura del restauro. Modelli di ricezione per la museologia e la storia dell’arte, Rome 2013, pp. 569–579.

Isabella Collavizza, »Giulio Carlini e Jacopo D’andrea copisti veronesiani a Palazzo Ducale«, in: Ateneo Veneto, III series, 13/II, 2014, pp. 31–45.

Isabella Collavizza, Dall’epistolario di Emanuele Antonio Cicogna, erudito, collezionista e conoscitore d’arte nella Venezia dell’Ottocento, Udine 2017.

Veronica Gabbrielli, Patrimoni contesi. Gli stati italiani e il recupero delle opere d’arte trafugate in Francia. Storia e fonti (1814–1818), Florence 2009.

Paola Marini, Fernando Mazzocca, Roberto De Feo (eds.), Canova, Hayez, Cicognara. L’ultima gloria di Venezia, exhibition cat., Venice, Galleries of the Academy, 9 September 2017–8 July 2018, Venice 2017.

Fernando Mazzocca, »Arti e politica nel Veneto asburgico«, in: Sergio Marinelli, Giuseppe Mazzariol e Fernando Mazzocca (eds.): Il Veneto e l’Austria: vita e cultura artistica nelle città venete (1814–1866), exhibition cat., Verona, 30 June 1989–29 October 1989, Milan 1989, pp. 40–79.

Paolo Preto, »Cicogna, Emanuele Antonio«, in: Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 25, Roma 1981, available online.

Denis Ton, »Per la fortuna delle ›Nozze di Cana‹ di Paolo Veronese«, in: Pasquale Gagliardi (ed.): The Miracle of Cana. The Originality of the Re-production, Caselle di Sommacampagna 2011.

Cite this article as:
Cicogna: The visit of the Archduke of Austria in Venice (1817), commented by Matilde Cartolari, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike,, published 29.10.2018.

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