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The Battle of Marengo was fought on 14 June 1800 between French forces under the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont, Italy. Near the end of the day, the French overcame Gen. Michael von Melas‘s surprise attack, driving the Austrians out of Italy and consolidating Napoleon’s political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.

‘Peoples of Italy!’ the young General Bonaparte proclaimed in April 1796, ‘the French army is coming to break your chains … We shall respect your property, your religion and your customs.’ His words doubtless sounded encouraging to people in Italy who had not heard another speech made by the same officer a month earlier. ‘Soldiers!’ he had told his army, ‘you are hungry and naked; the government [the Directory in Paris] owes you much but can give you nothing … I will lead you into the most fertile plains on earth. Rich provinces, opulent towns, all shall be at your disposal; there you will find honour, glory and riches.’ Here was the voice not of the liberator but of Alaric and Attila, of the eternal barbarian coming through the Alps in search of plunder. For all his Italian and Corsican ancestry, Napoleon would not have been outraged by the comparison; the following year he warned the Venetians he would indeed be their Attila – and he kept his word.

The two speeches reveal some of the ambiguity in Napoleon’s attitudes to Italy. There was another strand as well, not fully formed as yet but apparent in a question he asked subordinates after his Italian victories in 1796. ‘Do you suppose that I triumph in Italy to make the reputations of the lawyers of the Directory?’ It was not difficult to guess the answer. Of all his many conquests, Italy was his favourite, the territory he regarded as his special domain. As first consul, and even more as emperor, he thought increasingly of Italy not as a French interest or a nation to be liberated but as a possession of his own, a fief to be exploited for the aggrandizement of himself and his acquisitive family.

In 1793 Georges Danton had persuaded the revolutionary government in Paris that France’s borders should be its ‘natural frontiers’ – the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees – even though these contained the whole of the Austrian Netherlands (the future Belgium) as well as other Habsburg territories and Savoy. For France the most important of the natural frontiers was the Rhine because beyond the river lay the heartland of the Austrian Empire, its most powerful continental enemy. In 1796 the Directory resolved that Bonaparte should defeat the Austrian and Piedmontese armies in Italy and occupy Milan so that it could use the resulting gains as a bargaining counter, to be offered back to Vienna in exchange for concessions in the Rhineland.

Aged twenty-six, the commander of the Army of Italy possessed little martial experience except for his dogged performance as an artillery officer at the Siege of Toulon in 1793. Yet he came through the Maritime Alps with magnificent self-assurance, brushed aside the Piedmontese in a few days and defeated the Austrians in a series of battles with names still resonant for students of military history: Lodi, Castiglione, Arcola, Rivoli. As he moved eastwards along the Po Valley, Bonaparte offered Venice an alliance against Austria, but the republic – perhaps honourably, certainly foolishly – insisted on remaining neutral. Furious at this defiance, the general declared war, ranting in Italian at the Venetian delegates, ‘I want no more senate, I want no more inquisitors, I shall be an Attila for the Venetian state.’ The state was duly destroyed and replaced by a ‘democratic’ republic, which Bonaparte quickly and brazenly betrayed. He had conquered so much territory that he no longer needed to think of equations between Lombardy and the Rhineland. France could have both, he realized, if he gave Venice and eastern Venetia to Austria. The Treaty of Campoformio in October 1797 formally and conclusively destroyed the Venetian Republic and divided it along the line of the River Adige; its western areas were incorporated into Lombardy and became, under napoleonic rule, successively part of the Cisalpine Republic, the French Republic and the Kingdom of Italy.

One of the goals of the Directory’s foreign policy was the accumulation of foreign wealth. Foreigners, the government decided, should pay for the privilege of being liberated by France and not protest if liberty was accompanied by high taxes, conscription and the theft of their best paintings. Curiously, neither napoleonic nor revolutionary leaders seemed to realize how unpopular this policy would make them. Sometimes they even tried to delude themselves and others about what they were doing: eighteen months after Bonaparte had occupied Milan, his army’s newspaper addressed the people of the Cisalpine Republic: ‘You are the first example in history of a people who became free without sacrifice, without revolution, without torment. We gave you liberty, know how to conserve it.’ By then the actual sacrifices of the republic’s capital, Milan, included the extortion of 20 million francs, the city itself looted by French soldiery, and the removal of many art treasures, though Bonaparte had a tender moment when he saw the poor condition of Leonardo’s Last Supper and gave orders that its convent home should not be used as a billet for his troops.

