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Bologna during the napoleonic age

1796 | 1815


The calm drowsiness that pre-napoleonic Bologna was in has nearly become a stereotype. Actually, French ideas had already begun circulating throughout the city for a lot of time. The recent economic and tax reform plan by Pio VI, promoted in Bologna by cardinal Ignazio Boncompagni Ludovisi, though it was based on reformatory enlightenment ideas, had definitively alienated the Bolognese senators’minds.

The ancient republican spirit, awakened and merging with new ideas, in 1794 gave birth to the project by Luigi Zamboni and Giambattista De Rolandis, concerning the turnover of Papal government. It’s in this situation that, during the night between June 19 and 20, 1796 – two days after the French vanguards – general Napoleon Bonaparte, commander of the French Army in Italy, got into Bologna. Unlike the Direttorio, which retained that gaining Italian territory was only useful for negotiating with Austria from a more powerful position, he wanted to let the conquest have a political result: the creation in Italy of allied republics, directly depending on him and apt to be exploited to build his own political success. So, the day after his arrival, after having discharged the cardinal, who represented Papal power, Bonaparte solemnly declared to the Bolognese senators that he wanted to give back to the city its former freedom. Quite soon, the best lawyers of the Bolognese atheneum got down in giving a new judicial aspect to the state of things, but the Constitution plan prepared by the Senate and voted in the Church of San Petronio on December 4, 1796, actually didn’t have any effect at all. Two months before, Bonaparte himself had gathered representatives of Bologna, Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, foreseeing the formation of a bigger political setting, the Cispadana Republic, created on December 27, 1796: it was the first Italian State to have the three-colours flag as the national one.

Bologna was bound to become the capital city of this new republic; again the French general made possible for the city, as soon as possible, to get through the rearrangement of streets, squares and buildings, magnificent representative systems, in particular offices for political power, adequately renewed, that “alto rispetto nel popolo imprimessero, e la più distinta considerazione” (“would set respect in the people and the highest consideration”). These plans, carried out in the first months of 1797, however, weren’t concluded. On July 27, Cispadana’s territories were added to the Cisalpina Republic, born on July 9, having Milan as capital city: Bologna definitely lost her condition, but at the same time there was an opening to new perspectives, particularly favourable for the most dynamic classes. During the same turbulent months, while the city was busy with the several and picturesque manifestations organized by the local Jacobins, Napoleon consolidated his alliance with the former senatory class and the new bourgeoisie, by selling the estates coming from the suppressed religious congregations: it was him who suggested this, so as to settle the new State’s finances, and the élites of the city took advantage of this. In fact, they got, in a short time, a vast urban real estate, at a very low price. The temporary re-seizure of Bologna by the Austrian-Russian armies (1799-1800) could only result in regretting the French, who anyway took again the control on the city after Marengo’s victory (June 14, 1800). After the coup d’état of (brumaio) 18 (November 9), Napoleon became the real leader, in that situation, in France too, so he no longer needed political allies, even if it was a formality: no one talked of the initial municipal freedom anymore and also the local Jacobin clubs weren’t given much freedom to act. Bologna was annexed too, as any other city, into a very centralized and well-structured State, according to the French model.

At the Lyon Congress (1802), when the Cisalpina got the name of Italian Republic, some Bolognese representatives played a protagonist role, but without letting the city feel particularly involved. Napoleon’s visit, which took place from June 21 to 25, 1805, aroused other feelings, since in the meantime he had become Emperor (and King of Italy). The majestic entrance through Porta S. Felice, the memorable ride to S. Michele in Bosco, the great military parade at Caprara’s Prairies, the déjeuner at Villa Marescalchi and the consequent climb to Colle dell’Osservanza were episodes bound to remain in the citizens’memories for long. But Napoleon was able to make his visit followed by some important changes, that, in certain cases, marked the appearance of the city in a very deep manner: the re-launching and strengthening of the University, which was afterwards endowed of an appropriate auditorium and of the botanic and agricultural gardens, the hydraulic setting of the Reno, the Montagnola turning into a public garden, the creation of avenues lined with trees around the walls. Trying to calculate Bologna’s balance in the napoleonic period would be too difficult and it would require the distinction between the city, which often very positively accepted the changes, and the countryside, which underwent only negative drawbacks (obligatory conscription, introduction of capitalistic criteria for the conduction of the lands, continuous passages of armies). However, in those twirling years, the staticity of the previous socio-economic relations was definitely broken, ancient institutions disappeared. Turmoils and innovations were aroused: they wouldn’t have been sedated anymore and, instead, would have highly influenced the subsequent decades.