Research Subjects: Biographies

By Honour and Sword Divided: Angelo Giustinian and Bonaparte’s Fit of Anger

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

In 1796, the French invasion of Northern Italy marked a turning-point and a causal inter-action – contended as a regressive status in many erudite dissertations of XIXth and XXth century historiography – whose shocking waves had telling effects on the history of the Peninsular Theatre.  Warfare applications and long term operational strategies[1] were usually referred to as the first Italian Campaign[2] of 1796-1797; that eventful time was a stirring experience which affected the political course of the social life; most especially, it heavily conditioned the constituted order deeply rooted in centuries old traditions of legitimacy and popular support to the governmental institutions.Thus circumstanced, the invading troops of the Armée d’ Italie became the martial expression of an authoritative will[3] conditioned by the dictates of the Executive Directory [4] in Paris.

The Senescence of a Nation: the Unarmed Neutrality

The French legions, without having any care for the jurisdictional sovereignity of the Venetian peoples – and nothwistanding the proclamation of the unarmed neutrality of the Serenissima Repubblica di San Marco – occupied the town of Verona on June 1, 1796. This violation was steadly recognized as a mark of infamy to the status quo, and a blameful infraction of the constituted legitimacy.[5]  In the territories of the Venetiae the French conquest marked the passage to a transitory administration imposed on new political convergences and on the mystification of pseudo-libertarian democratic ideals: liberté, egalité, fraternité.[6]

The behaviour of the Venetian populations was in the spring of 1797 outstanding, and the winds of patriotism represented a cohesive unitarian force to centuries old traditions of historical heritage and devotion.  Early in 1797, 10000 men were ordered into the field.  In the month of April, the Venetian fortress of Sant Andrea del Lido shot up a French warship (the Libérateur de l'Italie, commanded by Jean Baptiste Laugier) trying to breach through the lagoon defensive asset; furthermore, the population of Verona and all the province rose up to arms against the French (it was the vigorous uprising of the Pasque veronesi, 17-25 April).

Bonaparte, recognized this conflictual emergency as casus belli; making a pretense of fury, he demanded the Republic’s abject surrender.  On Easter Monday, 17 April 1797, Austrian delegates offered Bonaparte a negotiation issue, and it was signied the peace treaty of Leoben (including some infamous secret clauses).[7]  To stop the French-Republican offensive threat, and further military actions in the territories of the Empire, Austria had to recognize the French claims over Belgium and Lombardy; however, her sphere of strategic dominance would have been counterbalanced with the Venetian mainland, Istria, and Dalmatia.

The Paradox of Policy

For centuries the Serenissima Repubblica di San Marco had used fine diplomacy and commercial relations cunning to maintain the ascendancies of political power.  In the Terraferma Veneta a prudential attitude and the character of wisdom were substantially prevailing; the political choices were aimed avoiding any direct engagement, conceived not in the theorematic propositions of a military campaign, but as struggle for the right of protecting the liberties and the governmental institutions.  The challenge did not concern about any planned martial contrapposition, as it apparently seemed, but focused the dispute between two forms of right erected to system; in primis, that of revolutionary force; second, the political establishment – the oligarchia senatoriale – defending the traditions and the secular experience of the Venetian government.

A system – the Directorial and French one – imposed itself with the force of the bayonets; the Venetian Republic was instead prone to rely on its intrinsic virtus: strict prudence, and the protective shield of the proclaimed neutrality.  The Stato Marciano did anyhow not recour to the coefficients of warfare and to the state of belligerency, but to the force of the reknown diplomatic rights, because its political senescence was permeated with the conservative inertia of the governing élites, the seniores and potentes of the Senatorial oligarchy.  

On May 1, 1797, from the fortressed stronghold of Palmanova General Bonaparte declared war to the Republic of Venice;[8] the Venetian Senate, de-legitimated of its glorious traditions, and without any political credibility, did not order any armed resistance.  The most Serene Republic was to meet her political end by the political conservatism. 

