An impressive scattering of liberals had prepared the educated classes of Italy for some basic transformation in France. Beccaria and Parini in Milan, Tanucci, Genovesi, and Filangieri in Naples, Caraccioli in Sicily, had already labored, in prose and poetry, in legislation and philosophy, for some of the measures that were now being passed by a French National Assembly apparently pledged to reason and moderation. In Tuscany the Grand Duke Leopold himself hailed the Revolution as promising precious reforms in every country in Europe.4
When Napoleon, as son and general of the Revolution, rushed into Italy (1796), like some wild west wind, and drove the Sardinian and Austrian armies out of Piedmont and Lombardy, nearly all the population welcomed him as an Italian leading French troops to the liberation of Italy. For a while, despite local insurrections at Pavia, Genoa, and Verona, he was able to dispose of Italian states and principalities as if they had fallen into his hands as unconditional gifts. So in July and August, 1797, he bundled Milan, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, and a slice of Switzerland into a medley called the Cisalpine Republic, and gave it a constitution like that of Revolutionary France.
The liberalism of his early rule in north Italy quieted for a time the local dreams of liberty. The native leaders, softened with sinecures and dignities, recognized that on a continent divided among wolves, one or another of the wolves must be accepted as protector; and better one that spoke excellent Italian and eased taxation and art raids with enlightened laws. But the advancing legislation of the Revolution against the Catholic Church in France checked this Italian sympathy; their religion proved more precious to the Italian populace than a political liberty persecuting priests and smelling of September Massacres.
In Rome, January 13, 1792, a diplomatic agent of France was attacked by a mob, and so severely handled that he died the next day. This created a new crisis for Pope Pius VI, who had already suffered from the Edict of Toleration (1781) of Joseph II in Austria. Now he found himself faced by the Revolution’s expropriation of French Church property, and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 12, 1790). Brought up to complete orthodoxy and a trustful respect for tradition, Pius denounced the Revolution, and supported the challenged kings in their efforts to suppress it. At the Peace of Tolentino (February 19, 1797) he was compelled, by the victories and threats of Napoleon, to cede to France the papal enclaves of Avignon and Venaissin, and to the new Cisalpine Republic the city-states of Ferrara, Bologna, and Ravenna.
In December, 1797, a Roman mob killed the French General Léonard Duphot. General Louis Berthier, who had succeeded Napoleon (then in Egypt) in command of the Army of Italy, seized the opportunity to invade Rome and set up a Roman Republic under French rule. Pius VI protested, was arrested, resisted, and was transported from place to place until he died at Valence, as a prisoner of the Directory, on August 29, 1799. Observers innocent of history wondered whether the Papacy had come to an end.5
The situation offered Ferdinand IV of Naples a triple opportunity: to test the new army that had been organized for him by Sir John Acton, to prove himself a loyal son of the Church, and to take a slice of papal territory as an honorarium. Admiral Nelson, who was then tarrying in Naples in thrall to Emma Hamilton, agreed to help by landing a naval force at Leghorn. The King gave command of his army to the Austrian General Karl Mack, and rode with it to the easy conquest of Rome (November 29, 1798). The French regiments left there decided that they were no match for the whole Neapolitan Army, and readily evacuated the city.
While the scattered cardinals were choosing a new pope in Venice, Ferdinand’s troops sampled the art and belles of Rome. Meanwhile a brilliant general, Jean-Étienne Championnet, came down from the north with a fresh French army, led it to a victory over Mack’s disordered troops at Civita Castellana (December 15, 1798), pursued them all the way to Naples, took that city to the joy of its intelligentsia, and set up there the Parthenopean Republic (January 23, 1799). Ferdinand and his Queen, Sir William Hamilton and his Bovary, fled to Palermo on Nelson’s flagship Vanguard.
The new republic lasted less than five months. Championnet and many of his men were summoned north to repel the Austrians; he died in that campaign (1800). Cardinal Fabrizzio Ruffo, aided by the English Captain Edward Foote, organized a new army for Ferdinand, and recaptured Naples with the help of the populace, which looked upon the French garrison as verily damned atheists. The French, with the assistance of a Neapolitan admiral, Francesco Caracciolo, took refuge in two of the harbor’s forts. Cardinal Ruffo and Captain Foote offered them unhindered departure for France if they would surrender. They agreed, but before the pact could be carried out Nelson and his fleet, bearing the royal party, arrived from Palermo; Nelson took command, and, over the protests of the Cardinal, turned his guns upon the forts.6 The French surrendered unconditionally. Caracciolo was caught while trying to sail away; he was hastily tried before a military court on Nelson’s ship, and was hanged from the yardarm of his flagship, La Minerva (June 29, 1799). King and Queen, restored to power, imprisoned hundreds of liberals, and put their leaders to death.