Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy had lain divided by internecine wars and foreign occupations. Other European powers fought over, occupied, and traded the various components of Italy for centuries. Austria increased its presence in Italy after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, gaining the rich province of Lombardy and its capital city of Milan. That wasn’t big news: Lombardy had been Austrian before, and French, and Spanish. The galling scandal of the new order was the Austrian occupation of Venice, which had previously been independent for a millennium. The Venetian Republic was a major political, diplomatic, military, financial, and (of course) artistic powerhouse for much of that time. The issues of the Risorgimento could be most starkly laid out at that time in Venice, and it was for Venice that Verdi wrote Attila.
Once, before modern notions of nationalism, the Austrian presence in Italy was plausible. The Austrians, led by their Habsburg dynasty, held control of the Holy Roman Empire since the thirteenth century. This largely theoretical entity was founded by Charlemagne in the year 800, rising from the anarchy following the fall of the Roman Empire. The goal was a confederation of European states under one sovereign, fostering order and civilization. It was a powerful ideal that died hard: it echoes today in the almost-unmanageable European Union. It remained an elusive ideal for most of its 1,000 years, yet the fiction of a pan-European union persisted. For centuries the Emperors actually went to Rome (or planned to) to receive the crown from the pope, validating the first two words of the title. The Emperor was the Caesar, the “Kaiser.” Furthermore, his heir apparent held the bizarre title “King of the Romans.” So while all the Holy Roman Emperors since Charlemagne were essentially germans, and most were Habsburgs, their legitimacy lay in being Caesars, heirs to the Roman Empire. The Emperors loaded their iconography with Roman-ness, Romanità: arches, columns, the Latin language for legal purposes, and other ancient accoutrements central to Habsburg imperialism. It’s not surprising that sovereigns looked back to ancient Rome to legitimize their authority: we still do today. American money abounds with symbols of Romanità: eagles, acanthus leaves, colonnaded state buildings… even the fasces (tied rods) found on dimes. The U.S. Capitol and San Francisco’s City Hall are capped with domes, symbols of the cohesion and authority of the Roman system. From ancient to modern times, political legitimacy in the West depended on a convincing display of Roman-ness. People today are less aware of the subtexts, yet the subtexts persist.
By Verdi’s day, it was unclear who the genuine Romans were: Romanita was up for grabs. The Holy Roman Emperor Franz II declared himself Emperor Franz I of Austria in 1804, retiring the Holy Roman part in 1806. Napoleon was then busy rearranging Europe, and he had little use for ancient concepts of an empire bolstered by the pope. Napoleon named himself emperor (of the French), dragged the pope to Paris, and snatched the new imperial crown out of the pope’s hands to place on his own head. When Napoleon finally had a son and heir (by Marie Louise, Emperor Franz’s daughter), the boy was titled King of Rome—a gesture that simultaneously insulted both the pope and the Austrian Emperor.
In 1846, Franz’s son Ferdinand was Emperor of Austria, and for some he still embodied the Imperial ideal of a united Europe, even if “Holy” and “Roman” were gone from the title— millennia of tradition don’t vanish overnight. And he had an Italian wife. So having the Austrians in Lombardy and even Venice was not unthinkable. But there couldn’t have been a worse paragon than the sickly and mentally deficient Ferdinand. When he was told he couldn’t have apricot dumplings because they were out of season, he is said to have shouted “I’m the emperor and I want dumplings!” It was getting harder to discern the ancient legitimacy in the present reality.
Verdi and his librettist Temistocle Solera (who had provided Verdi librettos for Nabucco and other hits) enthusiastically set about adapting the play Attila, King of the Huns by the german Zacharias Werner to their needs. The female lead morphed into an Italian warrior princess. They retained a remarkable scene in which Pope (later Saint) Leo the great halted Attila outside of Rome, and added others: most significantly, one showing the founding of the city of Venice by refugees from the mainland. With a few deft shifts, the libretto became a new entity. Attila the Hun invades Italy and destroys everything. He kills the father of the warrior princess Odabella, and puts her beloved Foresto to flight (she thinks he’s dead). The crumbling Roman Empire still has one great general, Ezio, who knows Attila from their youth. He proposes to the Hun that they divide the world between them, so Ezio can keep Italy. Attila rejects this, and Ezio threatens war, reminding him of the stunning defeat he and his Romans delivered to Attila at Châlons-sur-Marne in gaul a few years before. Meanwhile, Foresto rallies the refugees from Aquileia who are hiding in the marshes. They decide to rebuild their lives there, in the safety of the lagoon. Attila retreats when a saintly bishop tells him that god Himself forbids any further advance. Odabella and Foresto are reunited but she marries Attila, who admires her bravery. On the wedding night, she, Foresto, and Ezio kill Attila. Ravaged Italy will rise again.
The libretto has problems, especially for English-speaking critics. Frances Toye, who wrote an influential guide to Verdi’s works in the 1920’s, consolidated the viewpoint that this and other operas of this period were immature works of emotion and raw patriotism. This Darwinian view negates the great value in these early works. But there are other issues: Attila is in many ways the most admirable character in the opera— bloodthirsty, but honest and consistent. He is imbued with an admirable sense of chivalry (which Toye cited, not unreasonably, as a historical anachronism). Odabella’s actions are difficult to fathom, and Ezio is a double-dealing scoundrel. What logical conclusion could a modern critic draw, except that Verdi’s enthusiastic premiere audiences were caught up in the nationalistic excitement in the opera?
