Napoleon and the Veronese Easter
During Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian campaign, the inhabitants of Verona revolted against the French forces stationed in the area. The bloody fighting started on April 17, 1797, Easter Monday, thus the rebellion became known as the Pasque Vernesi or Veronese Easter. It ended on April 25, with the capture of the town by French soldiers. The Veronese Easter gave Napoleon the excuse he had been looking for “to efface the Venetian name from the face of the globe.” (1)
In March 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte – then a relatively unknown French general – was appointed commander of France’s Army of Italy. His orders were to invade northern Italy and occupy Lombardy, an Austrian possession. The French Directory thought this would compel Austria to move troops away from the Rhine, where France was fighting against Austria and its allies in the War of the First Coalition.
In June 1796, Napoleon’s army reached Verona. The town was part of the Republic of Venice, which had proclaimed its neutrality in the war. There was considerable friction between the inhabitants and the French soldiers, who behaved more like occupiers than guests. The devout Veronese opposed France’s Jacobin political ideology. The French fomented a number of incidents on Venetian territory, hoping to engineer the creation of a Jacobin government that would ally with France.
By March 1797, Napoleon was advancing into Austria. He wanted to keep his Italian conquests and had in mind offering Austria a dismembered Venice as compensation for her lost territory. He sent a spy to Verona to meet with the Jacobins there and attempt to overthrow the town’s government. On April 11, the plot was uncovered. Some of the conspirators were arrested.
On the night of April 16, Easter Sunday, a manifesto was pinned up in Verona, inciting the population to rebel against the French and their local collaborators. Though it appeared to be signed by a Veronese, it was actually the work of a French collaborator. The purpose was to provide an excuse for the French to definitively occupy the town. Venetian authorities had the copies taken down and replaced with a new manifesto, urging the population to remain calm. It was too late. On April 17, brawls broke out between French soldiers and the local inhabitants. The French discharged cannons into the crowd. The Veronese responded by raging through the streets, killing, wounding and capturing Frenchmen. As described by one of the French soldiers:
[P]easants, taking advantage of the [Easter] festival, crowded into the town and mixed with the townsfolk and the Slav soldiers who still garrisoned the town, clogging the streets and the squares. Around midday, all of a sudden, upon a signal given by whistle blasts, this mob fell upon the French, attacked our isolated outposts, and massacred the guards. Our sick and wounded, who filled our hospitals, had their throats slashed with daggers. The bodies of the murdered French were thrown into the Adige River. The murderers spared neither women nor children. Some of the French were able to reach the forts we occupied. Others sought shelter in the palace of the Venetian magistrate, who granted them asylum, no doubt to preserve the appearance of neutrality should the assault fail, for he did nothing to stop or calm the insurgents.
Once they were masters of the town, the insurgents assaulted the forts, using cannons in the attack, which proves that the Venetian soldiers were on their side. They captured one of our forts and murdered the garrison. The others repulsed them with a hail of bullets; they fired on the town as well. The general in command at Verona, though surrounded, was still able to warn General Kilmaine and ask for help.
We left for Verona with the Lombard legion. After a battle outside the town against the peasants and the Slavs, we scattered them and, as we pursued them, put them to the sword pitilessly. The town was burned. These Veronese people are as cowardly as they are savage. We entered the town unopposed. Our soldiers were furious. They killed everyone who showed any resistance. They wanted to sack the town. It was only with great difficulty that the pillage was stopped, but it was not possible to save the pawnshop. The magistrate and the Venetian authorities vanished.
The leaders of the revolt who had been captured were shot, and a heavy tax was imposed on Verona. [It amounted to] a month’s pay for the soldiers, plus a horse for the mounted officers. I received my horse, but I never obtained my month’s pay. Probably not everyone lost out. (2)
Napoleon’s secretary Bourrienne happened to pass through Verona the day before the rebellion. He wrote:
I arrived in the Venetian territory at the moment when the insurrection against the French was on the eve of breaking out. Thousands of peasants were instigated to rise under the pretext of appeasing the troubles of Bergamo and Brescia…. Easter Sunday was the day which the ministers of Jesus Christ selected for preaching, ‘that it was lawful and even meritorious to kill Jacobins.’ ‘Death to Frenchmen! Death to Jacobins!’ were their rallying cries. At the time I had not the slightest idea of this state of things. After stopping two hours at Verona, I proceeded on my journey without being aware of the massacre which threatened that city. When about a league from the town, I was however stopped by a party of insurgents, on their way thither, consisting, as I estimated of about two thousand men. They only desired me to cry ‘El viva Sento Marco,’ an order with which I speedily complied and passed on. What would have become of me had I been in Verona on the Monday! On that day the bells were rung, while the French were butchered in the hospitals. Every one met in the streets was put to death. The priests headed the assassins, and more than four hundred Frenchmen were thus sacrificed. The forts held out against the Venetians, though they attacked them with fury; but repossession of the town was not obtained until after ten days. On the very day of the insurrection of Verona, some Frenchmen were assassinated between that city and Vicenza, through which I passed on the day before without danger; and scarcely had I passed through Padua, when I learned that others had been massacred there. Thus the assassinations travelled as rapidly as the post. (3)
Eight of the rebel ringleaders were arrested, tried and put to death by firing squads. Another 50 or so were sent as prisoners to French Guyana. Verona had to pay massive reparations. The town was required to supply France with boots and clothing for 40,000 soldiers, a large amount of money, and a hoard of paintings and sculptures, which were shipped off to Paris. (4)
Napoleon referred to the uprising as the “Sicilian vespers,” referring to a rebellion against medieval French rule in Sicily that had been signalled by the ringing of vesper bells on an Easter Monday. (5) The Veronese Easter and other attacks against the French on Venetian territory gave him the excuse he needed to conquer Venice. Even before Napoleon knew about the Veronese Easter, he had signed (on April 18) the Treaty of Leoben with Austria. This included secret articles that ceded Lombardy to France and divided Venice between France and Austria. Since Venice was still a neutral, independent republic, Napoleon had to find a way to conquer it to fulfil his obligations under the Treaty. He wrote to the Directory on April 30:
I am convinced that the only course to be now taken is to destroy this ferocious and sanguinary government. (6)
Napoleon ranged his heavy artillery around Venice and blockaded the harbour with his warships. On May 12, 1797, the Great Council of Venice voted to dissolve the thousand-year-old republic and surrender the city to Napoleon. Napoleon handed Venice to Austria in the Treaty of Campo Formio, but only after looting the city. Among the many treasures sent to Paris were the four bronze horses of St. Mark’s Basilica (returned to Venice after Napoleon’s 1815 defeat) and The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese, which remains in the Louvre.
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- Napoleon in a letter to the Directory, May 3, 1797, quoted in Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Volume 1 (Philadelphia, 1831), p. 58.
- Jean-Nicolas-Auguste Noël, Souvenirs militaires d’un officier du premier Empire (1795-1832) (Paris, 1895), pp. 11-12.
- Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. 1, p. 57.
- Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power (New Haven & London, 2007), p. 294.
- Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice from St. Helena, Volume 2 (London, 1822), p. 355.
- Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. 1, p. 58.
‘Death to Frenchmen! Death to Jacobins!’ were their rallying cries.
Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne