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)

The assassination of the French at Verona, in Italy, on 17 April 1797. Depiction of the Veronese Easter by J. Duplessi Bertaux. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

The assassination of the French at Verona by J. Duplessi Bertaux. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

The uprising

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)

Repercussions

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.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese, fruit of Napoleon's looting of Venice after the Veronese Easter

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese, fruit of Napoleon’s looting of Venice after the Veronese Easter

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Napoleon and the Easter Insurrection in Corsica

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What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

  1. 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.
  2. Jean-Nicolas-Auguste Noël, Souvenirs militaires d’un officier du premier Empire (1795-1832) (Paris, 1895), pp. 11-12.
  3. Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. 1, p. 57.
  4. Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power (New Haven & London, 2007), p. 294.
  5. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice from St. Helena, Volume 2 (London, 1822), p. 355.
  6. Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vol. 1, p. 58.

18 commments on “Napoleon and the Veronese Easter”

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    I would surmise that the “Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the periods of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire” of 1831 – are likely to be a falsification, of dubious quality. No such work is known to be an official source. Could you give some explanatory comments on this book?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne was Napoleon’s childhood friend, from the military academy at Brienne, who later became Napoleon’s private secretary. His multi-volume memoirs of Napoleon – based on the extensive notes and documents Bourrienne supplied to a ghost writer – were first published in 1829. The French historian Jean Tulard (an expert on Napoleon) says that they supply “some useful information.” Napoleon’s letters to the Directory quoted in my post can also be found in Napoleon’s official correspondence (Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Vol. 3, pp. 13 & 26: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6319350x).

      • Kevin F. Kiley says:

        Bourrienne is an unreliable witness as his ‘memoirs’ were not actually written by Bourrienne himself. A publisher named Ladvocat ‘installed’ Bourrienne in a small room to write his memoirs, but all Bourrienne produced were some notes upon which the first two volumes of his ‘memoirs’ were based. The other eight volumes were ghost-written by Maxime de Villemarest who was ‘a failed diplomat turned journalist.’ Bourrienne died in 1834 in an insane asylum. He was sacked twice by Napoleon for extortion and embezzlement. In 1830 Comte Boulay de La Meurthre headed a group who in the 720 page volume Bopurrienne et ses erreurs pointed out the factual errors in the alleged ‘memoirs.’ Using Bourrienne as a source is ‘iffy’ at best for they are mendacious and definitely are biased against Napoleon. What the ghost-writer didn’t know he made up. And it should be pointed out that de Villemarest was an admirer of Talleyrand (another who was sacked for avarice by Napoleon) and wrote a ‘biography’ of him.

        • Shannon Selin says:

          Thanks for these details about Bourrienne’s memoirs, Kevin. There are differences of opinion about how useful his memoirs are; as Tulard says, they cannot be entirely discarded. In any case, of the quotes I have used from Bourrienne in this article, two are from letters that appear in Napoleon’s official correspondence (which was authorized by and edited — favourably to Napoleon — by his nephew Napoleon III), and the third provides a corroboration of other eyewitness accounts of the massacre of the French in Verona. If Bourrienne is mendacious in this case, it may be in overplaying the extent of the violence against the French. The historian Philip Dwyer, for example, believes that the number of French killed was “probably closer to a few dozen” than four hundred.

          • Kevin F. Kiley says:

            But the trick when using suspect references is to know what is accurate and what is not. And that is difficult if not impossible with mendacious and suspect memoirs such as Bourrienne’s.

            Vincent Cronin has done excellent work evaluating memoirs in an appendix to his biography of Napoleon which is one of the best available.

            Further, I don’t put much trust in Dwyer’s work.

            For what Napoleon did or didn’t say, it is best to go to his Correspondence to ensure what has been quoted is not taken out of context.

          • Shannon Selin says:

            I agree, Kevin, thus the link to the Correspondence above.