French legions entered Venice on 15 May 1797; Ludovico Manin, the last Doge, was hastly substituted by a municipal government (i.e. collaborationist regime) manoeuvred by the invaders volitive interests.  That same year, Venice was turned over to the Habsburgs rule.  A secular history came to an end, but all the traditions survived beyond the fluctuations of the political and military events.

A Man for the Republic

In the morning hours of May 2, 1797 (13 floréal an V), General Bonaparte and his retinue reached the town of Treviso. The French stopped at the locanda all’ Imperatore (i.e. at the Emperor inn) near the church of Saint Augustin; informed about the coming of the famous military personality, the Provveditore straordinario Anzolo Giustinian[9] went to the inn to meet the Republican generalissimo.  Not truly an open welcome, his behaviour to the victorious leader of the Armée d’ Italie was dictated by the strict circumstances of the office he held at Treviso. Giustinian was then followed by the Podestà e Capitano veneto of Treviso, Anzolo Barbaro. The meeting with the Venetian representatives was a thundering time, and it was gravest as it was outrageous to the men, to the officers, and to the governmental institutions they represented.  The Général en Chef immediately advised the Venetian authorities about the irrevocable decisions he had come to enforce against the Senatorial oligarchy and the Serenissima Repubblica Veneta; his words had a troublesome introspection, and the French generalissimo said that he wanted to destroy their Republican establishment.

An out and out imposssible solution came out, and he accused Giustinian of political corruption and a felonious behaviour; the licence of this intrinsic compromise was beyond any limit of personal honour; Bonaparte said to Giustinian that if he wanted to save Venice, he had to go to the Maggior Consiglio, and made him obtain the heads of the State Inquisitors. To these remonstrances and threats Anzolo Giustinian replied in a fiery mood; he surrendered his sword and presented his life to ease Bonaparte’s hot-tempered evanescences.  Resolution in character prooved a distinguished feature of dignity to confront any outbursting of pride. Bonaparte was sensibly touched by the steady firmness of the Venetian officer, standing on his dignity and quite remarkable aplomb; thus impressed, words of admirations were presented to Giustinian.

After recognizing his civic virtues, Napoleon made him understanding that it was of necessity conniving with the force majeure; due to a well deserved ésprit de finesse, and in order to reward such a bold determination, the generalissimo promised to spare Giustianian’s life.  Giustinian refused this favour, and replied that he was not so base-minded receiving it at the sacrifice of his home country. An abashed Bonaparte made the Venetian authorities leave the room.  Reporting about Giustinian’s courage, the Venetian captain Antonio Paravia left some laconic annotations in his diary: «He exihibited his life to save his mother country».

The building where it happenned the aforecited episodical circumstance – the was then locanda all’ Imperatore – was located in via Sant’Agostino (civic numbers 8-10) at Treviso. There is a commemorative plaque to preserve the historical memory of that stormy meeting and for all posterity Giustinian’s noble heart and the valiant determination he showed in May 1797 against anti-democratic arrogance. 

The Traditions of a People

In the year 1871, Rosa Bortolan (a Trevisan painter, 1817-1892;[10] daughter of Luigi Bortolan and Elisabetta Zuccareda) had a most wonderful painting reproducing the much disputed episode that honoured the courage of Giustinian against any military despotism and any applied revolutionary rethoric embodied by Bonaparte’s trascendental vitalism and Republican haughtiness. Humbleness and devotion stood unrivalled towards the proudly exhibited force des armes of foreign invaders.

The painting, an oil on canvas (153 cm. x 237 cm.), is entitled: «Angelo Giustinian Provveditore di

Treviso si oppone alle pretese di Napoleone Bonaparte, Treviso 2 maggio 1797».

The figurative composition, and its beautifully executed cromatic efforts, perfectly captures the contrast between the leading parties of the French-Republicans and the Venetian authorities.

