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The Fortress of Peschiera: The Frontier of Destiny

The Fortress of Peschiera: TerritorialDefence Resolutions and Geo-Strategic Applications in 1796 RepubblicaMarciana.

Historical Perspective and Heritage Evaluation.

History and Strategic Applications: Studies for the Bicentenary, 1796-1996

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

The Frontier of Destiny

An effectual and significantly persuasive valuation of Colonel Giannantonio Carrara’s military behaviour has to be submitted to strict critical analysis.

After consequential documentary evidence and terse corroboration, it definitely proved a revealing feature of his truest devotion[1], and finely rendered attitudes in discipline and active command duties.

Dictated by the events, Carrara had been left a sè stesso[2] relying on his personal discernment and initiative.

The Venetian officer guarded not only an imposing fortressed-site of utmost strategic importance for the Serenissima Repubblica Marciana[3], but he was lacking adequate means and subsistences for armed defence to maintain the site protected under impelling circumstances, and pressing enemy threats: the advancing foreign hosts, the French-Republicans, from the western territories, and the Imperialists, from the eastern domains of the Venetiae.

Proper orders for active defensive conduct, which were much needed, were not forthcoming (from the General Headquarters at Verona), and thus represented a major deficiency in compliance with the situation.

Unexpected as it was, the Taktische Überraschung (i.e., tactical surprise) carried out by the Habsburgs troops had left the Venetian officer at a disadvantage of political isolation and “constrictive” military impasse, which found his comando di Piazza (fortress headquarters) and military manpower surrounded by strong enemy forces and quite overwhelmed.

Under these significant and momentous trying circumstances, Carrara discovered that the natural frontier, the Northwestern Venetiae (mainland Venetian territories) border, had been violated.

Pragmatic implications were considered.

He had remained at the head of his weakened aggregation of fellow-countrymen, “alone”, on a seemingly precarious, deteriorated and perilously exposed “frontier line”, facing major complications – in addition to the most insulting tricks of military opportunism and défaillances (failures, blackouts) of a senescent political regime, which proved all its incongruences and dysfunctional applications of diplomatic action in front of the approaching storm.

More definitely, when the course of action to be taken – against the foreign menaces and endeavours – was clear and manifest: to protect the sovereignty of the people, and the defence of centuries old traditions of civil liberties and history heritage.

Critical Considerations

Carrara’s fundamental option was to act as the most faithful servant to the Serenissima Repubblica Marciana, and assuming the responsibilities of military order.

Abstracting from the assignations for defence on the western territories border, the Venetian officer and his staff subordinates had paradoxically found themselves on an endangered frontier falling under protracted tactical manoeuvres of the belligerents – and where the expeditiously developing circumstances could neither be controlled nor countermanded by decisions of armed intervention, but ensued as the main outcome of pressing geo-strategic applications between the contending foreign armies (French: armée d’Italie; Austrian: Österreichische Armee).

No adequate words would be sufficient to describe this kind of unparalleled reality and consequential political impasse; in fact, the “frontier of destiny” was the geographical location[4] and fortified site[5] where Carrara had not chosen to stay, but where the 1796 spring events (and those were really upsetting times) forced him to rely on his own initiative and determination, in a difficult position of command and military authority.

And well beyond any direct intervention of the Republic’s officials[6], Colonel Carrara had been quite “abandoned”, in the midst of the tempest, between two fierce opposing armies.

With the circumstances heavily against him, the Venetian high ranking officer made the best of his resourceful personality, as a gentleman, and as a distinguished soldier[7] serving under the glorious arms of the Most Serene Republic.

The Paradigm of the Defence

Carrara was a true, unimpeachable man who defended his standard: the leone in moleca, the winged lion of Saint Mark, and the Latin words written inside the Gospel cover: «PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEVS»[8].

Undeniably relevant is the considered fact that this military figure was an authentic expression of a soldier, a professional of the arms.

