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“The Dream Upon the Water”: Music, Ecology, and Politics in Venice ca. 1848


When Italians took to their balconies during the early COVID-19 quarantine to play music and sing together as a conscious act of solidarity, they demonstrated how sound troubles the very notion of social distance. Similar instances punctuate the intertwined histories of music and politics in the Italian peninsula—histories built on the assumption that Italian music stimulates strong emotions that forge social and political bonds. Music has long played a crucial role in framing Italian identity: as “Southerners” Italians were naturally inclined toward song and the pursuit of sensual pleasures, which made them unfit for self-governance—an excuse often wielded to support the foreign governments ruling Italy. Throughout the nineteenth century Italians appealed to their northern neighbors for material and political support for the project of unifying as a European nation-state.

I examine how Venice—as both material and poetic space—mediated sound and politics around the period of the 1848 revolution and the subsequent Habsburg reconquest. The cultural products depicting Venice as watery, unmoored, and exotic have exerted an irresistible attraction for outsiders and yet (as ecocritic Serenella Iovino recently cautioned (2016)) also concealed a threat of ecological disaster. The long nineteenth century in Venice saw momentous changes to the city’s political ecology, which disrupted the ecosystem and initiated an alienation of the people from the lagoon that recent “high water” events in the city continue to highlight. I trace how music by composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini contributed to this mystification of Venice. In writing sound into ecocriticism, I reconstruct a frictive process in which musical form, politics, and environment are mutually constitutive.

Chapter 1 considers the essentially Venetian genre of the barcarolle in relation to the city’s natural geography and built environment, focusing on the practical and discursive changes effected when the first bridge to the mainland was erected in 1846. Chapter 2 examines the music performed at the concerts mounted to raise funds for the revolutionary cause in 1848 and the journalistic discourse around those performances, to show how music helped Venetians come together, spurring them to collective actions against the Habsburgs. Chapter 3 begins from the Habsburg reconquest in 1849 and the expected return to “normalcy” in public spaces, including the opera house. The chapter juxtaposes instances of music, noise, and (resistant) silence in the public square with scenes of surveillance, mishearing, and lapsed communication in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 opera Rigoletto, the first major premiere of the post-revolution period. Chapter 4 focuses on the Venetian premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s 1829 opera Guillaume Tell in 1856, teasing out the attitudes to the operatic past and to tradition revealed in public reactions to Rossini’s music a quarter-century after the peak of his success.

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