Two types of pillage were favoured by the occupying forces. One was the immediate sacking of a town after its capture, a practice often condoned by the generals. Bonaparte himself permitted the sacking of the Piedmontese town of Mondovi and the Lombard city of Pavia. One of his divisional commanders, General Masséna, was a notorious looter who did not discourage his soldiers from following his example: after one victory they had gone off plundering when they were surprised by some Austrian battalions, who routed them and captured their guns. Masséna, it was reported, had to flee from a woman’s bed in his nightshirt.

The second form of plunder was more official. French armies would occupy a city, seize its banks and munitions, and demand food and clothing for their soldiers. In their wake officials arrived to collect indemnities and take away paintings. The great treasures of Italy were not stolen and sold to buy provisions for the army: they were stolen to embellish Paris and furnish the Louvre. When the Duke of Parma pleaded with Bonaparte to let him keep a painting by Correggio – and even offered to pay him its value in cash – the general ignored him, insisting that it should adorn the French ‘capital for ages, and give birth to similar exertions of genius’. In Venice the French commander was both greedy and vindictive. Apart from looting numerous works by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, he ordered officials to destroy the Venetian emblem – the Lion of St Mark – wherever they found it on the terraferma, and in the city itself he took down the lion from its pillar in the Piazzetta and sent it with the famous bronze horses of St Mark’s to Paris. Even his ‘improvements’, such as the Public Gardens and the west side of the Piazza, required a spate of demolitions.

After the conquest of so much territory, the French government’s goal of ‘natural frontiers’ was superseded by the idea of ‘sister republics’, which led later, under the empire, to the concept of satellite states. In Italy Bonaparte set up sister republics in the north but frequently changed their borders and sometimes abolished them altogether. After eighteen months in the peninsula he tired of his Italian work and became eager to find somewhere to fight England, the country that had captured so many of France’s overseas possessions over the previous half-century. Realizing that an attempt to cross the English Channel might end in catastrophe, he encouraged the Directory to give him an army to take to Egypt with the aim of cutting communications between Britain and its expanding empire in India. As always with Bonaparte, however, personal ambition was the prime determinant of action. ‘We must go to the Orient,’ this aspiring Alexander told his secretary, Bourrienne, ‘all great glory has always been acquired there.’ Although he won a number of battles against Mamelukes and Turkish forces, the expedition to Egypt was a failure. Bonaparte’s fleet was destroyed by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and his army was repulsed by a Turkish garrison assisted by British ships at the city of Acre. After a year in Egypt he felt stranded and frustrated with nothing much to do. Yearning to be in Paris and to be part of the next power struggle there, he sneaked away by boat, abandoning his soldiers without even telling them he was going.

Meanwhile the Directory was helping his career by its foolhardy aggression in Italy. Dispatching its armies to the south, it drove one ruling Ferdinand out of Naples and the other one (Peter Leopold’s son) out of Tuscany. By early 1799 it controlled nearly all the peninsula and had set up another brace of republics, the Parthenopean in Naples and a Roman sister to the north. The naivety in establishing such regimes in places where few people wanted them was confirmed by their brisk collapse. While a British force arrived in Naples, Russian and Austrian armies overran the north, destroying the Cisalpine Republic and occupying Turin. Within a few months, the Directory had lost the whole of peninsular Italy except for Genoa.

France itself was saved from invasion not by Bonaparte’s return from Egypt in October 1799 but by Masséna’s victory the previous month against a Russian army at Zurich. Although the Directory thus seemed to have been saved, Bonaparte was nevertheless determined to overthrow it and in November he staged the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire that established him as first consul. One of his first actions was to send Masséna to Italy, where a starving Genoa had to be defended against an Austrian siege, while he himself organized a fresh army to lead through the Alpine snows into Lombardy. In June 1800, at the Piedmontese village of Marengo, Bonaparte was losing the battle until French reinforcements unexpectedly arrived in the afternoon and reversed the fortunes of the contest. Marengo turned out to be the most decisive victory of his career. Had he lost the battle, he would have lost the war and probably the consulship; his narrow win secured his job and won him Italy.

