What was the algebraic total of the good and the evil done by France in Italy in this age? To a nation drugged into lassitude by foreign rule it brought the arousing cry and example of a nation rising in wrath and achieving freedom by its own will and deed. It brought a new and challenging spirit into the relations of the citizens to the state. It brought a Code Napoléon severe but constructive and defined, promoting order and unity, and legal equality in a people long divided by class and allergic to law. Napoleon and his hard-working administrators improved and cleansed the processes of government, expediting performance, multiplying public works, adorning the cities, opening boulevards and parks, clearing roads, marshes, and canals, establishing schools, ending the Inquisition, encouraging agriculture and industry, science and literature and art. The religion of the people was protected by the new regime, but lost the power to suppress nonconformity, and was made to contribute to the expenses of the state. Conversely it was the skeptic Napoleon who allotted funds to complete the Cathedral of Milan. The whole procedure of law was quickened and reformed; torture was outlawed, Latin was no longer required in the courts. In this period (1789–1813) Joseph and Murat in Naples, Eugène in Milan, were blessings to their realms, and would have been loved if they had been Italians.
The other side of the picture was conscription, taxation, and expert pilfering. Napoleon put an end to brigandage, but he appropriated works of art with such appreciation as perhaps they had ceased to receive in an Italy saturated with masterpieces. In Napoleon’s view conscription was the most rational and equitable method of protecting the new nations from domestic disorder and foreign rule. “The Italians,” he said, “should remember that arms are the principal support of a state. It is time that the youths who live in idleness in the great towns should cease to fear the fatigues and dangers of war.” Probably conscription would have been accepted as a necessary evil had not Italian conscripts found that they were expected to go anywhere to protect the interests of Napoleon or France; so six thousand of them were moved to the English Channel in 1803 to join in a problematical invasion of England; eighty thousand of them32 were pulled out of their native sunshine to sample the plains and snows and Cossacks of Russia.
Nor did the Italians agree about the patriotism of taxation. Here too the labor of Italy went not only to protect, govern, and embellish Italy, but also to help Napoleon meet the expenses of his expanding and precarious empires. Eugène was expected to win the love of his subjects while he was picking their pockets; taxes in his little kingdom rose from 82 million francs in 1805 to 144 million in 1812. The Italians added that such levies might have been more easily borne if the Emperor’s Continental Blockade had not deprived Italian industry of its English market, while export and import duties favoring France were hurting Italian commerce with France and Germany.
So, even before the Austrians came back, the Italians had tired of Napoleon’s protectorate. They felt that they were not only losing great art, but were being drained of the wealth they were creating in order that France might invade England and conquer Russia. This was not the dream their poets had dreamed. They admitted that the Pope’s functionaries had allowed a high degree of corruption to enter into the administration of the Papal States, but they did not like the rough handling of Pius VII by French officers, nor his long imprisonment by Napoleon’s command. At last they lost love even for the lovable Eugène, for it was through his hands that many of Napoleon’s most unwelcome edicts had been imposed; and when, after Leipzig, Napoleon was in danger of complete defeat (1813), they refused to support Eugène’s efforts to send him aid. The effort to liberate Italy through alien arms and rule failed; liberation awaited the development of national unity through native literature, statesmanship, and arms.
Napoleon himself, amid his many miscalculations, had foreseen these difficulties. In 1805—the year of his coronation as king of Italy—he said to Bourrienne:
The union of Italy with France can only be temporary, but it is necessary in order to accustom the nations [states] of Italy to live under common laws. The Genoese, the Piedmontese, the Venetians, the Milanese, the inhabitants of Tuscany, the Romans, the Neapolitans, hate one another…. Yet Rome is, from the recollections connected with it, the natural capital of Italy. To make it so, however, it is necessary that the power of the pope should be confined within limits purely spiritual. I cannot now think of this, but I will reflect upon it hereafter…. All these little states will insensibly become accustomed to the same laws; and when manners have been assimilated, and enmities extinguished, then there will be an Italy, and I will give her independence. But for that I must have twenty years, and who can count on the future?33
We cannot always trust Bourrienne, but Las Cases quotes Napoleon as having spoken to the same effect at St. Helena: “I have planted in the hearts of the Italians principles that can never be rooted out. Sooner or later this regeneration will be accomplished.”34 It was.