            Cronin’s biography provides a highly sympathetic view of Napoleon. In the words of Susan Howard, reviewing the book for the Napoleon Series, “Cronin’s system is to produce a rose-tinted picture of events by missing out anything unpleasant…. The use of the primary sources is very selective: I can find passages in Caulaincourt, Gourgaud and Bertrand which contradict the author’s views, yet he includes these as his reliable sources. He also includes Lecestre’s Lettres inedites de Napoleon I — omitted from the original Correspondance because they show the Imperial rule at its worst. One wonders if Cronin actually read them, since they are incompatible with his picture of Napoleon as idealistic and honourable, a heroic figure with just enough flaws to make him human. To talk of ‘blots on the imperial picture’ is the most feeble of understatements when the picture is completely wiped out by reading Napoleon’s own words.” (Full review here: http://www.napoleon-series.org/reviews/biographies/c_cronin.html.)

            As for Dwyer’s two-volume biography of Napoleon, Rafe Blaufarb (Director of the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution at Florida State University’s Department of History) calls it “the gold-standard account of the Napoleonic adventure” (see http://www.historynet.com/mhq-reviews-napoleon-in-power.htm). Reviewing a number of Napoleonic biographies last year, Charles Esdaile (a history professor at the University of Liverpool who specializes in the Napoleonic era) noted that Dwyer’s work “for the time being at least must be judged to remain the standard text” (http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1707).

  • Mark Anderson says:

    Good article.

  • Miriam Al Jamil says:

    Have never seen a definitive list of what is still in the Louvre after the ‘looting’. Would be interested to know about the process of returning them, and why some work was not included.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I agree!

    • Kevin F. Kiley says:

      Owen Connelly mentions the issue in his book Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms and states that many of the so-called ‘looted’ works were legitimately purchased by the French government and still belong to France.

      Some that could be considered ‘stolen’ remained in France also as Louis XVIII did not want to offend the French people by returning them.

      Alexander I purchased hundreds of works as the allies could not decide in 1814 which works had been legally seized during the course of the wars.

  • Tom Holmberg says:

    Re: Tulard & Villemarest

    Nouvelle Bibliographie Critique des Mémoires sur l’Époque Napoléonienne… by Jean Tulard (Droz, 1991):

    Publiés en 1829, ces mémoires firent sensation. Ils ont été depuis cette date, constamment utilisés par les historiens de Napoléon, surtout pour la jeunesse de Bonaparte. Ils appellent pourtant de graves réserves. Ils auraient été composés sous le ministère Martignac, après l’élimination de Bourrienne de la vie politique. En réalité, selon Méneval qui connaissait bien Bourrienne, celui-ci victime d’embarras financiers et déjà malade, a simplement consenti ‘ à couvrir de l’authorité de son nom des mémoires à la composition desquels il n’a coopéré que par des notes confuses, incomplètes, pièces que des hommes de lettres furent chargés de mettre en oeuvre ‘. Ces rédacteurs ont dû suppléer à l’insuffisance de ces notes par leurs propres recherches et à l’aide de documents qui leur ont été fournis par l’éditeur Ladvocat. Ainsi la célèbre bataille de boules de neige à Brienne a-t-elle été empruntée, non aux souvenirs de Bourrienne, mais à la traduction française par Bourgoing d’une brochure anonyme anglais, “Quelques notions sur les premières années de Bonaparte.” D’autres emprunts proviennent de Salgues (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de France). Certains documents, comme la lettre de Christine (sic) Bonaparte, semblent apocryphes.

    L’auteur serait Charles de Villemarest, qui fut attaché au cabinet de Talleyrand. De là les éloges adressés au prince de Bénévent dans le cours des “Mémoires.” La maladie empêche Bourrienne de contrôler les affirmations de Villemarest. Est-ce à celui-ci ou à Bourrienne que l’on doit attribuer les insinuations malveillantes à l’égard de Napoléon et de son entourage?

