The French in Italy and the Jacobin Republics of 1796-1799: the north (1)
In 1796, in the course of the fourth year of the war between France and Austria and her northern allies, the Directoire of the French Republic sent the underequipped Armée d’Italie on a diversionary offensive towards Piedmont. The primary aim was to relieve pressure on the main front of war in northern Europe. The offensive swept through northern Italy with unexpected success and overwhelmed the armies of the King of Sardinia and the Emperor of Austria, forcing both to negotiate. The 26-year-old general commanding the Armée d’Italie was Napoleon Bonaparte, suddenly rising to fame.
In 1796-1799, Bonaparte, and the French generals who were appointed by the Directoire to lead armies in Italy, engaged in nation-building on a large scale throughout the Peninsula: they allowed old states to survive provisionally, then changed their rulers, installing new popular governments, proclaiming republics, merging territories and creating new frontiers. Revolution and reforms went along with a substantial plundering of resources to continue the war with Austria, finance the budget of the French Government, and provide France with Italian products, libraries and works of art, especially for the new Muséum central des arts de la République created in 1793 in the Louvre.
In 1796, General Bonaparte began by unofficially encouraging the formation of the Cispadane Republic by Italian Jacobins and local ruling elites willing to cooperate with the French. The Duchy of Modena and Reggio was merged with the provinces of Bologna and Ferrara, which had just been detached from the Papal States. A few months later, the former Duchy of Milan, parts of the territories of the Republic of Venice, and the Cispadane Republic were merged into the Cisalpine republic in 1797. The benefits of this move were, among other things, to give the Italian reformers hope for progress towards a single unified Italian Republic, and to raise troops for the continuation of the war with Austria. The hopes of renewal were rapidly shattered; yet in the first few months defenders of the status quo, cautious reformers and ardent Jacobin revolutionaries faced each others, among other places in Bologna, the capital of the Cispadane Republic, for a few months in 1797.
When Bonaparte occupied in Bologna in 1796, he gave, with his typical impatience, the Pontifical legate governing the city only three hours to leave and then proclaimed a Republican government, handing authority to city’s old aristocratic Senate of 40 members. The local aristocracy attempted a government based on the localistic idea of autonomy but without real democratic reforms.
In 1796-99, the Cispadane, Transpadane and Cisalpine Republic did not issue new coinage, keeping the pre-existing confused mixture of old local and foreign circulation, in part because the authorities found it difficult to deal with large quantities of low-grade metallic currency and the systematic plunder of gold and silver by the French occupants deprived them of metallic resources. Only the provisional popular government of Bologna produced large silver pieces of 10 paoli (here represented) and of 5 paoli, denominated in the old local monetary unit. Bologna’s paoli had no link with the new coinage planned in France, because at the time France was still predominantly using a rapidly depreciating paper currency (assignats).
The Bolognese coinage had a local conservative flavour, even though papal crests and symbols had been abandoned. It represented the traditional protective Virgin with Child on a cloud, overlooking the city of Bologna, her walls, gates, and towers, and in some cases also the church of the Madonna di San Luca on a nearby hill — a far cry from any Jacobin iconography. On the obverse, the Bolognese crest (with the cross and the motto libertas) confirmed the old communal tradition, with the running title “The Community and the Senate of Bologna”. This was the adaptation of the motto of ancient republican Rome (“Senatvs PopvlvsQve Romanvs”), where power was based in the oligarchic senate, only mildly tempered by the counterweight of the Tribunes representing the common people, a model which inspired the US Constitution of 1787 but not the democratic principles of the French Revolution.
A project for coins to be minted for the Cispadane Republic in Bologna in 1797 also included the image of the Virgin with Child, which confirmed the difficulty of reconciling the new order with a strong Catholic presence in Italian institutions and among the people. The official crest of the State was a war trophy with four flags, a quiver with several arrows symbolizing the provinces of the Republic: it remained very distant from the French Republican model, even if a national flag based on the French model was adopted. This new tricolor replaced only one of the French colours, blue, with green, and later became the flag of united Italy.
Some younger Jacobins did not accept the absence of real democratic reforms and continued agitation. In the streets, they stopped supporters of the old regime to cut their wigs. Bonaparte took advantage of such agitation to keep local authorities under pressure, alternating encouragement with repression; some of the noisiest youngsters were arrested and detained in Milan for a few months. Overall Bonaparte was hostile to the supporters of a more radical democracy and preferred a mixed regime of aristocracy and moderate democrats. In the end, in April 1797, following the adoption of the Constitution of the Cispadane Republic, the Senate was disbanded in favour of a new Directoire Exécutif and Assembly, following the French model. The younger Jacobins celebrated this as a victory; at night the populace moved in large numbers through the city with lights, singing the funeral of the Senate and hurling insults at the residences of the Senators. They then performed a mock pantomime of a Senatorial funeral, screaming “death to tyrants” and burning a coffin and a puppet.
The print published here presents the atmosphere in Bologna in the spring of 1797, when the traditional number of city senators made up the Council of the forty. In the print, a group of young republican national guards are gathered in a square of the city; they cancel the number “4” from a wall, leaving only the number “0”, to signal what in their view remains of the old aristocracy’s influence. An old senator wearing a seventeenth-century wig and bearing an old-fashioned sword escapes crying. The commander of the young revolutionaries carries the lion-headed sabre used by officers of the French national guard. He is dressed in a uniform with the new Italian colours and wears a cocard, recently made mandatory for all citizens but refused by many. In the background the square is occupied by a very tall tree of liberty, surmounted by a red cap and flanked by the new flag of the Cispadane Republic.
The new institutions were, however, revoked again by Bonaparte, who merged the territories of Emilia in the Cisalpine Republic (1797-1802), later renamed the Italian Republic (1802-1805) and then the Kingdom of Italy (1805-1814). The decline of the republican project nevertheless left a large body of reforms; its legacy was the end of feudalism throughout the Napoleonic era and beyond.
The limited coinage of the Cisalpine Republic was issued in Milan and concentrated on Bonaparte’s glory. The silver scudo of six lire (Milanese, not Bolognese units) displayed a magnanimous allegory of France, seated on a raised pedestal, accepting the humble homage of the Cisalpine Republic. The latter expresses her gratitude for her freedom on the occasion of the armistice of Alessandria (18 June 1800, or 27 pratile anno VIII), which returned Lombardy to France after the Austro-Russian invasion of Northern Italy in 1799-1800. The silver 30 soldi coin (here illustrated) celebrated the peace of Lunéville (1801) and the foundation of the Bonaparte Forum in Milan, with a female bust of the goddess Ceres, promising abundance.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
email@example.com | Tel. +44 (0)1223 331197
© 2020 Centre for History and Economics