Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Napoleon’s lightning strike into Italy secured the region for France; provided a source of revenue, manpower, and resources for the French armies; and reduced the Austrian forces’ ability to stand against the French hegemony in Europe.

Summary of Event

In 1793, the French revolutionary French Revolution (1789-1796);French imperialism government had decided to use force to spread its bourgeois ideals abroad. It had accordingly declared war on Great Britain, Holland, and Spain. By 1796, however, the Directory, Directory (France) the governing body of France, found that, while its armies had met with success in the early years of this struggle, it was becoming increasingly difficult simultaneously to finance military operations and satisfy domestic obligations. The solution to this problem, the Directory decided, could be achieved by conquering Italy, a region rich in resources that consisted of eleven semi-independent states. The states had often been in conflict with one another over the centuries, so it seemed unlikely that the entire region could band together effectively to resist an external invasion. [kw]Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns (Mar., 1796-Oct. 17, 1797) [kw]Italian Campaigns, Napoleon’s (Mar., 1796-Oct. 17, 1797) [kw]Campaigns, Napoleon’s Italian (Mar., 1796-Oct. 17, 1797) Italian campaigns of Napoleon French-Italian conflicts[French Italian conflicts] Italian-French conflicts[Italian French conflicts] French-Austrian conflicts[French Austrian conflicts] Austrian-French conflicts[Austrian French conflicts] [g]Italy;Mar., 1796-Oct. 17, 1797: Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns[3260] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar., 1796-Oct. 17, 1797: Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns[3260] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar., 1796-Oct. 17, 1797: Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns[3260] Napoleon I Napoleon I;Italian campaigns [p]Carnot, Lazare Berthier, Louis-Alexander Beaulieu, Johann Peter Wurmser, Dagobert Pius VI

The Directly accordingly placed Napoleon Bonaparte in charge of an army of invasion and sent him to conquer Italy. Unfortunately for the French, though, the Austrian empire had already established a foothold in the northern sections of Italy. War there meant facing a strong Austrian force that had been deployed for two purposes: to guard Austrian possessions in Tyrol, as well as the Piedmont Piedmont (Italy) and other sections of northern Italy, and to prevent a French advance from the south on Vienna, the capital of the Austrian empire.

To lead the French army against the combined forces of the Piedmontese and Austrians, the French minister of war, veteran general Lazare Carnot, chose a brilliant young officer who had risen meteorically in the French army during the early years of the revolution. Although only twenty-seven, Napoleon Bonaparte had demonstrated exceptional military skills, especially in handling artillery, both in the defense of Paris and in early battles during France’s wars with Austria. Bonaparte had commanded France’s interior defense forces and spent time at the war ministry, helping to plan his country’s grand strategy.

Carnot took a chance in assigning this rising military star to command an army whose division commanders were substantially older and more experienced than Bonaparte, but Bonaparte, a brilliant strategist who was equally adept at selecting key subordinates, assembled a staff that included Louis-Alexandre Berthier. Berthier’s ability to manage the administrative aspects of major conflicts made him invaluable as Bonaparte’s chief of staff. The Italian campaign gave the two men their first chance to maneuver large forces against enemies that relied on outmoded military tactics to protect their interests. Bonaparte’s reliance on the offensive and his flair for bold action against forces that sometimes outnumbered his own would prove to be too much for commanders such as General Johann Peter Beaulieu, the commander of Austria’s forces in northern Italy.

Violating both conventional wisdom and the instructions of his superiors in the Directory, Bonaparte arrived in Italy in March, 1796, and immediately sent his forces against the Piedmontese army, effectively dividing his enemy but risking a counterattack that could pin his troops between two forces that collectively enjoyed numerical superiority. In a single month, April, 1796, the French divisions routed opposing forces in battles at Montenotte, Dego, and Mondovi. By the end of the month, after defeating the Piedmontese at Cherasco, Bonaparte signed an armistice with them that allowed him to turn his attention against the Austrians and to move southward against the Papal States.

Bonaparte was able to drive his army relentlessly, because he had quickly established himself as a commander who cared for troops. He badgered the Directory for supplies and back pay for his soldiers and arranged for them to share in the spoils of war. At the same time, he was able to maintain discipline within the ranks, preventing the kind of reckless pillaging that often turned locals against invading forces. His boldness was best exhibited at Lodi, Lodi, Battle of (1796) where he drove a small force across the Po River against a larger Austrian army: The soldiers’ bravery, inspired by the presence of their commander, resulted in victory when reinforcements arrived. Meanwhile, the Austrians had consolidated forces in the north and sent a garrison to relieve Mantua, Mantua, fall of (1797) the fall of which would permit Bonaparte to march virtually unimpeded toward Vienna. Unfortunately for them, the relief force, commanded by Field Marshal Dagobert Wurmser, was trapped inside the city when Bonaparte placed it under siege.

