Research Subjects: Biographies


A Long Way to Glory: Questions on Bartolomeo Bortolini

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

This article delves deeper into the enigma of Bortolini’s name, birth and early recorded years.  I have discovered some flagrant discrepancies in the biographical references of his seemingly outstanding service de guerre. Discerning through contemporary written accounts, Bortolini could not have served in Egypt as his memoirs possibly state.  This researched essay determines that the Trentine veteran did not actually serve in the Egyptian expeditionary corps under General Bonaparte.   The reader is left to wonder how many other biographies of noteworthy historical personalities have been “enhanced” and literarily ennobled to make them appear more interesting.  However, the account of Bortolini’s early years, his struggles to survive hunger, and helping his family are emotionally wrenching.  

In every time, and beyond any culture, the military experience has always been a source of renewed hope, a magnet for men of limited economic means to achieve success and to make a name for themselves by serving their country with bravery and honour.  Early XIXth century warfare operations –   specifically the stunning events of Napoleon’s military campaigns up to the fatal 1815 débâcle – gave this determined young man an opportunity and chance to survive and advance his career.

This documentary research has to be considered a cultural addition to better understanding some insight facets of life experiences of the Napoleonic period; more especially, it emphasizes how people  reacted to the magnitude of the gloires de l’ Empire and incorporating it into their  personal accounts.

When Was he Born?

To ameliorate the historic comprehension and the documentary references on Bortolini’s dies natalis (i.e. birthday), data have been probed deeper, and minute details do provide the explanation for this disputed topic.

Bartolomeo Bortolini was born in the town of Trento on September 16th, 1782.His father was Giovanni Bortolini[1]from Centa (district of Trento), the catholic curazia of Calceranica[2]; his mother, Antonia, a descendant from the Covi[3] family branch, came from the neighbouring hamlet of Lavis[4].

Extensive research has been significant in establishing that Bartolomeo’s estratto di nascita (i.e. birth certificate) is registered in the baptized register Nr. IX at Trento, in the parrocchia del Duomo.

"Die 16 Septembris 1782 – Bartholomeus f. Joannis Bortolini et Antoniae natae Covi Avisij coniugum natus hoc heri hora 1.ma mattina baptizatus fuit a me Parocho Suple D.no Luca Longhi" [aforecited register, p. 49].

Bartolomeo was the only male child born into a large family, of six children[5] – four of whom died at early an age.To provide adequate support to the family, Bartolomeo’s father made a living as a  pistore (i.e. baker); living conditions were a constant battle for survival, facing famine and poverty.

After acquiring basic schooling, and attending the elementary instruction of that time (notions in writing, and reading), Bartolomeo had to help his father. The  young man was soon to learn his father’s art through his hardworking creative hands.  Daily work included carrying of sacks of flour, residue of flour, baking powder, loaves, and  wooden kneading-trough and bread-bin.

At the age of twenty, nourishing hopes for a more rewarding lifetime and working experience, Bartolomeo left his family entourage and his humble employment, and decided to  enroll in the ranks of the French army in the year 1802.  Having determined on the choice – the military profession – he left his home town and served throughout the years of the Napoleonic Empire until  1815.

Could He Have Served in the Egyptian Campaign?

Another point of open debate would be to consider that, if Bartolomeo left for the French army foreign service, most specifically in the 1798 Egyptian campaign.  Examining the data at hand, and taking into account this latest consideration, it would be fairly evident the fresh chronological incompatibility (a misunderstanding especially strident with the compared dates, that is 1802 versus 1798) with the work entitled Il veterano d’ Oriente (trans. The Oriental veteran).

His family connections were cautious, and did not believe in Bartolomeo’s Egyptian experience and claims of glory – however, this book did certainly evidence a narrative style of some distinction.

A fiercely determined criticism to not equivocate about this literary composition followed, and one of his nephews felt deeply obliged not to have the spurious narrative accepted to posterity as an original historical truth. 

Seemingly perturbed by this mystery (Author: narrative is the lenitive and more convenient definition), and because of his manifest intellectual disappointment, the dissenting nephew did not hesitate to leave a definite comment on one copy of the cited book:

"[…] è falso falsissimo, che fu presente a quanto racconta prima di quell’ epoca 1802".

Transl.: "[…]  it is false very false, that he was present to what he narrates before of that time – 1802".

On one sheet of paper applied inside the first volume of the work Il veterano d’ Oriente (1839 printed edition), which is preserved in the Biblioteca Comunale of Trento, can be throughly read the following annotations:

"Bortolammeo Bortolini e non Bertolini, mio zio materno, figlio di Giovanni Bortolini e di Antonia Covi di Lavis nacque a Trento il 16 settembre 1782 e fu battezzato nella Cattedrale.