There is much more to appreciate in Attila, but one must take an appropriately Verdian mindset to it. The characters, anachronistic though they may be, derive from history, and their journey to the stage provides insight. Attila was said to have been murdered by his wife on their wedding night (others say he died from overindulging in the wedding feast). Furthermore, for all his brutality, he is remembered as a founder of the nation by the Huns’ descendants, the Hungarians, whose capital city still has several streets named in his honor. The Austrian Emperor in 1846 was also King of Hungary. Writing an opera for Venice about the confrontation of the barbaric (albeit chivalric) Huns confronting the civilized (albeit enfeebled) Roman Empire robs the Habsburgs of powerful legitimizing (Roman) symbolism. It reshuffles who the real Romans are, and says that while the Austrians may have the military advantage (the Might), the Italians have the authentic claim to the area (the Right). Having Pope Saint Leo the great appear on the operatic stage (changing the name to appease the censor fooled nobody) telling the Hun to leave Italy undercuts the divine right of the Habsburgs. And while Ezio may be unsavory, he delivers some zingers. When he speaks disparagingly about the Emperor of the East, he calls him “tremulo,” (“shaking”). The snide reference to the audience’s own shaking, drooling emperor was obvious. Ezio, too, derives from history: Flavius A.tius (396–454), the last great military commander of the Roman Empire, spent time as a hostage in the court of the Huns, and did know Attila. He became an important general in gaul, defeated the Burgundians under King Gunther, and called on his sometime allies the Huns to destroy the Burgundians. They did, and some chronicles claim that 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered. He also won the last great victory of the Roman Empire at Châlons-sur-Marne, this time against his former ally Attila (as he mentions in the opera). He may not have been the scoundrel we see in the opera, but he could practice some hardcore realpolitik. He was an authentic Roman of his times.
Gunther of Burgundy would also tread the tortuous path from history to opera, appearing in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The slaughter of the Burgundians and its aftermath became the foundation of the medieval epic the Nibelungenlied. Others from this transitional moment, when a new order replaced an older one, also trod this same path— there was a Brünnhilde of Austria and even a historical Siegfried in the Rhine region in this era. Perhaps they became conflated with earlier prototypes: The scholar Hans delbrück thought that Arminius (Hermann), the german warrior who stunningly defeated the armored (that is, “scale-clad”) Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.d., was a prototype for Siegfried the dragon Slayer. Arminius is the name of a character (and the historical Arminius is also invoked several times) in Verdi’s opera I masnadieri, which premiered the year after Attila. Wodan and Valhalla appear in the libretto of Attila, and this is more than an operatic curiosity. The truth is that Wagner, in his Ring of the Nibelung, and Verdi in Attila deal with the same myth: fire and water purging the corruption of the old order in order to create a new and better order. For Verdi, the new creation is Venice, and, by implication, Italy after the Roman Empire.
Verdi relied on music and the human voice to create his mythic images. The famous Rio Alto scene in the prologue of Attila is an effective example. After Aquileia is destroyed in the first scene, we hear a great storm in the orchestra. Then a bell tolls and a chorus of hermits (an oxymoron that makes sense in opera) chants. The sun rises: flutes and strings rising up the scale. The hermits now pray in a full voice and praise the Creator, which is answered by higher voices offstage. Are these angels? In fact, they are the refugees—including women and children, from Aquileia, seeking refuge in the lagoon. Foresto tells the refugees that in this “enchantment of sea and sky” (“incanto di cielo e mar”) their ruined homeland will rise again like the Phoenix, reborn prouder and more beautiful, the wonder of the earth and the sea!
The basses, monks, are patriarchal authority. As hermits, they are the pure expression of god’s will rather than instruments of an institution (Verdi was famously anti-clerical). Their voice goes out over the waters as god’s Spirit (breath, voice) did on the first day, and it brings forth life: the Female principle (sopranos, Earth). The male and female voices unite and they give birth to a new creation, a new city that is the old homeland purged of corruption by the fires of war and the waters of the sea. In this “enchantment” opposites are united: male and female, of course, but also heaven and sea, life and death. The beautiful city of Venice becomes a visible pledge of resurrection.
The power of this scene lies not in its historicity but in its resonance in Verdi’s day and for us. The key is anagogical thinking, an important aspect of traditional Catholic methods of scriptural interpretation. Verdi and Solera were hardly exemplary Catholics, but Italian culture is imbued with this method of interpreting texts, and Verdi and Solera were supremely Italian. Anagogical analysis dictates that events in Scripture (and, by implication, everything else) have significance not only in themselves but in how they relate to other events in Scripture. The story of the miraculous Manna in the desert matters in itself and also in how it prefigures the Eucharist. The converse is also true: the Last Supper fully expresses what was suggested by earlier miraculous meals, such as the Manna, the Loaves and Fishes, and so forth. The Founding of Venice in Attila is birth and rebirth, then and now, and the image of the Phoenix reminds us that the opera was first performed in Venice’s Teatro La Fenice (“The Phoenix Theater”). Toye’s concerns about anachronisms become superfluous since Verdi was not working in chronology, linear time. Verdi’s art is anagogical. He was addressing his audience at La Fenice, and he is addressing us today.
The significance of Attila lies not in the founding mythology of Venice, nor as a rallying cry to re-establish the Venetian Republic (which actually happened briefly in 1848). The Verdian truth of Attila—and what keeps it vital today— lies in ideas he expressed throughout his long career: an evolved patriotism that can be appreciated by everyone, rather than a chauvinistic nationalism. One searches in vain through his operas for simplistic attitudes about Italians being better, or foreigners being worse, than anyone else. Indeed, many of Verdi’s operas don’t even contain an obvious “bad guy,” only flawed people in complex situations. (Who is the truly bad guy in Aida? La Traviata? Falstaff?). Verdi’s patriotism is better than that. Attila is a supreme expression of the belief that Italy and its culture will always face crises, but they are, in some sense, sacred to the whole world. They are unequivocally worth preserving.