And it was in the course of an altered and destabilized context of transnational restlessness, under circumstances beyond his control that the love for his mother-country shone brightly; for these effective reasons, the Venetian commander did not surrender his heart, despite the actual events and overwhelming adversity.

And if he did not step back in face of the severest duties, his men imitated their superior commanding officer in like manner.

A principled emulation – onorata dignità (honoured dignity).

The Memoir Paravia

Captain Antonio Paravia[9], a Venetian officer of the regular army[10], has left vivid, signalled annotations related to the arbitrary Austrian arms, and the forced occupation of the strategic spaces and bastioned curtain at Peschiera.

Copious historic details are expounded through Paravia’s terse memorial manuscript writing[11]:

«26 [May] – The Austrian were in the custom, […], to transit by the Fortress of Peschiera with their Corps of troops. The Proveditor of the same Nobleman Ser Alberto Rumieri without instructions bore the brunt of this abuse. The Governor new to his Office was without suspect, therefore the little garrison did the service without attention. This morning at the opening the Gate one picket presented itself with the pretext of transit beyond Peschiera towards Rivoltella, once entered they took possession of the Gate, afterwards one column of 2,000 soldiers entered, which was placed in ambush along the meadows, commanded by the Austrian General Mayor Baron of Liptay, who forthwith ran to the lodging of the Governor, who anything did wait that such visit, expressing him the necessity in which had been his General to come to this move before the enemies who were approaching did it. The Governor made a great expostulation, but the hit had already been done, not either there was any remedy.[…]»[12].

Subjected to the hard, protracted inclemencies of conflict, in the town of Brescia the mutable, unpredictable social cadres were no longer tempered.

Regrettably, as an inextricable consequence of the arbitrary violation of the Venetian jurisdictional sovereignty, these disturbances declined perilous excesses, notably the extremes of the territorial invasion; in an analogous manner, the pejorative configuration of the institutional order and security of the urban spaces:

«The vanguard of the French Army out of Brescia, great number of Soldiers entered there by force, and also climbing over the walls, committed yesterday many disorders, by which the French General to pressing request of that Aristocratic Representative Ser Pietro Mocenigo dispatched a robust Corps of Cavalry in Town to arrest that mob, that under the name of light troops, makes the dishonor of the French Army»[13].

Jurisdictional Violation of the Venetian Sovereignty and Armed Intervention

On May 27, 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte having been informed about the occupation of the stronghold at Peschiera, and of Chiusa d’Adige, misinterpreted the Venetian to have connived with the Empire.

The foreign military leader abruptly wrote to the Venetian officers charged at Brescia, Giovanni Francesco Avesani (Colonel), and Leonardo Salimbeni (Captain), and sternly rebuked them, summoning soon to dislodge the Austrians from the above indicated locations.

Caught entirely unawares of what had really happened in the course of events, the Venetian officers thought to mitigate Bonaparte’s haughtiness through diplomacy and a seemingly collaborative political lenience.

In this order of things, a reply was promptly sent to the annoyed generalissimo – explaining that insufficient military resources and manpower were at hand to countermand the strategy on those border salients, as had been urged by the French.

Also worth mentioning is that Bonaparte had already received a formal protest from Nicolò Foscarini, the Venetian Provveditore generale di terraferma[14], complaining that no care was taken to assure the formal neutrality and the respect of the Venetian political and territorial jurisdictions, in addition, then, to point, as an ascertained fact, that French army’s unités de combat (combat units) had not restricted their forward offensive movements, and that the town of Crema’s neutrality had been infringed (May 11, 1796).

However, after the much disputed crossing of the Mincio River at Borghetto (30 May), Bonaparte reciprocated his delicate “benevolence” to the Venetian plenipotentiary, and severely apostrophized Foscarini at the meeting at Peschiera (30 May 1796).

The irreconcilable Général en Chef’s lamentable expressions, a mendacious escamotage[15], were excessive in the subtleness of an extreme perfidy: «The Venetians are false neutral».

Bonaparte shrewdly recited and acted the part of the offended; and acting on the social stage with outbursts of rage, the consummate actor, the commander of the invading forces turned instead into playing the farsa (farce) of the person who had been the victim.