I suoi coetanei e i miei genitori mi assicuravano, che egli si arrolò nell’ armata francese nel 1802, quindi è falso falsissimo, che fu presente a quanto racconta prima di quell’ epoca.

Morì il 23 gennaio 1871 in Trieste nell’ età di anni 89, mesi 4, giorni 8.

In Trieste faceva il maestro di scherma e in ciò godeva di una distinta fama.

Prete Francesco Faes".                                                                                          

Transl.: "Bortolammeo Bortolini and not Bertolini, my maternal uncle, son of Giovanni Bortolini and of Antonia Covi of Lavis was born at Trento on 16 September 1782 and was baptized in the cathedral.

People of the same age and my parents assured me, that he enrolled in the French army in 1802, therefore it is false very false, that he was present to what he narrates before of that time.

He died on 23 January 1871 in Trieste at the age of years 89, months 4, days 8.

In Trieste he was the fencing-master and in that he enjoyed of a distinguished fame.

Priest Francesco Faes"[6].

Was He a Captain?

Documentary evidence on asserted and reputably gained promotions  in the army, is, on all accounts, scarce, to say the least.

It is noticed that the decrees appointing the battle hardened veteran to the rank of capitano (i.e. captain) are given in a plural form, therefore these pieces must be read with caution.

In one manuscript it is written:

"Armata d’ Italia. 7ma Division militare - 4to Corpo d’ Armata.

Al signor capitano Bortolini.

La presente vi serva d’ avviso che per decreto di sua Altezza Imperiale, il Principe Eugenio Vicerè d’ Italia siete nominato capitano presso lo Stato Maggiore di S. E. il Sig. Conte Marmaire general comandante la cavalleria dell’ armata d’ Italia.

[…].

[…].

Mantova, li 12 Febbraio 1814".

Transl.: "Army of Italy . 7th military Division - 4th Army Corps.

To Mr. captain Bortolini.

By the present you will be advised, that by decree of his Imperial Highness, the Prince Eugenio Viceroy of Italy, you are appointed captain at the General-Staff of H. E. the Mr. Count Marmaire General, commander the cavalry of the army of Italy.

[…].

[…].

Mantova, 12 February 1814".

There is every convenience that this text, this documentary piece, is a spurious writing.

In accordance with modern standards of scholarship, it must be used carefully.

After properly based research, peculiar observations would lead to consider the following  denotative points of discrepacy: "7ma Division militare […]" – a most obvious question does immediately arise: why has it not been correctly written 7ma Divisione militare ?.

Others punctilious considerations can be deduced from the ensuing statement: "[…] Sig. Conte Marmaire general comandante la cavalleria dell’ armata d’ Italia.

[…].".

It is equally noticed that the military rank – general – has not been written using the proper spelling, that is generale.

A further matter setting the point is: why has the nominal reference of Marmaire been used ?

Time-consuming efforts would be spent trying to establish the identity of the above mentioned officer; the individual was Julien-Augustin-Joseph Mermet, born at Quesnoy (Nord), on May 9, 1772 – and died in Paris (28 October 1837).  Mermet, a distinguished officer who had major service of honour in the French army ranks, had been appointed commandant en chef of the cavalry units in the corps d’ observation d’ Italie, and was under the leadership of Prince Eugène de Beauharnais.

He served throughout the period lasting from 15 July 1813 to 20 June 1814.  His name is written on the Northern façade of the Arc de Triomphe de l’ Etoile, in Paris.

To all these straight questions, answers are not provided for; however, reflections are still open to gain proper replies[7].

Another passage:

"La presente Vi conferma che fino dal luglio 1812 per decreto di Sua Maestà Imperiale, il Principe Eugenio Vicerè d’ Italia, vi ha promosso al grado di Capitano e nominato allora Ajutante di Campo del generale Saint-Germain come più tardi presso lo Stato Maggiore di S. E. […].

Mantova, 12 febbraio 1814 […]".

Translation:

"The present is to confirm You that since July 1812 by decree of His Imperial Majesty, the prince Eugenio Viceroy of Italy, promoted you to the rank of Captain and appointed then aide-de-camp to General Saint-Germain as later at the General-Staff of H. E. […].

Mantova, 12 February 1814[…]".

A copy of the nomination to the rank of capitano, is preserved through a legalized copy dated Graz, 29 August 1832– the piece is preserved in Biblioteca Comunale of Trento – manuscript 2518 / 15.