Marengo gave Bonaparte another chance to indulge his passion for changing the names and boundaries of Italian states. Whimsically he transformed the Grand Duchy of Tuscany into the kingdom of Etruria and gave it to the heir of the Bourbon Duke of Parma, whose own duchy he planned to annex. Further north he also annexed Piedmont and reinstated the Cisalpine Republic, enlarging it with Novara, Verona and papal Romagna. Soon he decided also to change the name of the republic, informing cheering Italian delegates whom he had summoned to Lyon that ‘Cisalpine’ would be substituted by ‘Italian’. Bonaparte made himself president of the republic and chose as his deputy Count Francesco Melzi d’Eril, an intelligent Lombard aristocrat. Melzi’s diplomatic skills managed to secure a certain autonomy for the republic, whose president was usually absent, but he made the mistake of believing in his chief’s occasional, insincere talk about Italy and liberty. He hoped that Bonaparte’s presidency would be temporary and that it would give way to a united and independent state in the north. Yet there was never any chance of this happening because, for personal as well as strategic reasons, the first consul refused to relinquish Italy. As he told the Prussian ambassador in Paris, ‘she is a mistress whose favours I refuse to share with anybody else’.

The Italian Republic became redundant when Bonaparte decided he should be the new Charlemagne rather than the new Alexander and that France should be the heart of a new Roman Empire of the West. He loved the idea of a millennial ‘succession’ and promoted it with remarks about his ‘illustrious predecessor’ and a visit to Charlemagne’s Aachen before his coronation as emperor in 1804 – the occasion when in the cathedral of Notre Dame he snatched the crown from the pope’s hands and placed it upon his own head. The relationship between the papacy and the empire was back to where it had been a thousand years earlier. ‘Your Holiness is sovereign of Rome,’ Napoleon told Pius VII, ‘but I am its emperor.’

In the empire there was no room for republics: its territories were to be ruled by monarchs and viceroys who were relations of the emperor. If Napoleon had Charlemagne’s imperial crown, it was logical for him to have the Italian crown as well, just as it was historically logical for his son (though he did not have one until 1811) to become King of the Romans. Napoleon established the kingdom of Italy in 1805, with his stepson Eugène as viceroy, a move that prompted a further rearrangement of borders. To the territory of the old Italian Republic were added eastern Venetia, the Papal Marches and the Trentino, creating a conglomeration which gave the kingdom some 7 million people, a third of the population of the peninsula.

The rest of the north and centre was annexed to the French Empire, usually on the grounds that Italian rulers could not be trusted to enforce the ‘Continental System’, a policy designed to ruin Britain’s trade. Napoleon had already taken Piedmont and now added Liguria, followed by Etruria (and the deposition of its king), then by Parma and Piacenza, and finally by the rest of the Papal States, whose spiritual and temporal leader was imprisoned and kept in France until the empire collapsed. Only in the south did the borders remain much the same, though the rulers were changed. In December 1805 the emperor decreed that ‘the dynasty of Naples has ceased to reign’ and decided its replacement would be the Bonaparte family. His elder brother Joseph, who called himself head of the family and considered himself next in line to the imperial throne, was duly given the crown of Naples. This rather idle, vaguely liberal man enjoyed life in his Mediterranean capital, where he enriched himself, but after two years he was forced to exchange it for the forbidding task of upholding bonapartist rule in Spain. He was replaced by his sister Caroline’s husband, Marshal Murat.

By 1810 all of peninsular Italy – all the territories of the communes, the popes, the republics, the duchies and the sovereign monarchs – had been reduced to three napoleonic blocks, imperial, Italian and Neapolitan. Only from the islands, protected by the British navy, were the Bonapartes excluded. In Sicily, where the Bourbon royal family had fled, power was in the hands of Lord William Bentinck, the commander of a British force. He persuaded Sicilians to accept a constitution and a parliament, though a more enduring consequence of the English presence was the establishment of the Marsala wine industry. As the Continental System had robbed Britain of its usual wine supplies, the country had to promote the cultivation of vines in territories it controlled. In doing so, British entrepreneurs created an abiding affection back home for the fortified wines of Portugal, Madeira, Jerez and Sicily.