The comedy reached its zenith, and to smooth Bonaparte’s hot tempered paroxysms and irritated gestures[16], Foscarini had to accord entry to the French army contingents into the mighty fortified stronghold at Verona.

Foreign Powers: the Equivocal Heterodoxy of Liberty

Delving deeper into General Bonaparte’s official correspondence (invasion of 1796-1797), the contemporary researcher can find a revealing masterpiece on the paradoxes of liberty, imposed liberty, through a selected number of widespread forgeries which were aimed at ruining the pillars of legitimacy, the constituted order, and its governing institutions; and, worst of all, violating the popular sovereignty.

It is a significant despatch.

After a first cursory reading, the alluring implications of «melliflua, affettata bonarietà» (mellifluous, seducing bonhomie) are evidenced – a conformed strategy to allay and conquer the fear that was the objective of the foreign troops.

On May 29, 1796, from the town of Brescia, the commander of the French divisional forces ordered the publication of a proclamation to be  extended to the Republic of Venice.

It announced the daring advance, an iniquitous and premeditated military invasion on the Venetian territories – nota bene – without any sustained step of political order or diplomatic clauses for negotiation.

This documentary piece needs careful attention; worth mentioning is that it must be quoted by means of its integral text, thus emphasising its sly and untruthful intrinsic characters:

«C’est pour délivrer la plus belle contrée de l’Europe du joug de fer de l’orgueilleuse maison d’Autriche que l’armée française a bravé les obstacles les plus difficiles à surmonter. La victoire, d’accord avec la justice, a couronné ses efforts. Les débris de l’armée ennemie se sont retirés au delà du Mincio. L’armée française, passe, pour les poursuivre, sur le territoire de la République de Venise; mais elle n’oubliera pas qu’une longue amitié unit les deux Républiques. La religion, le gouvernement, les usages, les propriétés seront respectés. Que les peuples soient sans inquiétude, la plus sévère discipline  sera maintenue; tout ce qui sera fourni à l’armée sera exactement payé en argent. Le général en chef engage les officiers de la République de Venise, les magistrats et les prêtres à faire connaître ses sentiments au people, afin que la confiance cimente l’amitié qui depuis longtemps unit les deux nations. Fidèle dans le chemin de l’honneur comme dans celui de la victoire, le soldat français n’est terrible que pour les ennemis de sa liberté et de son Gouvernement. Bonaparte»[17].

After the movimento di fuorvia (exit movement) of the Austrian troops, Colonel Carrara had resumed the formal, anterior institutional governing role[18] and the effectual functions of authority and military command in place of Peschiera.

This transition did not spare him further moral suffering, the blatant, and persistent insolences of général de division Charles-Pierre-François Augereau, who accused the Venetian government of partisanship having permitted the Austrians to occupy the fortress, and threatened repercussions.


[1] To the government institutions he had sworn oath of allegiance, and indefatigably served with zeal and honour.

[2] This adjectival expression has to be correctly interpreted in the context of the evolving political and military interactions. The acquired specificity of meaning is that of “abandoned” on his own responsibilities.

[3] Id est, the Most Serene Republic of Saint Mark.

[4] The small town of Peschiera.

[5] The piazzaforte di Peschiera (fortress of Peschiera). A strongly bastioned defensive complex.

[6] In the historic and social context of the time, worth recalling is the fact that the cavalier Nicolò Foscarini, previously an ambassador at Wien, and bailo at Costantinople, had been significantly appointed as Provveditor Generale di Terraferma. Ordered by the Serenissima Repubblica political establishment, this preventive provision had been enacted with manifest aptitude of promptness to face the foreign belligerents’ threats. Accompanied by his capable secretary Rocco Sanfermo, Foscarini reached the town of Verona on 19 May 1796. Submitted the urgency to reinforce the fortressed site of Peschiera, a chronic sub-par garrison asset composed of sixty-five men (officers and regular troop), the Provveditore had unswervingly resolved to send an armed support to the compound. In the prosecution of the imparted dispositions, sixteen soldiers were dispatched as profitable armed reinforcement. Vide: Pier-Alessandro Paravia, Memorie veneziane di letteratura e di storia, Torino, Dalla Stamperia Reale, 1850, p. 263, l. 9-24. Author: with inherent pertinence to the Venetian presidial garrison, the numerical reported of sixty, sixty-five soldiers is variably observed through the coeval historic documents and in the assessment of the primary sources. Incisive evidence is considered: this apparent discrepancy, a recognized latitude of five heads, computed the indisposti (the sicks), the physically indisposed unable for routine menial duties.