The protagonists of the meeting became, by their behaviourism and individual attitudes, paradigmatic figures of the struggle between two generational spheres of the social order separated by the 1789 Revolutionary downfall; beyond the historical adherences, the painting is artistically appreciated for its quite manifest political symbolism: two institutional governments (the Repubblica Marciana, the French Republic) and two social classes fighting between them, diffearing by the ways to conceive the State institutions and the democratic sovereignty of the political action.

The painting is preserved at the Cassamarca Trevigiana.


1 French Works :

Napoléon Ier. Correspondance générale de Napoléon Ier. Publiée par ordre de l’Empereur Napoléon III. Paris, Imprimerie impériale, 1858-1869.

Costa De Beauregard, H. J.. Souvenirs. 1877.

2. Italian Works:

Avogadro Degli Azzoni, Alteniero. 1796-1803, Vita privata e pubblica nelle provincie venete. Treviso, Canova, 1954. 

Graziani, Giovan Battista. Diario del passaggio di truppe per Conegliano dal 1796 al 21 giugno 1801. Archivio Comunale di Conegliano.

Paravia, Antonio. Mio portafogli di viaggi, osservazioni, memorie, e frammenti istorici del mio tempo. Parte IV, 1795-1797. B.M.C.C.  


[1] A terminological definition must anyhow be pointed out; it is the substantive invasion. The substantive is extracted from the late Latin ethimology invasiōnem, derived of invadĕre, to invade.  It has equally the meaning of occupation and conquest.   In this cultural convenience, the 1796 invasion of Northern Italy was aimed occuping major territorial extentions (to name a few: Piedmont, Austrian Lombardy, the Serenissima Repubblica di San Marco), and reversing the legitime constituted order supported by the popular will. In these States, the political heritage and the social traditions were much stronger than any post-revolutionary and ideological predicament based on the trinomial functions and on the exortative attributes of liberté, egalité, fraternité. Offensive pushings developed as movements of conditioned strategy – carefully conceived as military predicates of the revolutionary doctrinal action; furthermore, as major postulates and prevarication of post-revolutionary political ideology.  The artifice was shrewdly conceived; the peoples were detrimentally deceived by the rethoric and eulogistic paraphrases of the newly installed regime [français]. The popular sovereignity was eradicated with pernicious consequences. But the peoples opposed themselves to the enemy invasion with epic moments of patriotic élan.

[2] This lexicographic indication is influential to corroborate the rethoric complaisances of the French-Republicans phalanges; however, on the reverse of true comprehension, the campaign in Italy of 1796-1797 was paradoxically a military invasion on large territorial scale.  It started in the West, in Liguria, and virtually ended in the Est, in the sphere of Austrian dominance. French military operations started in March 1796, and marked Bonaparte’s metheoritic raise.

The king of Sardinia-Piedmont (Vittorio Amedeo III of Savoy) was forced by the Armistice of Cherasco (28 April 1796)  to cede the transalpine provinces (Nice and Savoy) to Directorial France (peace of Paris, May 15, 1796), and granting free passage to the invading forces in his territories. Austrian troops were driven out of Milan, and pursued into the jurisdictional domains of the Serenissima Repubblica Marciana.

A long series of victories – Voltri (10 April 1796), Cairo Montenotte (12 April), Dego (14 April), Vicoforte (21 April), Lodi (10 May), Borghetto-Mincio (30 May), Castiglione delle Stiviere (5 August), Bassano (8 September), La Favorita-San Giorgio (15 September) – contributed setting the fame of the Armée d’ Italie and the reputation of the upstart General Bonaparte. By April 1797, the Po valley was under French strategic control, including the town of Bologna, and the northern reaches of the legazioni pontificie.

By the treaty of Tolentino (February 19, 1797) Pope Pius VI (1717-1799, Giannangeli Braschi) renounced his claim to Avignon to the Venosino countryside, and to the legazioni of Bologna, Ravenna, Ferrara, Forlì.