A cartoon from 1797 depicts Napoleon auctioning off the art treasures of Italy to a group of Frenchmen. The caption reads, “Well, sirs! Two million.”

(Library of Congress)

After his victory at Lodi, Bonaparte entered the northern city of Milan, which fell easily. Establishing Italians loyal to him as rulers in the north, Bonaparte threatened the Papal States and in June, 1796, extracted humiliating concessions from Pope Pius VI; the French treasury was enriched immensely in the process. Attack and counterattack against the Austrians continued in the region for another six months, but the French army’s success at the Battles of Arcola Arcola, Battle of (1796) (November, 1796) and Rivoli Rivoli, Battle of (1797) (January, 1797) left the Austrians penned up in the north. When Mantua fell in February, Bonaparte sent his army north toward Vienna. Vienna, Siege of (1797) Two months later at Leoben, on April 18, the Austrians requested an armistice.

During the summer of 1797, Bonaparte began to consolidate his power in Italy, becoming more statesman than soldier. Although he had no authority from the French government to interfere in political affairs, he established the Cisapline Republic Cisapline Republic in northern Italy and overthrew the governments of Genoa and Venice. In October, 1797, Bonaparte met with representatives of the Austrian emperor to negotiate a formal end to hostilities. The terms he offered to the Austrians required them to cede Belgium and territories west of the Rhine to France; in exchange, Bonaparte returned Venice to Austrian control. The Treaty of Campo Formio, Campo Formio, Treaty of (1797) a compromise document that favored the French while allowing the Austrians some concessions to save face, was signed on October 17 and brought peace between the countries for the next eighteen months.


The Treaty of Campo Formio provided the French needed respite from campaigns in the Alpine region of Italy, secured the government a foothold in an area whose resources would prove vital to the expansion of French hegemony—especially in later years, when Bonaparte replaced the Directory and made himself sole ruler of France—and freed the young French general for further adventures in Egypt. The terms of the treaty were drafted by Bonaparte rather than by the Directory, however, and politicians in Paris were furious that their field commander had usurped the role of diplomat.

Under Napoleonic rule, the political construct of Italy Italian independence as a group of semi-independent states was transformed, as systems of national government were instituted by ministers appointed by the French. Many of Italy’s human and natural resources were devastated, however, through conscription and heavy taxation, as well as transference of food and manufactured products to the French armies throughout Europe. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, Vienna, Congress of (1815) the European powers that had defeated Bonaparte at Waterloo attempted to restore some independence to the Italian states. They found it impossible, however, to turn back the clock and re-create the political landscape as it had existed before the country became a vassal state in the French empire.

Perhaps the greatest significance of the Italian campaigns, however, was the opportunity they afforded to Bonaparte to demonstrate his abilities as both a general and a statesman. He gave notice to his own countrymen and to all of Europe that he could command large forces, negotiate successfully with local politicians and other governments, and exert his will over others to gain the ends he sought. In this sense, Italy was the crucible in which the young general was transformed into a leader to be reckoned with, both in his own country and across the Continent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Esdaile, Charles J. The French Wars, 1792-1815. New York: Routledge, 2001. A chapter on Napoleon’s venture into Italy offers insight into the general’s military prowess. Other chapters describe Napoleon’s other military operations, from his rise to power to his defeat at Waterloo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregory, Desmond. Napoleon’s Italy. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 2001. A lengthy chapter details Napoleon’s military operations in Italy during the campaign of 1796-1797; subsequent chapters outline the political situation that developed in Italy as a result of the French occupation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Paul. Napoleon. New York: Viking, 2002. This brief biography of Napoleon places the Italian campaign in the larger context of Napoleon’s systematic conquest of Europe and North Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall-Cornwall, James. Napoleon as Military Commander. London: B. T. Batsford, 1967. This extensive analysis of Napoleon’s military career by a retired British general provides insight into the strategy used in the Italian campaign, and suggests how Napoleon’s military background affected his ability as a politician.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothenberg, Gunther E. Napoleon’s Great Adversaries: The Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army, 1792-1814. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. Rothenberg offers extensive analysis of the Austrian forces that opposed Bonaparte for two decades, and explains why the French general was successful against larger ground forces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, Spenser. The Rise of General Bonaparte. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1991. This study provides details about Napoleon’s military career, detailing troop movements for the various battles in the Italian campaign.

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Lazare Carnot; Georges Danton; Pius VI; Robespierre. Italian campaigns of Napoleon French-Italian conflicts[French Italian conflicts] Italian-French conflicts[Italian French conflicts] French-Austrian conflicts[French Austrian conflicts] Austrian-French conflicts[Austrian French conflicts]

Categories: History