    My rough translation:

    Published in 1829, these memoirs created a sensation. Since that time they have been used constantly by the historians of Napoleon, especially for the youth of Bonaparte. They however call for serious reservations. They would have been composed under the Martignac ministry, after the elimination of Bourrienne from political life. Actually, according to Méneval who knew Bourrienne well, this victim of financial embarrassments and already ill, simply agreed ‘to lend the authority of his name to the memoirs, the composition of which he cooperated only by supplying the confused notes, incomplete, that men of letters were hired to use.’ These writers had to compensate for the insufficiency of these notes by their own research and using documents which were provided to them by Ladvocat, the editor. Thus the celebrated battle of the snowballs at Brienne was borrowed, not from the memoirs of Bourrienne, but from the French translation by Bourgoing of an English anonymous pamphlet, “Quelques notions sur les premières années de Bonaparte.” Other borrowings came from Salgues (“Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de France”). Certain documents, such as the letter of Christine (sic) Bonaparte, seem apocryphal.

    The author is Charles de Villemarest, who was attached to the cabinet of Talleyrand. From there arises the praise addressed to Prince de Bénévent [Talleyrand] in the course of these “Mémoires.” His illness prevents Bourrienne from controlling the assertions of Villemarest. Is it with Villemarest or Bourrienne that one must allot the malevolent insinuations with regard to Napoleon and his entourage?

    “Villemarest, Charles-Maxime de, 1758-1852, littérateur. Le plus célèbre des ‘teinturiers’, les fabricants de mémoirs de la Revolution, du Consulat et de l’Empire à qui les acteurs de ces années-là, qui ne voulaient ou ne pouvaient écrire eux-mêmes. confièrent de vive voix ou par écrit les éléments de leurs souvenirs. Élève au Prytanée, remarqué par Bonapate, il fut attaché au cabinet de Talleyrand et, en 1813, devint secrétaire du prince Camille Borghèse….Parmi les mémoires qu’il rédigea en partie ou en totalité, certains sont devenus célèbres, aussi intéressants que suspects: ceux de Mlle Avrillon, première femme de chambre de Joséphine, de Constant, premier valet de chambre, et de Bourrienne, secrétaire intime de Napoléon.” From a dictionary of French literature.

    “Villemarest, Charles-Maxime de, 1758-1852, literary man. The most famous of the ‘teinturiers’ (colorers?), the manufacturers of mémoirs of the Revolution, the Consulate and the Empire to which the actors of these years, who did not want or could not write themselves entrusted of sharp voice or written the elements of their memories. A student at Prytanée, noticed by Bonaparte, he was attached to the cabinet of Talleyrand and, in 1813, became secretary to Prince Camille Borghèse…. Among the memoirs which he wrote in part or entirely, some became celebrated, as interesting as they are suspect: those of Miss Avrillon, first chambermaid of Joséphine, of Constant, first valet, and Bourrienne, intimate secretary to Napoleon.”

    Le plus célèbre des ‘teinturiers’, ces fabricants de mémoires de la Revolution, du Consulat et de l’Empire à qui les acteurs de ces années-là, qui ne voulaient ou ne pouvaient écrire eux-mêmes, confièrent de vive voix ou par écrit les éléments de leurs souvenirs.”

    Most famous of the “teinturiers”, these manufacturers of memories of the Revolution, the Consulate and of the Empire to whom the actors of those years, who did not want or could not write themselves, entrusted of sharp voice or written the elements of their memories.

    Un fameux littérateur et “teinturier” (1785-1852), auteur – en partie – d’un grand nombre de mémoires d’Empire, diplomate sous le Consulat, secrétaire du prince Borghèse en 1808, et journaliste sous la Restauration. On imagine sans peine à quel point le talentueux et prolifique Villemarest, maintenant fidèle aux Bourbons, s’acharne avec virulence contre la Révolution, sans trop ménager non plus l’empereur Napoléon, son bienfaiteur d’autrefois englouti par l’histoire. C’est justement ce regard “opportuniste” sur un passé récent qui donne tout son prix à ce recueil de “vrais faux souvenirs”.

