The underside of empire…

Among the books I took with me on holiday recently was a study of various aspects of the Napoleonic Empire in Italy–mostly administrative, as it happens.  Not, you might think, a very enlivening read for those hours on the beach.

Well, yes.

And no.

Perhaps, under other circumstances, I might have chosen something a little more frivolous or even more sanguinary than, er, a study of how the Code Napoleon was applied in Italy for less than a decade at the beginning of the 19th century.

But then, I am an historian.  And as the famous saying goes, “‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ said the old lady as she kissed the cow.”


So there I was, on the beach of an unspecified quiet island, reading about the crushing of Italian culture, legal processes, religious practice, government and identity by a French empire whose avowed purpose was to lift the Italians out of the moral morass into which they had sunk through their laziness and corruption and Catholicism, inspiring in them [through a Napoleonic version of tough love] a manly affection for the Fatherland [France].

(I paraphrase…)

Say again?

Yes, that’s right.  You read all that correctly.

And I must say, before reading this worthy volume, it had never struck me with such force that like the Nazi Occupation of so much of Europe, the Napoleonic Empire required not just a lunatic head of state, it must have also required the active participation of thousands of administrators and jobsworths who subscribed to the messianic nationalism and megalomania of their leader.

Despite two centuries of very effective spin and disinformation which say otherwise, Napoleonic rule in Italy beginning in 1799 was brutal, repressive, marked by pillage, rapine, aggressive anti-clericalism, cultural bigotry and racism.

Beyond the initial pillaging of Italy’s artistic treasures–church, public and private–which began in 1799 and continued through the next 15 years, among the repressive (if that’s a strong enough word) measures applied to Italy were the enforced closure of convents and monasteries, the seizure of ecclesiastical lands, with the nuns and monks being made outlaws, often reduced to begging and/or starvation.  Priests who would not take an oath of loyalty to the Concordat and Napoleon were thrown into prison.

Imagine that.

For his part in resisting French rule over the clergy and conscience, the pope was taken and held hostage in France.

(This is a rather interesting one on the disinformation front–even today, Wikipedia is still reporting his imprisonment and the French rule over Rome as “in the absence of the Pope…”)

Oh, and the treasures of the Vatican–those that weren’t painted on walls–were ‘liberated’ so that they could go and live happily in the Louvre…

Conscription into the French army (which was held to make the lazy and effeminate Italians manly–this according to French writings of the time) occurred thrice-yearly and was referred to by the Italians as the ‘blood-tax’.

The Italians knew their young men would find the army brutalising at best and most probably never come home.

And they were right.

Of the 82,000+ Italians who went into Russia with Napoleon in the summer of 1812, only some 4000 returned–their health, and often their sanity, destroyed.   That’s less than 5%.

(That’s roughly equivalent to the loss of 200,000 men from northern Italy today.)

I, for one, cannot fathom that number of private tragedies…

So the peasants and farmers–upon whom conscription fell most heavily, often destroying a family’s ability to survive–did everything they could to avoid it.  To such an extent that the conscripts, guarded by French officers and the Gendarmerie, were usually tied or chained together as they were marched away from their homes and villages.

Yet this was only one element of the Napoleonic war machine working to turn Italy into a military police state–because that’s what it was.

When the Italians did not all jump on board, did not all rally round the Imperial Eagles, when the upper or literate classes turned their backs on the French administators for ruining their trade and commerce and manufacturing(through the Continental Blockade), turned against them too for their rabid religious intolerance and the vicious imprisonment of the pope, the French upped the game.

They began what they called the Golden Levy: 

The young teenage (and even younger) sons of the bourgeoisie and the upper classes were required to be removed from their families, to be sent to be educated in France, away from their parents and their parents’ Catholic and cultural influences–the sons of the bourgeoisie to technical college at La Fleche and the sons of the patrician families to the military academies.

If it all sounds a bit like Hitler’s Youth, that’s because it was.

But even this wasn’t enough.

In the autumn of 1813, as the Allies began to win against Napoleon, as the Empire began to crumble and retract, the French administrators in Rome and Florence, Roederer and Tournon, (who incidentally write about the Italians in terms of contempt, disgust or revulsion) took hostages–husbands, wives, sons–and had them sent to Paris.  There to serve in the Imperial household in order to guarantee that the families would remain loyal to Napoleon during the forthcoming unrest…

All of which sounds just a little unmodern.  Mediaeval even.  Doesn’t it?

Nothing at all like the Enlightenment–liberty, fraternity and equality–which Napoleon preached and promised to bring to all of Europe.

Yet beacons of enlightened and rational professionalism bestowing the advantages of a modern state, doing what they had to do, is how all of these French administators in Italy saw themselves.

As I said in the title, the underside of empire…

Kind of makes one feel a bit sick, doesn’t it?


6 comments on “The underside of empire…

  1. That’s a very pale looking donkey.

  2. But on a more serious note, despite Napoleon’s well known predilection for involving himself in altering other countries’ constitutions etc, etc, on a whim, I wonder how much ‘Sir Humphrey’ is at work here. Old revolutionary tactics and ideals, which must have become ingrained in the professional civil service, can’t simply have disappeared, d’you think?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      In the case of Italy, he didn’t just alter the consitution, he threw the various governments out lock, stock and barrel, along with their judicial processes, which he judged too soft and slow, their religious practices, dispatching as administrators those former Jacobins who had been with him in Egypt and who were most anti-Virgin…and his anti-Italian policies accelerated with time. Italy is the one other country which he took over with the intention of annexation, turning the various areas into new departements of France…

  3. m.m.fahren says:

    A rich amalgam of knowledge and application here, Bennetts. Thank you. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Yes, ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’ do generate the oddest responses in our ‘common’ humanities still, don’t they?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Really pleased you enjoyed it, MM. I’m still percolating with all of this…and some of it at least will be appearing in the next book.

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