The Duchy of Modena was equally occupied, with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

After severely defeating the Austrian armies in the Venetian territories (Arcole, 15-17 November 1796; Rivoli-veronese, 14 January 1797), General Bonaparte turned his army northward, crossing the Tagliamento River (where a crucial engagement took place on 16 March 1797) and driving for the Habsburgs capital, Vienna.

[3] A General of the Republic named Napoleon Bonaparte led the French troops with a determined personality.

1795, 16 October: appointed provisional général de division; 26 October: confirmed général de division and promoted commandant en chef of the armée de l’ Intérieur at the place of Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas de Barras; 1796, 2 March: appointed commandant en chef of the armée d’ Italie at the place of Barthélemy-Louis-Joseph Schérer.

[4] For a period of four years, the Directory represented the supreme magistracy of the French Republic, holder of the executive power, in conformity to the constitution of the year III (5 fructidor = 22 August 1795).  The newly installed committee was composed by five men, that were elected in the assemblees on 30 October 1795: Louis-Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux (1753-1824), Jean-François Reubell (1747-1807), Charles-Louis-François-Honoré Letourneur (1751-1817), Paul-François-Jean-Nicolas de Barras (1755-1829) and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836), substituted by Lazare-Nicolas-Marguerite Carnot (1753-1823).  The Directory was overthrown by General Bonaparte’s coup d’ Etat on 18 Brumaire An VIII (9 November 1799).

[5] At the closing of the year, all the western territories of the Repubblica Marciana were invaded by the divisional forces of the foreign invader, thus undergoing the laws of stern military occupation.  Wealthy towns on the mainland — Bergamo, Brescia, Peschiera e Vicenza — were lost, and the French units entered them.

[6] Foreign occupation was far away from the principles imposed with the arms; it  caused the decaying of the existing institutions, and the compulsory abatment – by military dispositions – of the legitime governative institution, the Serenissima Repubblica.

[7] The preliminary accords of Leoben (a Styrian town on the Muir) will be perfectioned at the signing of Campo Formio (17 October 1797) with the cession of the town of Venice to the Austrians.  The treaty of Campoformido closed the war of the First Coalition and sanctioned the end of the political indipendency of the Republic of Venice which is ceded to Austria with Istria, Dalmatia, and the Venetian isles in the Adriatic, against the recognition of the Cisalpine Republic and the passage to France of the Austrian  Low Countries (Belgium), of the Venetian possessions in Albania, and of the Ionian islands in the Adriatic.

[8] On 1 May 1797 (12 floréal an V) Bonaparte left the fortressed town of Palmanova, a former Venetian stronghold; documentary evidence had it probed the time of leaving was after 06.00 AM. The following day, after having passed through the country village of Sacile, the Général en Chef  gave orders for a night stopping at Conegliano. In some compositive annotations Giovan Battista Graziani sensibly recalled (date of 2 May 1797) that «[...] in this passed night through the Gate it reached his excellency the Generalissimo Bonaparte with the wife with the escort of fifty cavalry troopers, refreshed in the Borgo San Antonio and after brief pause he continued to Treviso his trip».

[9] N. H. Angelo Giacomo (Venice, 15 June 1757 – Venice, 21 March 1813), Venetian Patrician; in the Maggior Consiglio from 1777; Savio agli Ordini in 1782; Patron of the Arsenale in 1787; health officer in 1788; Savio alla scrittura in 1793; Provveditore straordinario at Treviso and in Friuli in 1797; vice-President of the camerale officer in 1798; Government counsellor in 1801.

[10] Among her forefathers was Giovanni Antonio (or Giannantonio) Bortolan (born around 1750), one of the sons of Gian Maria (1722-1757); on 30 January 1780 he married Elisabetta Scattolin (born in 1762), daughter of Gaetano and Giulia Zanata.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2006

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