Venice: Napoleon's Italian Thorn

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The Napoleon Series > Government > Governments and Politics

Venice: Napoleon's Italian Thorn

By Victor Blair

Today, the city of Venice is made up of 117 inhabited islands separated by a network of 180 canals cut through by the Grand Canal bent in the shape of an 'S.'  The city was originally founded in the 5th Century.   In the year 830, the body of St. Mark the Evangelist having been transported from Egypt, became the patron saint of the Republic.  His relics are housed in St. Mark's Cathedral confronting the grand piazza with the vast building of the Doge's palace beside it, being watchdog over all.

Napoleon in 1797

Napoleon in 1797

1797: Napoleon, being master of all northern Italy, with the exception of  Venice, the mistress of the Adriatic, though no longer qualified to keep equal rank with the first princes of Europe, was still proud and haughty, and not likely to omit any favourable opportunity of aiding Austria in the great and common object of ridding Italy of the French.  Napoleon wished to make an ally of Venice.  To her government he said


"Your whole territory is imbued with revolutionary principles.  One single word from me will excite a blaze of insurrection through all your provinces.  Ally yourself with France, make a few modifications in your government, such as are indispensable for the welfare of the people, and we will pacify public opinion and will sustain your authority." 

The Doge of Venice

The Doge of Venice

Advice more prudent and humane could not have been given, but Venice was not to take it!

Napoleon heard without surprise that the Doge (chief magistrate ruler) had been raising new levies, and that the senate could command an army of 50,000, composed chiefly of fierce and semi-barbarous Sclavonian mercenaries.  He demanded to know what these demonstrations meant, and was answered that Venice had no desire but to maintain a perfect neutrality.  Meantime there was a strong party, throughout the Venetian territories of the mainland, who were anxious to emulate the revolutionary movements of the great cities of Lombardy, and to emancipate themselves from the yoke of the Venetian oligarchy, as their neighbours had done by that of the Austrian crown.  Insurrections occurred elsewhere; and Bonaparte, after some negotiation, told the Venetian envoy, that he granted the prayer of his masters.               

"Be neutral," said he, "but see that your neutrality be indeed sincere and perfect.  If any insurrection occurs in my rear to cut off my communications in the event of my marching on Germany---if any movement whatever betray the disposition of your senate to aid the enemies of France, be sure that vengeance will follow---from that hour the independence of Venice has ceased to be."

Napoleon now hastened to carry the war into the hereditary dominions of the Emperor of Austria. Twenty thousand fresh troops joined his victorious standards from France and he proceeded to the frontier of Frioul where the main army of Austria was standing by ready for a sixth campaign to be lead by Archduke Charles, a young man like himself. 

Bonaparte found the Archduke posted behind the river Tagliamento, in front of the rugged Carinthian Mountains, which guard the passage in that quarter from Italy to Germany.  Detaching Massena to the Piave,

The Archduke Charles

The Archduke Charles in 1797

where the Austrian division of Lusignan was in observation, he himself determined to charge the Archduke in front.  Massena was successful where a rear guard of 500 surrendered and thus turned the Austrian flank.  Bonaparte then attempted and effected the passage of the Tagliamento.  After a great and formal display of his forces, which was met by similar demonstrations on the Austrian side of the river, he suddenly broke up his line and retreated.  The Archduke, knowing that the French had been marching all the night before, concluded that the general wished to defer the battle till another day; and in like manner withdrew to his camp.  Two hours later, Napoleon rushed with his whole army, who had merely lain down in ranks, upon the margin of the Tagliamento, no longer guarded adequately and forded the stream before the Austrians line of battle could be formed.  The Austrians displayed much gallantry but could not dislodge the French troups.  Retreat was judged necessary!  The French followed hard behind.  At Gradisca, the French captured 5,000 prisoners.  In this campaign of 20 days, the Austrians fought Bonaparte ten times, but the overthrow on the Tagliamento was never recovered.  The Archduke adopted the resolution of reaching Vienna by forced marches, there to gather round him whatever force the loyalty of his nation could muster, and make a last stand beneath the walls of the capital.

This plan, at first sight the mere dictate of despair, was in truth that of a wise and prudent general.  The Archduke had received intelligence from two quarters of events highly unfavourable to the French.  General Laudon, the Austrian commander on the Tyrol frontier, had descended with forces sufficient to overwhelm Bonaparte's lieutenants on the upper Adige, and was already in possession of the whole Tyrol, and of several of the Lombard towns.  Meanwhile the Venetian Senate, on hearing of these Austrian successes, had plucked up courage to throw aside their flimsy neutrality, and not only declared war against France, but hired 10,000 Slavonian mercenary soldiers, sending 6,000 of them to Verona to open the contest with the massacre of 400 French wounded in the city's hospital.  The vindictive Italians, wherever the French party was inferior in numbers, resorted to similar atrocities.  The few troops left in Lombardy by Napoleon were obliged to shut themselves up in garrisons.  Napoleon's rear was for the time being, cut off from receiving any supplies because of the Venetian army.

Cleverly, Napoleon hastened to write to the Archduke offering to share with him the glory of giving peace to Europe, and of putting an end to the immense sacrifices which war had cost Austria and France

"Brave soldiers," said he, "make war, but wish for peace.  Have we killed men enough, and caused sufficient misfortunes to unhappy mankind?  You, who by birth are so near the throne, and are above the petty passions which frequently actuate ministers and governments, are you disposed to merit the title of a benefactor to all mankind, and become the true saviour of Germany?  As for me, if the overture which I have just made can save the life of a single man, I shall be prouder of the civic crown which I shall have merited, than of the melancholy glory which military success confers." 

Archduke Charles replied

"Most certainly, general, whilst I carry on war in obedience to the call of honour and duty, I am desirous, as you are, of peace, for the sake of the people and of humanity.  Nevertheless, whatever may be the future chances of war, or whatever hopes of peace may exist, I beg you to rest convinced, General, of my esteem and particular consideration."  Napoleon, the psychologist, prevailed!

Soon after, a series of negotiations between Napoleon and the Emperor of Austria were concluded with the provisional Treaty of Loeben, signed April 18, 1797.

No sooner were the major negotiations concluded, then Napoleon abandoned the details to his subordinates and pivoted on his heel to retrace his steps, and pour the full storm of his wrath on the Venetians.  The rapidity of Bonaparte's return gave them no breathing time.  He wrote to the Directory, that  "the only course to be taken, was to destroy this ferocious and sanguinary government ; and erase the Venetian name from the face of the earth."  They hastened to send offers of submission, and their messengers were received with anger and contempt.  "French blood has been treacherously shed," said Napoleon; "if you could offer me the treasures of Peru, if you could cover your whole dominion with gold---the atonement would be insufficient:..You have murdered my children---the winged lion of St. Mark (the armorial bearing of Venice) must lick the dust."  These tidings came like a sentence of death upon the devoted senate.  On the 16th of May, the tri-coloured flag was hoisted in St. Mark's Place for all to see!  The winged Lion of St. Mark and the Corinthian horses were taken to ornament the Carousel in the Tuilleries in Paris, never to return till the Congress of Vienna made her reparations.

The Doge and the senate whose only hopes had rested on the successes of Austria on the Adige, heard with utter despair that the Archduke had shared the same fate as Beaulieu, Wurmser, and Alvinzi; and that the preliminaries of peace were actually signed.  In their last agony, the Venetian Senate made a vain effort to secure the personal protection of the general, by offering him a purse of seven millions of francs.  He rejected this with scorn.  He had already treated in the same style a bribe of four millions, tendered on the part of the Duke of Modena.  Austria herself, it is said, did not hesitate to tamper in the same manner, though far more magnificently, as became her resources, with his republican virtue.  He was offered, if the story be true, an independent German principality for himself and his heirs.  "I thank the Emperor of Austria," Napoleon  answered, "but if greatness is to be mine, it shall come from France."

The French Entry into Venice

The French Entry into Venice

Popular tumults filled the streets and canals of Venice; universal confusion prevailed.  The commanders of the Venetian troops and fleets received contradictory orders.  The city seemed ready to yield everything to a ruthless and implacable enemy without even striking a blow in defense.

Bonaparte appeared, while the confusion was at its height on the opposite coast of the Lagoon.  Some of his troops were already in the heart of the city, when on the 31st of May, a hasty message reached him, announcing that the Senate submitted wholly.  He exacted severe revenge.  The leaders who had aided the Lombard insurgents were delivered to him.  The oligarchy ceased to rule, and a democratic government was formed provisionally, on the model of FranceVenice consented to surrender to the victor large territories on the mainland of Italy; five ships of war; 3,000,000 francs in gold, and as many more in naval stores; twenty of their best pictures, and 500 manuscripts.  Among the works of art sent by Napoleon to Paris was the celebrated picture of St. Jerome from the Duke of Parma's gallery.  The Duke, to save this treasure, offered Napoleon two hundred thousand dollars, which the conqueror refused to take, saying: "The sum which he offers us will soon be spent; but the possession of such a masterpiece at Paris will adorn that capital for ages, and give birth to similar exertions of genius."  Lastly, the troops of the conqueror were to occupy the capital until tranquillity was established.

It was a glorious reform for the Venetian nation; it was a terrible downfall for the Venetian aristocracy.  The banner of the new Republic now floated from the windows of the Doge's palace, and as it waved exultingly in the breeze, it was greeted with the most enthusiastic acclamations by the people, who had been trampled under the foot of oppression for fifteen hundred years. 

Such was the humiliation of this once proud and energetic, but now worn out and enfeebled, oligarchy.  Napoleon took possession of the city, and the history of the Venetian Republic was ended!




Abbott, John. The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte;1855.

Cruickshank, George. The History of Napoleon Buonaparte Family Library;1866.

Gibbs, Montgomery B. Napoleon's Military Career; 1902.

Hazlitt, William. The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte; 1854.

Laurent de l'Ardeche, M . History of Napoleon;1853.

Pratt, Fletcher. Road to Empire 1939.

Scott, Sir Walter. The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte; 1827.


Placed on the Napoleon Series October 2002


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