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Facts & Figures

The Italian Campaigns

The Battle of Arcole

During Napoleon’s first Italian campaign of the Revolutionary Wars, his Armée d’Italie besieged Mantua, the centre of Austrian power in Italy. The Austrians sent a large army to break the siege and to counter this strategy Napoleon determined to cut their supply line. The key was to take the Austrian-held town of Arcole, whereby the French could control the narrow road used to supply their enemy. Failure here would have meant the destruction of Napoleon’s army and humiliating defeat in his first campaign. Arcole was surrounded by marshland with the river Alpone restrained by 10-metre-high dikes. The dikes were strategically important and during the battle Napoleon tried to rally his troops by scaling one with regimental colours in hand. After three days of fighting, the French took Arcole and Napoleon eventually drove the Austrians from Mantua and Italy. This victory cemented the 26 year-old Napoleon’s reputation as a soldier/general and most importantly, enhanced his popularity with the French people.

Battle of Marengo

A key goal of Napoleon’s foreign policy as First Consul of France was to reconquer northern Italy which was reverting to Austrian control after the military defeats inflicted by Austrian and Russian forces in 1799 and the Austrian invasion of Lombardy and Liguria in April 1800. 

In this second Italian Campaign, Napoleon’s strategy was brilliantly imaginative. He led the Reserve Army of some 50,000 men over the Swiss Alps into Northern Italy where they would emerge unexpectedly behind Austrian lines. 

In a shrewd act of propaganda, Napoleon personally led the French forces through the Swiss Alps, echoing the legendary exploits of Charlemagne and Hannibal. Hannibal, one of the greatest military strategists of antiquity, was famed for his epic feat of marching the Carthaginian Army, including thirty-seven war elephants, through the Alpine passes in 218 BCE. But of even greater significance to Napoleon was the invasion of northern Italy via the Alps by Charlemagne, King of the Franks in 773 CE. 

By leading his forces personally he also maintained a high morale and though the weather was in fact excellent during the crossing, Napoleon wrote to the other consuls at the time that ‘we struggled against the ice, the snow, the difficulties and the avalanches’, and this is the version that has come down to history. Napoleon managed to complete the crossing and to skirt the Austrian fort at Bard in fifteen days, emerging on the plains of Lombardy on 30 May 1800, ready to meet the Austrian Army, which he defeated at the Battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800. 

Initially it appeared that the Austrians would be victorious, but General Desaix, one of Napoleon’s best officers arrived with reinforcements and saved the day – though he fell in battle. Napoleon then wrote to the Austrian Emperor to negotiate peace on his own terms, though as it was he sustained a narrow victory.

Antoine-Jean GROS
French 1771-1835
General Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole on 17 November 1796 (Le général Bonaparte sur le pont d’Arcole, 17. novembre 1796) 1796
oil on canvas
130.0 x 94.0 cm
Napoleonmuseum Thurgau, Schloss und Park Arenenberg, Salenstein
Collection of Queen Hortense
  • Joseph BOZE
    French 1745-1825
    Robert LEFEVRE
    French 1755-1830
    Carle VERNET
    French 1758-1836
    General Bonaparte and his Chief of Staff, General Berthier, at the Battle of Marengo (Le général Bonaparte et son chef d’État-major le général Berthier à la bataille de Marengo) 1801 (detail)
    oil on canvas
    289.0 x 232.0 cm
    Fondation Napoléon, Paris
    Acquisition 2002 (inv. 1164)
    © Fondation Napoléon - Patrice Maurin Berthier
  • Jacques-François-Joseph SWEBACH (called SWEBACH-DESFONTAINES)
    French 1769-1823
    The Battle of Marengo (La Bataille de Marengo) 1801
    oil on wood
    48.0 x 87.0 cm
    Fondation Napoléon, Paris
    Donation Lapeyre (inv. 764)
    © Fondation Napoléon – Patrice Maurin Berthier
Above: Dating from 1801, this Battle of Marengo is less an illustration of that victory than an evocation of the logistics surrounding the combat. It shows the supreme talent of Swebach-Desfontaines, who was fascinated by seventeenth-century Dutch painting. The battle takes place in the distance, but it is the artillery and catering convoy, moving slowly towards the site of the battle, that the artist has chosen to focus upon. First Consul Bonaparte can be seen on a rearing horse to the right.