Avid republican though he had once been, Napoleon loved the pomp and glamour of monarchy. As much of a nepotist as any Renaissance pope, he offered titles and courts to all his siblings; even Jérôme, the youngest and most frivolous brother, was made King of Westphalia at the age of twenty-two. Italy offered Napoleon several opportunities to park his relations in useful places, opportunities that he took and which later inspired the opening lines of Tolstoy’s War and Peace: ‘Eh bien, mon prince,’ observes the francophone Anna Pávlovna, ‘so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than estates of the Bonaparte family.’ Not only did Napoleon appoint one brother (Joseph) and one brother-in-law (Murat) kings, but one sister (Caroline) became a queen, his stepson (Eugène) a viceroy, and another brother-in-law (Prince Borghese) governor-general of the departments beyond the Alps (Piedmont, Parma and Liguria). One sister (Pauline) was given the small duchy of Guastalla, which she happily sold back to its donor for 6 million francs, while another (Elisa) became Princess of Piombino, Princess of Lucca and Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Neither of the two most independent-minded brothers ruled in Italy, Lucien because he thought Napoleon a megalomaniac, and Louis because he ruled Holland until 1810, when he was sacked for trying to rule as a Dutch king rather than as a French viceroy. The emperor subsequently annexed Holland.

Napoleon gave his relations the lustrous trimmings of monarchy. Eugène’s court in Milan was very grand, its household containing thirty-five chamberlains and twenty-six ladies-in-waiting; in Naples Murat was even grander, employing forty-four chamberlains, among whom were eighteen dukes and sixteen princes.24 Yet the siblings were treated by their powerful brother more as errant subordinates than as dignified heads of state. Theoretically independent, they were effectively vassals, forced to suffix ‘Napoleon’ to their names so that Elisa became Princess Elisa-Napoleon and Murat was known as King Joachim-Napoleon. Like the others, Joseph was repeatedly admonished, ordered about and reminded that he owed everything to the emperor. Yearning to establish a lasting Bonaparte dynasty, Napoleon tried to improve his family’s status and prospects by marrying his brothers to European royal families. He forced Jérôme to accept an annulment of his first marriage in order to marry a German princess and he exiled Lucien for refusing to divorce his second wife so that he could marry a Spanish infanta. Napoleon left his own wife, Josephine, to espouse the daughter of his defeated foe the Austrian emperor, but he would not allow Louis to leave Hortense, Josephine’s daughter, to whom he was miserably and jealously married.

Eugène had the most difficult job in Italy because his stepfather was always interfering in the affairs of a state with which he was well acquainted and of which he was the official head. The viceroy had to ensure that the kingdom was well defended because the Po Valley was still the most popular battleground in southern Europe, and he also had to provide large numbers of soldiers for service outside Italy. From 1809 the Peninsular War required three Italian divisions, which were forced to fight a merciless and unfamiliar guerrilla war in conditions so bad that the men sometimes had to live off grass soup and bread made from acorns and crushed olive stones; of the 30,000 Italians the kingdom sent to Spain, only 9,000 returned, many of them wounded. The casualties in Russia were even higher: 27,000 men marched with the Grande Armée in 1812, but only 1,000 struggled back through the snows to their homes in northern Italy.

In 1810 Eugène reported that 40,000 men in the kingdom had either deserted or avoided conscription. Naples and the annexed Papal States, which also had to supply troops for Spain and Russia, had a similar problem plus the additional one that their deserters fled and joined bands of brigands in the hills. Napoleon told Joseph to be tougher with his subjects and to execute more lazzaroni, but both kings of Naples managed to achieve a greater degree of autonomy than Eugène. Murat even preferred Neapolitan ministers to French ones and showed sufficient independence of spirit for Napoleon to consider replacing him.

The happiest place in napoleonic Italy was Lucca, which the emperor treated with untypical indulgence. He awarded it, with Piombino, to Elisa, the sister who most resembled him and the one he was least fond of. Energetic and ambitious, she was so commanding a figure she was nicknamed la Sémiramis de Lucques after the legendary Queen of Assyria who is supposed to have founded Babylon. In her principality, with a population of only 150,000, she behaved like an enlightened despot, encouraging industry, carrying out public works and patronizing the arts, including appointing Niccolò Paganini, the greatest violinist in Europe, her director of music and – so it was rumoured – one of her lovers. Gratifyingly for her brother, she renovated the Carrara marble industry so that it was able to provide the municipalities of the empire with 12,000 busts of their emperor. Napoleon, however, was not sufficiently grateful to reward Elisa with the real state and the real power that she craved. Although she was made Grand Duchess of Tuscany in 1809, she ruled from the Pitti Palace not as an independent sovereign but as an unpopular administrator of a department of the French Empire.

