Bonaparte recounts the capture of Venice

Bonaparte recounts the capture of Venice

  • Autograph note from General Bonaparte on the events in Venice. 1797.

    BONAPARTE Napoleon (1769 - 1821)

  • Federation of Cisalpine Cities celebrated in Milan. 11 July 1797.

Autograph note from General Bonaparte on the events in Venice. 1797.

© Historic Center of the National Archives - Photography workshop

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Title: Federation of Cisalpine Cities celebrated in Milan. 11 July 1797.

Author :

Creation date : 1857

Date shown: July 11, 1797

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Extract from Napoleon I's Fastes.

Storage location: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo National Library of France

Picture reference: 2002 C 236996

Federation of Cisalpine Cities celebrated in Milan. 11 July 1797.

© Photo National Library of France

Publication date: May 2003

Historical context

Following his victories in Italy, Bonaparte, who marches on Vienna, signs an armistice with Austria and suddenly decides to seize Venice. From 1797, Bonaparte had nothing to do with the instructions of the Directory, which also varied according to the director who won. Taking Venice would make it possible to immediately recover a well-equipped navy, to supply the coffers of the Army of Italy without charge and, for Bonaparte entered Austria, to prevent the Austrians from attempting a movement on his right.

On April 17, 1797, while Bonaparte's troops had occupied Verona since November, disturbances qualified as Veronese Easter provided Bonaparte with a pretext to intervene. But, from May 12, the doge Ludovico Manin and the Grand Council jointly resign from their functions, abolish the Republic and rely on a provisional government. On May 15, 3,000 French embark in Mestre on 40 boats and invest in Venice in peace.

The preliminaries of peace which follow the armistice of Loeben (April 18, 1797) and the Treaty of Campoformio (October 17, 1797), which confirms them, establish the cession of Venice and most of its possessions to the Emperor. The interesting counterpart for France is to have its stranglehold on the Cisalpine Republic recognized, which, with Ancona on the Adriatic, provides it with both the means to cut off the southern Italian peninsula from the Empire, and to lead to the Adriatic.

It remains to convince the French public wishing for peace of the merits of the operation. Bonaparte does this through his reports and through the newspapers he controls. For more than a year in Italy, Bonaparte has also been following closely the events which shake up France, where, already, he plans to play a role.

Image Analysis

Bonaparte wrote this story at the end of June 1797, to justify the occupation of Venice, to boast of the preliminaries of peace and to dissuade any opposition. The recipient of this very biased report is not known, but the document demonstrates the 27-year-old general's skill in manipulating situations and building his own image.

The document, authenticated by his brother, Lucien Bonaparte, and his former secretary, Baron Fain, was acquired in 1835 by Louis-Philippe for the Archives of the kingdom. This autograph manuscript reveals at the same time the sometimes approximate use that Bonaparte makes of French, which was not his mother tongue. He was almost 10 years old when he began his apprenticeship and entered the college of Autun as a scholarship holder, before going to Brienne. All his life, Napoleon spoke French with a strong Corsican accent.

It is obvious here that the fiery general ignores the difference between armistice and amnesty (he will also always confuse these two notions!). Are not the "inquisitors" rather the "instigators" of the attacks in Verona? His spelling fantasies are sometimes pleasant: "the conqueror", "the sintomes", "appaiser" ...

In the manner of Gallic War, Bonaparte accumulates Latin references to convince that he is reissuing in Italy the military deeds of Antiquity and that his destiny is infallible. Like Julius Caesar, he notes his actions in the third person, with a laconism that reinforces the demonstration of his effectiveness. His "aspect" (literal translation used in preference to "his sight") is enough to bring calm "much like the winds of Virgil to the aspect of Neptune". "Bonaparte made the so famous manifesto". He wants to "appease the spirits of his brothers in arms". Finally, "Bonaparte as usual spared blood". He underlines with his hand that he "made peace".

Would Caesar not also be the inspiration behind Bonaparte's Machiavellian and deliberate project to provoke war with the Republic of Venice, to occupy it and oust its government, so as to make room for the cession to the Austria? In Saint Helena, Bonaparte will dictate a Precise of Caesar's wars showing his affinities with the strategic and political calculations of the famous Roman general. By replacing Caesar by Napoleon and Rome by Revolution, could the fallen emperor not have applied to himself this revealing formula: "Caesar's authority was legitimate because it was necessary and protective, because 'it retained all the interests of Rome, because it was the effect of the opinion and the will of the people "?

Andrea Appiani contributed from the outset of the campaign to present Bonaparte as a hero of the liberation of Italy, in an antique style which fits well with the spirit of Bonaparte's story. Between 1807 and 1810, he will also illustrate the royal palace of Milan with an apotheosis of Napoleon in thirty-five episodes. Among these paintings, ruined in 1943 but known by engravings, his evocation of the first Italian campaign is that of a witness of Bonaparte's entourage, who perfectly understood the aspirations of his model. In July 1797, the Cisalpine Republic received a constitution drafted by Bonaparte. The ceremony and its ancient reminiscences, the emblems, the costumes, correspond to a role of legislator bringing peace in which Bonaparte likes to show himself, to highlight his capacities as a statesman.


Bonaparte paints a picture of Venice of a worn out and decadent oligarchy, cowardly, dangerously perfidious and sheltering an uncontrollable populace. The "10,000 slavs" (which evoke the famous Quai des Esclavons in Venice) refer to the Southern Slavs who fought for the Serenissima. Simultaneously, Bonaparte practices the policy of the fait accompli: occupation, provisional government, then peace negotiations.

Bonaparte mystifies not only the Venetians, but also the Directory, by playing on French opinion, which aspires to peace. In the summer of 1797, if the Directory opposes the peace negotiations, it immediately loses itself in public opinion, which will make it responsible for the resumption of war. Bonaparte himself takes care to stage his capacities to administer and to legislate, as well as his military genius while playing on his frail physique and his simplicity.

But the "victor" also knows how to exert pressure by threatening a return of the army to Paris. The apostrophe comminatory to the royalist group of Clichy, "If you oblige, the soldiers of Italy will come to the bar of Clichy with their general; but woe to you!", Will be followed by the sending, in August 1797, of the General Augereau to militarily occupy Paris and support the government of the Directory. In reality, Bonaparte was well aware that the prospect of his return to Paris, in full glory, at the head of his legions, would also worry the Directory!

  • Appiani (Andrea)
  • antiquity
  • Italian countryside
  • Directory
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • peace
  • propaganda
  • Cisalpine Republic
  • Venice


Andrée CHAULEUR and Roger DRUE From Dagobert to de Gaulle, writings from France Paris, Dessain and Tolra, 1985 Amable de FOURNOUX, Napoleon and Venice, the Eagle and the Lion Paris, Fallois, 2002.Annie JOURDAN Napoleon, hero, imperator, patron Paris, Aubier, 1998. Jean TULARD (dir.) Napoleon dictionary Paris, Fayard, 1987. Jean TULARD Napoleon or the Myth of the Savior Paris, Fayard, 1986. Michel VOVELLE The Sister Republics under the gaze of the Great Nation, 1795-1803 Paris, L’Harmattan, 2000.

To cite this article

Luce-Marie ALBIGÈS, "Bonaparte relates the capture of Venice"

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