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29 June 2008

On this day in history: Cisalpine Republic created, 1797

In April 1792, France declared war on Austria beginning the French Revolutionary Wars, which lasted until 1802. Following initial defeats, the French army started to make gains against the coalition of nations that opposed them, in part due to the institution of the levée en masse (mass conscription) but also due to the tactical skills of the French generals. In 1796, one general in particular made a name for himself with a series of victories in northern Italy: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Following decisive victories at the Battle of Montenotte over the armies of Sardinia and Austria, and the defeat of the Austrians at the Battle of Lodi, Bonaparte captured Milan and Mantua. The Papal forces had little choice but to sue for peace, which he accepted in February 1797. With no belligerents left in northern Italy, Napoleon was free to take his army into Austria, but before he did so he created a two republics in captured territories as client states of France - the Cispadane Republic to the south of the River Po, and the Transpadane Republic north of the river. These republics comprised part of the Republic of Venice, the Romagna, the former duchies of Milan, Modena, and Parma, along with the Papal legations of Bologna and Ferrara

On 29th June 1797, Bonaparte merged the province of Novara with these two republics to form the Cisalpine Republic, which, although nominally independent, was effectively ruled from France. The promulgation of a constitution the very next month created a republic that followed the French model: they adopted the Republican calendar; the territories were divided up into departments; a minority of the populace elected representatives to two councils who chose an executive. Nevertheless, the commander of the occupying French forces retained ultimate authority. By the end of 1797, the Austrians had capitulated and signed the Treaty of Campo Formio by which they recognised the legitimacy of the Cisalpine Republic.

The fate of the Republic became intimately linked to that of its founder. Following his seizure of power in France, the Cisalpine Republic became the Italian Republic in 1802, with Bonaparte as its President. The year after Napoleon became Emperor of the French he added Venetia to the Republic to create the Kingdom of Italy and took the crown for himself. The Kingdom was broken up by the Congress of Vienna after his final defeat in 1815.

If you wish to learn more about Bonaparte and the Cisalpine Republic, Project Gutenberg has a copy of John Holland Rose's The Life of Napoleon I (London, 1910)