Murat, like Eugène, fought with Napoleon in Russia but afterwards, with the French in retreat, he hurried back to Naples to try to save his throne. He quickly made a pact with the Austrians, who, like the Prussians and Russians, were moving westwards towards France, and he brought an army up from Naples to confront – or pretend to confront – Eugène. At the beginning of 1814, three months before Napoleon’s abdication and exile to Elba, Elisa warned her brother that, although the Tuscans did not like the Neapolitans, ‘the ideas of independence had spread so widely in Italy in the last two months’ that she believed they would submit to them if they could ‘finish up being ruled by a prince of their own’. Her subjects did not, however, have the chance to do so because the allies decided that they wanted the Bourbons back in Naples. In March 1815, on hearing that Napoleon had abandoned planting olives in Elba to have another stab at being emperor, a desperate Murat offered his services to his brother-in-law. Rebuffed, perhaps fatally – Napoleon later recognized that Murat’s skills as a cavalry commander might have changed the result at Waterloo – he made a passionate appeal to patriotism, exhorting Italians to follow him towards his unexpected new goal of independence: ‘From the Alps to the Straits of Sicily can be heard a single cry: Italian independence!’ Yet few people followed him, and his forces were defeated by the Austrians; later, as the defeated Napoleon was sailing into exile at St Helena, he launched a crazy attack on the Calabrian coast, where he was captured and shot. His fate demonstrated that Elisa had been wrong: the cry – if it existed – had not been heard, and the ‘ideas of independence’ had not spread far. A Russian patriotism had resisted Napoleon and driven him out of the tsar’s dominions; in Spain also patriotism had made a significant contribution to the French defeat. Yet in Italy there was no patriotic uprising even when it was clear that Napoleon was done for.

The debit side of napoleonic rule in Italy is easy to catalogue: the loss of life in the endless wars, the taxes and indemnities, the looting of art, the decline of foreign trade, the executions of men unwilling to be conscripted to fight wars they had no interest in. Yet there were some credits too, outweighed though they may have been. Napoleon was seen by many, however mistakenly, as a protector of nationalities and a liberator of the oppressed. The Genoese artist Felice Guascone refused to criticize him and painted a series of pictures celebrating his rule and deploring the return of reaction afterwards. Many people benefited from the introduction of divorce, the improvement in roads, the new and fairer system of inheritance, the religious liberty that demolished ghetto walls, the opportunities provided by la carrière ouverte aux talents. Later some of them realized that the introduction of the napoleonic codes of law, together with fiscal and institutional reforms, were essential foundations for a modern state.

Less easy to quantify than the debits and credits is the effect of French rule on the future of Italy. Revolutionary France had a huge impact on the peninsula for it overturned much of the Ancien Régime, but the republics it imposed south of the Po were disliked by nearly everyone except lawyers and professors. The French made few jacobins in Italy and hardly any in places with traditions of reform such as Tuscany, where the reintroduction of the death penalty in the annexed duchy caused resentment. In the imperial decade Napoleon was no more popular and he ended up being hated by those Italians who believed he had betrayed their hopes of an independent Italy – a state he had never had any intention of creating. Yet he did help indirectly to foster a sense of nation. Italians suffered terribly in his armies, but survivors retained a certain loyalty to their new tricolore flag – the green, white and red adopted in various shapes in the different mutations of napoleonic north Italy – and to its implied recognition of a patria. One veteran of the Russian campaign fought half a century later with Garibaldi.

Napoleon’s influence on the future of Italy was real if unintentional. He encouraged a nationalist mentality with his talk, his armies and his demolition of ancient duchies; and he stimulated a form of adversarial though seldom violent nationalism with his oppression, his arrogance, his exactions and his art thefts. Above all, he showed Italy that it did not need to carry on with its old ways and its old systems; he let it glimpse the possibility of a different future. If the peninsula’s myriad entities could be reduced to three, might they not one day end up as one? In 1805 Napoleon had made himself King of Italy; he did not make himself king of a geographical expression.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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