One straight observation is promptly at hand to contradict this document. Did Bartolini have to wait so long of a period up to the month of February 1814 to know he had been promoted to the rank of Capitano ?  Had not this step of promotion been communicated to the seasoned veteran?  And if this informative piece had not been sent to Bartolini, how could he know he was to act in the position of Ajutante di Campo (i.e. A.D.C.) ?

His Later Life

In 1855 Bortolini reached Paris, and was received by Charles-Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte ( 20 April 1808- 9 January 1873), third Emperor of the French ( 2 December 1852- 4 September 1870).

The Italian veteran wore an old uniform of the Dragoni, and set a XIXth century iconotype of the past glories of the Empire.  His torn attire – his dented helmet and clanging sword proved beneficial to inspire a compassionate sentiment of martial nobility and fierceness –  and he was offered generous hospitality at the Hôtel des Invalides.   However, this assistance was declined by the ancient veteran.

A forced stay was not for the stout-heartened combatant; under the circumstances, to appease his determined mood, he was rewarded by the Médaille de Sainte Hélène.

The annexed documentary evidence BCT1-2518, c. 48, makes interesting reading.  Attribution was conferred to Bartolini, Barthelemy, of the (Provinces Illyriennes) – i.e. Illirian provinces (sic!).

Trieste farewell

Bortolini died at a late, on January 23, 1871, in the town of Trieste.  The burial of the former maresciallo d’ alloggio (i.e. lodging marschal) had the peculiarity of martial character, and the Imperial garrison commander (F.M.L. Wezler) granted the hard-tempered Napoleonic veteran a worthy ceremonh with military honours.  It is worth mentioning that these honours were normally reserved for a captain serving in the Austrian army ranks – "[…] gleich einem k. k. österreichischen Hauptmann […]", vide: BCT1-2518, c. 45. The final resting place was in the S. Anna Catholic cemetery.

Bortolini was survived by a wife[8] who led a life of exceeding privations and moral suffering; her living came from the hard-earned income of a modest crockery-shop located in Via Molino a vento, civic number 17.  Facing wretched economic difficulties, the widow was compelled to sell the medals of her dear departed husband.  A further point was that his  heirs could not afford to sustain the ten-year canon to the Comune of Trieste, and to consequentially provide adequate maintenance to theirs ancestor’s grave.

The circumstances reached the zenith of misery, and the situation of the once acclaimed fencing-master was made public spreading through an article (dated March 30, 1912) in the Piccolo, the newspaper printed at Trieste.  A committee was quickly organized to raise funds  and to obtain a grave to which donations in everlasting memory could be made.  A talented sculptor named Giovanni Marin carved a monument and through a notarial deed (dott. Camillo Depiera), it was entrusted to the Comune.

Bibliography and further reading

1. German works:

Abenteuer eines Fechtmeisters. In: Wiener Theaterzeitung, herausgegeben von Adolph Bäuerle, 52. Jahrg., Mittwoch 28. Juli 1858, N. 170.

Mohrmann, Berthold. Der letze Condottiere (Bartolomeo Bertolini). In: Das Vaterland, n. 1, 31 Januar, Wien, 1871.

2. Italian works:

Ambrosi, Francesco. Scrittori ed artisti trentini. Trento, Giovanni Zippel Editore, 1894.

Bertolini, Bartolomeo. Il veterano d’ Oriente, ossia carriera militare anedottica del cav. Bartolomeo Bertolini di Trento scritta da lui medesimo. Trieste, M. Weis tipografo governiale, 1839.

Cappello, Girolamo. Gli italiani in Russia nel 1812. In: Comando del Corpo di Stato Maggiore, Ufficio Storico, Memorie storiche militari, Fascicolo IV, 1912 (Settembre). Città di Castello, Unione Arti Grafiche, 1912.

Emmert, Bruno. Il dipartimento dell’ Alto Adige – del Regno Italico - (1810-1813). Saggio bibliografico compilato da Emmert Bruno. Trento, Casa Editrice Giovanni Zippel, 1909.

Emmert, Bruno. Contributo ad una bibliografia della storia militare del Regno Italico. In: Il Risorgimento italiano: rivista storica, anno III. Milano-Torino-Roma 1910, Fratelli Bocca.

Lapide (La) di un veterano napoleonico. In: Il Piccolo, n. 30, marzo 1912, Trieste.

Pedrotti, Pietro. I contingenti, di leva, gli ufficiali e i soldati del dipartimento dell’ Alto Adige. Trento, Casa Editrice Giovanni Zippel, 1908.

Annexed documentary evidence

BCT1-2518, c. 47. Italian text.

Armata d’Italia. 7ma Division militare - 4to Corpo d’Armata

Al signor capitano Bortolini.

La presente vi serva d’avviso che per decreto di sua Altezza Imperiale il principe Eugenio Viceré d’Italia siete nominato capitano presso lo stato maggiore di S. E. il sig. conte Marmaire general comandante la cavalleria all’armata d’Italia.
La tardanza del decreto aveva penetrato gli animi de’ vostri superiori rammentando che siete ben degno d’occupar tal grado essendo che, per lo spazio d’anni ventidue avete bagnato col proprio sangue le più rimote terre dell’universo e che vi siete sempre distinto con prove di coraggio e di valor militare, in particolare alla spedizione di Mosca in cui vi siete coperto di gloria immortale
Nel darvene avviso, signor capitano, vi dichiaro la mia più distinta stima e considerazione.
Mantova li 12 febbraio 1814
Il general commandante il quartier generale
G. Pino mp
In calce:
Die Aechtheit der Unterschrift des Plazcommando [!] wird hiemit bestättiget.
Graz, 20 August 1832
Gleichauf [?]

Dem eingeschehenen Originale wörtlichde gleichlautend befunden zu haben wird hiemit ämtlich bestätiget.
Graz, am 20, August 1832
Kautzner [?]
Platzhauptmann
Sul verso: Al signor capitano Bortolini, cavaliere della legion d’onore presso lo stato maggiore generale di cavalleria. Ufficio militare a Parma.

 

BCT1-2518, c. 48. French text.

Médaille de Sainte Héléne

instituée par S. M. Napoleon III

Napoleon 1er

A ses compagnons de gloire sa derniére pensée

Sainte Héléne, 5 mai 1821

Le Grand Chancelier de l’ Ordre Imperial de la Legion d’Honneur, certifie que m.

Bartolini, Barthelemy (Provinces Illyriennes)

ayant servi durant la période de 1792 à 1815, a reçu la Médaille de S.te Héléne

Duc de …[?]

Inscrit a la Grande Chancellerie N. 2083.

 

BCT1-2518, c. 45. German text.

K. K. Militär und VII. Truppen- Divisions- Commando
zu Triest

n. 282 / M. A.

Ihrer Hochwohlgeboren
der Frau Maria Bertolini
französische Kapitans Witwe

Hier
Triest, am 24 jänner 1871

Unter Rückschluss der Beilagen setze ich Euer Hochwohlgeboren in Kenntniss, dass ich es mir zur besonderen Ehre rechne die militärische Beerdigung Ihres verstorbenen Gemals gleich einem k. k. österreichischen Hauptmann zu bewilligen und wird zu diesem Zwecke der Kondukt mit einer Regiments Musik um ¾ 4 Uhr bei der Wohnung des Verblichenen eintreffen.
Ich spreche bei diesem Anlasse gleichzeitig Euer Hochwohlgeboren mein tiefes Beileid über den schmerzlichen Verlust aus, und zeichne mich mit Hochachtung
dero ergebenster

Wezlar [?]

 

Notes:

[1] Bortolini Giovanni was born in 1737; and died on February 13th, 1807.

[2] Calceranica al lago a delightful location having the sacred temple of S. Maria Assunta. This building is a most outstanding rural Pieve dating from the second half of the XIIth century (ab. 1170).  Since 1786, it was subjected to the diocese of Feltre; from that year, it was annexed to that of Trento. 

[3] Antonia was born in the year 1751; her death is recorded on October 9th, 1799.

[4] The center of the village was built close behind the hilly ground named Paion; the streets are almost broad and named Pristoi.

[5] They are notably remembered: Angela, Giuseppina (1775-1798), Maria-Anna (1776-1789), Maria-Teresa (1780-1784), Bartolomeo, Maria-Teresa (1785-1790).

[6] Biblioteca Comunale, Trento. In the inner part of the first volume (TS I i 111): Il veterano d’ Oriente, ossia, Carriera militare aneddotica del cav. Bartolomeo Bertolini scritta da lui medesimo. Trieste: Weis, 1839.  The cited words are written on the cartiglio.

[7] The use of polite civilian titles preceding the military ranks is another point of observation; in this case, a beneficial indugence is much required.

[8] The Signora Maria Bertolini, born Rossinovich.  She was his second wife.  The first wife, left widow Bortolotti, named Giuseppina Bonmassar.  This marriage had been celebrated at Trento (November 4, 1809).  It is recalled that Giuseppina died at Trieste, on May 13, 1852.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2007

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