Lombardy 1796: State, Society, and Post-Revolutionary Applications

Research Subjects: Government & Politics

Lombardy 1796: State, Society, and Post-Revolutionary Applications

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

The historical figure of Gian Galeazzo Serbelloni[1] is connected to the political role he sustained at Milan, and in Lombardy, after the relentless advancing of the French-Republican forces during the first Italian campaign of 1796. Serbelloni and count Francesco Melzi d’Eril (1753-1816) were the delegates who went to offer to General Bonaparte the keys of the town after the battle at the Lodi Bridge (10 May 1796); the factors of political perspicacity, prudence, and diplomacy,   acted as a deterrent to the French expansionism and territorial annexation in the former Austrian Lombardy.

Furthermore, to ingratiate himself with the victorious military leadership Gian Galeazzo was willing to give hospitality to the generalissimo Bonaparte, Général en chef de l’ Armée d’ Italie, in his Milanese mansion.[2]

On 21 May 1796, the government was entrusted to the Agenzia Militare composed by Alberto Mautin, Patraud, and Reboul the military authority was retained by General Hyacinthe-François-Joseph Despinoys whose first care was despoiling the Monte di pietà of  anything of value.  This arbitrary stealing, coupled together with heavy taxations and requisitions, sowed the seed of discontent in the city. So a new Municipalità was formed, with 16 members chosen among the moderate elements; among them, there were notable personalities such as Gaetano Porro, Giovanni Battista Serbelloni, Giovanni Battista Sommariva, and Fedele Sopransi. On 24 May, 15 further pro-French supporters were appointed to take part in the executive functions of the Municipality.

Serbelloni was the first president of the new Milanese municipality.

Among its members there was also the famous poet and man of letters of Bosisio (neighbourhood of Como) Giuseppe Parini (1729-1799) who, ordained a priest in 1754, had been a preceptor at Serbelloni house up to the year 1762; he was the author of notable works of erudition and enduring fame (the Giorno, a poem in four parts: Il mattino and Il pomeriggio were published in 1763 and 1765, Il vespro e La notte in 1801; the Odi, Poesie di Ripano Eupilino, 1752, Dialogo sopra la nobiltà; Dei principi generali delle belle lettere). Disillusioned by the demagogic excesses of the new government, Parini resigned from his position on 4 August 1796. A purge followed of the witty members who claimed autonomous administrative rights in Lombardy.  They were known for their causal contempt for the excesses of the conquerors and being politically incompatible with the faction that supported the French.  The Municipality decreased to 24 heads.

On June 29, 1797, it was created in Northern Italy the Cisalpine Republic,  with its capital at Milan; this ephemeral political establishment had a short term: it lasted from 1797 to 1802.

The Repubblica Cisalpina, largely a French client Republic, was formed with the union of the Cispadane Republic (a state to the south of the Po River) to the Lombard Republic (then Transpadane Republic, to the north of the Po), plus the former Venetian Polesine and the Valtellina; the next month, they were united the peoples of the former Papal legations: Ferrara, Bologna and Romagna.

Serbelloni was trusted the office and appointed first presidente of the Cisalpine Republic. He was only in power a few months – until November 13, and was succeeeded by Giovanni Battista Savoldi. The ruling class of the constituted order did not shine for their wise administration and for the talented attitudes towards the French invaders. They also lost their image due to ongrowing problems of economic nature. The administrators, aligned with the collaborationist regime, proved capable of untold damages; disorders, tumults, malversations and robbery happened often enough in all the newly annexed territory. Unrestrained French soldiery ravaged the country, while unscrupulous officers imposed heavy contributions on the provincial committees; arbitrary taxations proved quite intollerable to the steady growing of the Democratic Municipality. The ransacking of the public finances was so grave an abuse that Napoleon himself was disgusted on hearing of such a detrimental behaviour.

At the half of July 1801, the First Consul received at Malmaison the jurist Aldini and Gian Galeazzo Serbelloni.They acted as representatives of the second Cisalpine Republic. Unware of the approaching storm, the words of Bonaparte made them tremble.  Napoleon severely reproached them; blame was cast on the governing Committee with burning violence.

“They are but committed nonsenses” – he said – “and one steals hastily”. “You have done only stupidities. This pack, born in a mediocre state, wants to enrich too much to the disadvantage of the public expenses, making a profit of its job [...]. How rare are men in Italy! On 18 millions I see only two: Dandolo and Melzi”.

This last affirmation must be taken with full prudence.

The Affectations of Power

Napoleon’s rethoric  is fairly obvious, and it was dictated by the valences of his hot-tempered mood and causal contempt. Undoubtely, this sententious opinion must be read and understood reading it on the reverse of its literary presentation. Proper democratic government needed civic virtues; the so called civic catonism did not shine bright upon the decaying corruption of the Milanese Municipality.  Egotism, personal interest, and social indifference,  characterized the ruling class at the end of the XIIIth Century. Destitution of human values was to be opposed by moral uprightness, as well as intelligence and probity.

If we throughly analyze the historical events which had appened in Northern Italy at the close of the century, we understand that the French invasion of 1796 had brought, beyond warfare and bloody strategic applications, a string of calamities to the local populations. Foreign occupation and heavy pillaging contributed to alienation of the urban and rural masses deeply rooted in centuries old traditions of political moderation, and in the dogmatic truth revealed in the synoptic gospels.

In the former Austrian Lombardy unequivocal conditions of political excess noxiously affected the social order, leading to futher breaching the popular discontent toward the conquering French troops.

This axiomatic truth represented the manifest limitation for the ruling order (i.e. the Municipalità Milanese), and the instituted dichotomy sustained by the force of the operative divisions of the Armée d’ Italie.

Napoleon’s Reproach Excites Little Astonishment.

Napoleon scolding Serbelloni, Aldini, and their fellow-countrymen, was but a trascendental qui pro quo, a chameleonic behaviourism covering a far greatest stealing: the deprivation of the free souveraignity of the Italian peoples; most especially, the 1796 invasion in northern Italy marked the decaying of the conceptual infatuation for the Republican principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité, detrimentally applied by anti-democratic principles of ingerence, military conquest, and coessential annexation to the French sphere of geo-strategical dominance.

Napoleon’s speech, at that time (May-June 1796) an influential rethoric stratagem, was certainly unequalled to his true political views and personal ambitions; it must be equally considered that it was Napoleon himself who set the pernicious example for an evergrowing line of exceedingly rapacious appetites.  The demagogy of foreign liberty[3] was not at all substantiated by Napoleon cohesive efforts in the containing policy of the occupied territories (Piedmont, former Austrian lombardy, Duchies of Parma and Modena, Legations of Romagna, Serenisssima Republic of Saint Mark), and his attitudes in command proved diametrically opposed;[4] emboding the farsightedness of a consumate leader, Bonaparte, quite on the contrary, gave rise to the triumph of lying [one of the most fraudulent conceptual mystifications of all historical times: that of liberty which free the peoples from their legitimate institutions and from their self-determination, thus paving the motivations for the military conquest] which smoothed the way to his political ambitions and to walking a road towards the Empire in 1804.

                                                                 *            *          *

However, circumstanced specifications related to the aforecited topic can be better appreciated and traced back at chapter V of a work compiled by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne.

“1797. We arrived at Milan on the 5th of May, by way of Leybach, Trieste, Palma-Nuova, Padua, Verona, and Mantua. Bonaparte soon took up his residence at Montebello, a very fine château, three leagues from Milan, with a view over the rich and magnificent plains of Lombard. At Montebello commenced the negotiations for the definitive peace which were terminated at Passeriano. The Marquis de Gallo, the Austrian plenipotentiary, resided half a league from Montebello. During his residence at Montebello the General-in-Chief made an excursion to the Lake of Como and to the Lago Maggiore.  He visited the Borromean Islands in succession, and occupied himself on his return with the organization of the towns of Venice, Genoa, and Milan. He sought for men and found none. ‘Good God’, said he, ‘how rare men are! There are eighteen millions in Italy, and I have with difficulty found two, Dandolo and Melzi’. He appreciated them properly.