[7] Colonel Giannantonio Carrara imposed dignified respect. The figure of a distinguished homo da ben (i.e., gentleman) who aimed to preserve the lives of the presidial units’ soldiers from any susceptible hostile actions of the foreign enemy troops. Having diminished ranks under his immediate disposal, the Venetian officer had to make strategic profit at its best counting on the deterrence factors derived from the imposing fortressed works at Peschiera. He was in reality an experienced military professional, a skillful and quick-witted officer who did not surrender to the events, and who tried to be an active protagonist on the scene of history, and neither to undergo the consequences nor to bend with servilism to the power of the hostile arms.

[8] A Latin locution. It literally translates: «PEACE TO YOU, MARK, MY EVANGELIST». More on accurate terms. It is reported through a legend that a Celestial winged messenger had appeared to the Evangelist Mark, debarked in the islands of the veneta lagoon, and indicating to him the place of his final rest: «Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus, hic requiescat corpus tuum». Trslt.: «Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist, here rests your body». More relevantly, the duality of the meaning is apparently assumed, and rationalized in the formal perspective reasoning of the physical rest, but true to the celestial meaning the rest was the ultimate, eternal rest of the righteous. Therefore, the Divine revelation is objectively considered as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and substantiated with the inner spiritual life and communion of the soul Mark had with the Holy Grace of the Almighty. Ágios Márkos (in Greek) is the patron saint of Venice. The tradition recalled that he was martyred in Alexandria (68 A.D.), and that he died in town. His relics were saved in 828 A.D.. Two adamant, expedient Venetian merchants (Bono da Malamocco, and Rustico da Torcello) succeeded in rescuing them and bringing the holy spoils to Venice. They were received by the Doge, Giustiniano Particiaco. These tokens of sanctity were to receive appropriate shelter in a sacred temple which was later to become the Saint Mark’s Basilica.

[9] A Venetian subject by birth, Paravia was born in the Eptaneso, at Corfù, on 16 March 1754; died at Venice, 9 December 1828. The baby grew up in a family of humble, modest economic conditions.  His father: Marco Paravia; discharged the executive functions of a capitano tenente and served in an oltremarino (Istrian-Dalmatian infantry) regiment. In 1797 his brother, Giovanni, was a Colonel of the oltremarini. After an early education in the convent of the conventual friars at Corfù, Antonio entered the career of the arms, and was subsequently admitted to the position of cadet in the Italian regimental force commanded by Colonel Giovanni Duodo. Military synopsis: 1770: promoted to the rank of alfiere; 1778: tenente (lieutenant); 1785, May-1786: in the fleet of extra-ordinary Admiral Angelo Emo in the war (1784-1792) against the reggenza di Tunisi (Canton of Tunis); 1787-1788: served in the Ionian Sea under the command of Emo; 1789: returned to the motherland; 1794: assigned for service in the town of Verona, Northern Italy.

[10] After his latest military assignation at Verona, he was assigned the ufficio (i.e., mansion), the executive responsibilities and covered the rank of capitano (captain) – of the guard of the rappresentante veneto (Venetian representative).

[11] These reminiscences and this text literary production, have conspicuous similarities to a diaristic methodology, and personal approach. The title of the work: Giornale di quanto è successo in Verona negli anni 1796-1797. Vide: BCMCVe = Biblioteca del Civico Museo Correr di Venezia, code nr.: ms Pd 165/b.