    A famous literary man and “teinturier” (1785-1852), author – partly – of a great number of memories of Empire, diplomat under the Consulate, secretary of prince Borghèse in 1808, and journalist under the Restoration. One imagines without sorrow at what point the talented and prolific Villemarest, now faithful to the Bourbons, is baited with virulence against the Revolution, without sparing either the emperor Napoleon, his benefactor of formerly absorbed by the history. It is precisely this “opportunist ” glance on a recent past which gives all its price to this collection of ” truths false memories “.

    A recent book on the topic is Damien Zanone, Écrire son Temps: Les Memoires en France de1815 à 1848. Lyon: PUL, 2006

    “Historian Jean Tulard has… observ[ed] that “no period has given impetus to as large a number of memoirs as has the Consulate and Empire.” They began to appear under the next regime, the Restoration (1814–30), and to multiply under the subsequent regime, the July Monarchy (1830–48). Artisanal gave way to industrial production. Publishers hired teinturiers, or “dyers,” who added bright colors to the plain fabric of the narratives furnished by insufficiently literary authors. Sometimes the cloth had to be unraveled and rewoven again a little differently. Sometimes the publishers had to make the fabric for themselves in the first place. Ladvocat created a sort of memoir-factory, turning them out one after another. He employed a teinturier named Villemarest who produced at least three best-sellers, including the memoirs of Bourrienne.” Metzner, Paul. Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris during the Age of Revolution. Univ. of Calif., 1998. P.284

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Tom. This is very helpful re. Bourrienne’s memoirs. I would also refer those who are interested to Max Sewell’s excellent article entitled “The Truth About Memoires” on the Napoleon Series website, which summarizes the credibility of a number of the Napoleonic era memoirs: http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/eyewitness/c_truth.html.

      • Kevin F. Kiley says:

        Shannon,

        Susan Howard and I have disagreed over Cronin and other subjects of the period for years. I’ll let that subject be. Suffice it to say that we both have different opinions of Cronin’s work.

        John Elting, still the authority on the Grande Armee, thought that Cronin’s biography was useful and very helpful. Cronin was among the first to give a view of Napoleon the man. JC Herold gave an astute viewpoint on Napoleon in his The Mind of Napoleon. Fain’s memoirs are also very helpful and they were written after Napoleon’s death.

        Both Dwyer and Esdaile are not admirers of Napoleon and their view is tainted in that direction. Michael Broers, JM Thompson, Andrew Roberts and John Elting have a different perspective and one I believe comes much closer to the mark. Robert Englund’s biography is also excellent.

        Perhaps we should have a blog section just for the discussion of those biographies and the attached memoirs? Just an idea…

        • Shannon Selin says:

          Thanks for the suggestion, Kevin. The topic of Napoleonic biographies is certainly one on which people have strong opinions, with favourites usually based on how strongly (or not) one admires Napoleon. Cronin and some of the other authors you’ve mentioned are notable admirers of Napoleon, so one might say their view is “tainted” in that direction. I agree Stephen Englund’s biography is excellent. The Napoleonic Wars Forum (http://www.napoleonicwarsforum.com/) provides a great venue for discussion of this and other topics, as does the Napoleon Series Discussion Forum (http://www.napoleon-series.org/cgi-bin/forum/webbbs_config.pl).

          • Kevin F. Kiley says:

            Thanks very much for the recommendations but I am already a member of both forums. I have enjoyed your postings on The Napoleonic Wars Forum.

          • Shannon Selin says:

            Thanks, Kevin. I was pretty sure you were a member. I was thinking the forums might be of interest for those who might be following our discussion and are wondering where they can go to read more opinions of Napoleonic books and participate in those discussions.

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‘Death to Frenchmen! Death to Jacobins!’ were their rallying cries.

Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne