Saturday, May 26, 2012

Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy

It was on May 26, 1805 that the famed Corsican conqueror Napoleone Buonaparte was crowned “King of Italy” with the sacred Iron Crown of Lombardy in Milan. The Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was officially formed on March 17, 1805 and succeeded the earlier Italian Republic which was a vassal of the First French Republic and itself the successor of the earlier Cisalpine Republic and of which Napoleone was the President. However, Bonaparte had monarchial ambitions and, as he once famously said, had the urge to sit on any empty throne he found. So, after driving the Austrians out of northern Italy, and after crowning himself “Emperor of the French” he also assumed the title of “King of Italy”. This was extremely important to him and the attachment he had for the Italian peninsula is shown in the official title Napoleone used which was, “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” giving his Italian title precedence over all others but his French imperial title. This new Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, which covered all of northern Italy not directly annexed by France, had a parliament but it was never called to sit and, significantly, Napoleone decreed that his sons would succeed him on the throne even if it meant that the French and Italian crowns no longer be united in personal union.

The strange thing, perhaps, about that was the fact that Napoleone himself was not originally to be the first King of his new Kingdom of Italy. That honor was first offered to his brother Giuseppe Buonaparte but he declined it, “forcing” Napoleone to take up the Iron Crown himself, uttering at his coronation the famous traditional phrase, “God hath given it to me; woe to him that touches it!” Obviously, since Napoleone (when not at war) would be spending the preponderance of his time in Paris rather than Milan, he appointed a Viceroy to act on his behalf in the government of the Kingdom of Italy. The man he appointed to this post on June 7, 1805 was his stepson Eugè ne de Beauharnais. His job was to suppress republicanism (which the first French revolutionaries who overran Italy tried to force on the people) and to manage Italian affairs in accordance with the best interests of the French Empire. And this was, by the European standards of the time, no minor satellite. After the battle of Austerlitz, the Austrians ceded part of Venezia, Istria and Dalmatia to Italy and in 1808 after the partition of the Papal States the border of the Kingdom of Italy was extended all the way to the frontier of the Kingdom of Naples.

Under the King-Emperor Napoleone, Italy was placed under French style law and civil administration with the Code Napolé on becoming the law of the land. This was not always to the detriment of Italy, in some ways it was an improvement over the patchwork system that preceded it, however, the Kingdom of Italy suffered greatly because of the ‘continental system’ imposed on all the states under Napoleonic influence to strangle trade with Great Britain. The effects on the British were rather negligible but it had a terrible effect on the Italian peninsula (as well as many other regions in Europe). As with all things Napoleonic, Italy also established a very stylish and highly effective army. Their cockade was in the national colors of red, white and green and was outfitted much the same as the French army but with dark green rather than dark blue being the dominant uniform color. There was a Royal Guard, seven line regiments, two dragoon regiments, a horse artillery regiment and an engineer battalion along with the usual auxiliary and support personnel. The Italian troops the Viceroy led into battle alongside his stepfather proved themselves exceptionally courageous and served with particular distinction at Maloyaroslavets.

The end came during the disastrous Russian campaign when the Italian army was all but wiped out and this precipitated the eventual collapse of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy altogether. However, one observer still said, looking back, “The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitle it evermore to rank amongst the bravest troops of Europe”. With French power on the decline, the Kingdom of Bavaria allowed the forces of the Austrian Empire access through the Tyrol and the valley of the Adige to attack Italy. Republicanism began to spread again and the famous French Marshal Murat defected. Nonetheless, Viceroy Eugè ne (considered by many to be the most talented of Napoleone’s relatives) fought desperately to maintain his piece of Europe but he had never been truly accepted and never had the time to become so. When Lord William Bentinck landed at Leghorn on March 8, 1814 it was only a matter of time and on April 14 at Mantua the Viceroy signed an armistice and the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was no more. Yet, the ultimate historical impact was significant.

Perhaps because of his Corsican roots, Napoleone always seemed to have a special attachment to Italy. Not only did he go to the trouble of having himself crowned King of Italy in Milan, he prized that title above others, he made his stepson (and adopted son) Viceroy of Italy and he possibly might have succeeded to that throne himself eventually. Napoleone also gave his own son and heir the title “King of Rome” and to some extent modeled his Empire of the French on the legions of ancient Rome. The French-backed Kingdom of Italy might have gone but the idea, particularly in the north, of a truly independent Italy, a united Italian nation under one flag and one monarchy lingered on and continued to grow over the years. When the campaign for national unification began, it did so in much the same area as the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy had existed and took as its symbol the familiar green, white and red national tricolor. When this dream was finally realized it is also noteworthy that it was done at a time when there happened to be another Buonaparte on the French throne, who was sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance but without whom Italian unification may not have happened when it did.


  1. And that flag looks familiar also. Not correct, but very familiar!

    1. I admit, I got the idea from your own Belgian version.

  2. It is true that Napoleon intended to league the Kingdom to his stepson - I believe the rule was inscribed into the Constitution. When Napoleon himself died, it would go to Eugene's line.

    The Kingdom of Italy was a very efficient little country, and as you know, Eugene was a very capable administrator and general. Quite popular if I recall correctly.