[12] Primary documentary text.: «26 [maggio] – Gl’Austriaci erano nel costume, […], di transitare per la Fortezza di Peschiera coi loro Corpi di truppe. Il Proveditor della medesima Nobiluomo Ser Alberto Rumieri senza istruzioni tolerò quest’abuso. Il Governator nuovo al suo Uffizio era senza sospetto, perciò la piccola guarnigione faceva il servizio senza attenzione. Questa mattina all’aprire della Porta si presentò un picchetto col pretesto di transito al di là di Peschiera verso Rivoltella, entrati presero possessione della Porta, in seguito a che entrò una colonna di 2000 soldati, che si teneva in imboscata lungo i prati, comandata dal General Maggior Austriaco Barone di Liptay, qual corse subito all’alloggio del Governatore, il quale tutt’altro attendevasi che questa tal visita, rappresentandogli la necessità in cui era stato il suo General di venir a tal passo innanzi che lo facessero i nemici che s’avvicinavano. Ebbe un bel protestagli il Governatore, ma il colpo era già stato fatto, ne c’era più alcun rimedio. […]» [vide: Antonio Paravia, Giornale di quanto è successo in Verona negli anni 1796-1797, ms Pd 165/b, BCMCVe, p. 14, l. 21 – p. 15, l. 13].

[13] Original documentary text.: «La vanguardia dell’Armata Francese fuori di Brescia, gran numero de Soldati introdottosi a forza, ed anche valicando le mura, commisero jeri molti disordini, pei quali il Generale francese a pressante richiesta di quel Rappresentante Nobiluomo Ser Pietro Mocenigo spedì un grosso Corpo di Cavalleria nella Città per arrestare quella ciurmaglia, che sotto il nome di truppe leggere, fà il disonore dell’Armata Francese» [vide: Antonio Paravia, Giornale di quanto è successo in Verona negli anni 1796-1797, ms Pd 165/b, BCMCVe, p. 16, l. 16 – l. 26].

[14] I.e., A related translation of this title can be correspondingly rendered: General superintendent in the mainland.

[15] A trickery. The consummate artificial and the vibrant pronouncements were congenial to a pièce de théâtre (theatrical piece). Most primary coeval sources do evaluate this artifice as the practice of intrigue, schemed politics, and paralogism; de facto, a constrictive fourberie (deception, sophistry). Psychological violence was then a cardinal element not to be omitted.

[16] The fits he threw at the Venetian envoy used anger and body language to intimidate. The spectrum of democracy was fairly recognized.

[17] Napoléon Ier, Correspondance publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III, Tome II (22 septembre 1796 – 19 avril 1797), Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1859. Correspondance de Napoléon Ier. – An IV (1796). Dispatch N. 514 – À LA RÉPUBLIQUE DE VENISE. Quartier général, Brescia, 10 prairial an IV (29 mai 1796), p. 332, l.21-37, p. 333, l. 1-4. Translation: «Bonaparte General in chief of the army of Italy to the Republic of Venice. Brescia, 10 pratile year IV (29 May 1796). It is to liberate the most beautiful region of Europe from the yoke of iron of the proud home of Austria, that the French army has faced the obstacles more difficult to overcome. The victory, in agreement with the justice, has crowned his efforts. The remains of the enemy army have withdrawn beyond the Mincio. The French army advances, advances to pursue after them, on the territory of the Republic of Venice; but she will not forget that a long friendship joins the two republics. The religion, the government will be respected. That the peoples be quiet: the discipline more severe will be maintained: everything that will be provided to the army will be punctually paid in money. The general in chief engages public officials of the Republic of Venice, judges, and the priests to make note of these sentiments to the people, in order that the trust fortifies the friendship, that, since a very long time, joins the two nations. Faithful along the path of honor as in that of victory, the French soldier is not terrible than for the enemies of his freedom and of his government. Bonaparte».

[18] I.e., «Governatore militare della piazza». Trnsl.: military Governor of the fortressed site.

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