Dandolo was one of the men who, in those revolutionary times, reflected the greatest honour upon Italy. After being a member of the great council of the Cisalpine Republic, he exercised the functions of Proveditore-General in Dalmatia.  It is only necessary to mention the name of Dandolo to the Dalmatians to learn from the grateful inhabitants how just and vigorous his administration was. The services of Melzi[5]are known”.[6]

Further Reading

Bourienne, De, Louis Antoine Fauvelet. Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. Edited by R. W. Phipps, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell.


[1] Don Giovanni Galeazzo was born in Milan on 3 January 1744; he married Donna Teresa di Castelbarco Visconti Simonetta, daughter of Count Don Cesare Ercole marquis of Cislago and of Francesca Simonetta of Counts of Torricella, at Milan, on 19 July 1771.  Fourth Duke of Saint Gabrio; fifth marquis of Romagnano (conferred on 5 July 1777, and on 5 July 1779); second marquis of Incisa (conferred on 25 April 1775); eight count of Castiglione d’Adda; Lord of Gorgonzola and Camporicco; associated Lord of Castelnovo Belbo; great of Spain of first class from 1774; Milanese patrician; Decurion of Milan in 1765; of the XII of Provision in 1766, 1771 and 1774; Imperial chamberlain in 1767; Field-Master of the urban militia in 1772; Curator of the patrimony in 1774; Superintendent to the urban militia in 1775; President of the Patriotic Society in 1777; Superintendent to the civic Archive in 1784. Gian Galeazzo was ambassador at Paris, and deputy at the Comizi di Lione (1802). A member of the Consulta di Stato, and of the Collegio elettore dei possidenti (1802), he died on 7 May 1802.

[2] It was the outstanding building called palazzo Serbelloni; its imposing architectural structure can still be seen in corso Venezia, at Milan.

[3] Quite an important documentary reference to probe the state of foreign military occupation, and the sadly conditioned involution of the popular sovereignty (i.e. the political self-determination of the Lombard peoples), is focused on a dispatch Napoleon sent «To the Lombard Communes» some days after the passing of the bridge at Lodi. It is dated H.Q., Milan, 27 Floréal, Year IV (16 May, 1796): “Within twenty-four hours of the receipt of this order the communes of Lombardy are required to send to headquarters their act of submission and oath of obedience and fidelity to the French Republic. BONAPARTE” The contradictory implications of liberté, an illusive projection manipulated by the French-Republican troops, is stated at the apex of the paradox by the same Général en Chef; any pondered analys is consequently claiming its primeval comprehension with the original documents. The demagogy of the martial glory seemed much claimant to the foreign invaders. As to the word “submission”, it does not deserve any comment at all; this terminology denoted confirmatory evidence and sound opposition to the popular principles, and to the pseudo-libertarian mith of post-revolutionary egalité and fraternité.

[4] Quite stunning that, after some months, the elements of political strategy followed by General Bonaparte are clearly mentioned to the chameleons in Paris; Lombardy will be treated as a conquered country, and nominally retaining a governing institution [i.e. collaborationist regime] aligned with the authoritative principles of the conquerants, which, to condescend the new course, will not pursue the expectations of the social order.  In a dispatch addressed “To the Executive Directory”, and dated Milan, 8 Nivose, Year V (28 December 1796), the responsabilities of the French generalissimo are strident: “There are three parties in Lombardy at the present time: I. that which accepts French control; 2. that which desires independence and is even showing some impatience; 3. the party friendly to the Austrians and hostile to the French. I support and encourage the first, I contain the second and I repress the third. [...]. BONAPARTE”.

Autonomous sovereignty was not conceived in Lombardy, but a vassallatic dependence from the French Republic.

[5] Francesco, Comte de Melzi d’Eril, 1753-1816; vice President of the Italian Republic, 1802; Chancellor of the Kingdom of Italy, 1805; Duc de Lodi, 1807. He was Chancellor and Keeper of the Seals of the Italian monarchy, and was created Duke of Lodi.

[6] Bourienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I, pp. 58-59.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2006


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