Bologna à la française

Between the disillusion of the failure to return to the age of the communes and the need to found a modern state, a generation took the first steps that brought Bologna into the most advanced European civilization.
Angelo Varni

On Saturday, June 18, 1805, shortly after the Ave Maria, a small French army detachment entered Bologna by the gate of San Felice: the second city of the Papal State was brought, like this, into the great adventure of the French Revolution and the emerging military design of the very young General in chief, Napoleon Bonaparte.

But Bologna, with its traditional leadership groups, did not understand the explosive charge of such an event, believing that Napoleon's message of liberty immediately referred to a new season of city autonomy regarding the power of Papal Rome, according to the model of medieval communes. And that it was not, however, one of the qualifying elements of novelties à la française, built on the key concepts of constitution, equality, representation, sovereignty from the bottom and, indeed, freedom of subjects transformed into citizens respectful of laws that would guarantee rights and duties for all.

Napoleon arriving in Bologna and suppressing religious orders, Civic Museum of the Risorgimento in BolognaLeft by the General in charge of the city's leadership in the early months, the ancient Senate of Bologna tried to withstand the wave of novelty, which began to affect daily life in the inevitable imitation of the regime inspired by the French model: from the fundamental elimination of noble titles with the obligation to call each other citizen, to the abolition of feuds; from the obligation to wear tricolour rosettes, to the use of the hours of the day according to French customs; to the most solemn symbol of the tree of liberty, erected only on October 18th, and in an overheated climate that degenerated into mass violence to emphasize the dissatisfaction of the city for a revival or an innovativeness that did not come. It was obviously Napoleon who solved this "knot" by imposing a path of progressive insertion of the city into a larger state order that saw the birth of Cispadana and then Cisalpina, with Bologna seeing its dreams of renewed self-government. The disappointment was also fuelled by a widespread economic malaise, while even the most trivial innovations, such as combing men's hair with a Brutus bang, aroused harsh reactions, with the barber strike heavily impacting earnings because of the disappearance in fashion of elaborate wigs. It seemed to be a sign of progress even the removal of bollards around noble palaces, making them symbolically more accessible. Indeed, in that forced demise of habits, laws, and customs, everything became an allegory of emblematic concepts and hints at values relevant to the smallest events of daily living. From here the primary need to educate people to become informed citizens, relying mainly on the theatre, the spread of popular catechisms, and the repetition of patriotic celebrations of "educational" scenery.

Banner of the Honour Guard offered to Napoleone, 1805, Civic Museum of the Risorgimento in Bologna

As, for example, the patriotic lunch in Piazza Maggiore offered and led by 524 wealthy citizens to as many poor citizens, with the opening of the procession from Archiginnasio. The service at the tables, laid under large tents decorated with tricoloured festoons, was assured by 200 officers of the National Guard, who carried in succession salami, macaroni, boiled beef, calf veal, roasted lamb, 250 tarts, cheese and fruits. A tradition, that of the quality of the table, that no Jacobin in Bologna had the desire to change. A month later, the same lunch, with an even more important display of stage sets, was organized by the townsfolk for the "poor companions." It was important, then, to organize a Constitutional Circle that could, through pedagogical conferences, explain to citizens the basic concepts of innovations à la française so that they could, among other things, understand the sense of political and civil freedom, equality, the right to citizenship, the constitutional rights and duties of military service. All concepts far from the historical experience of Bolognese and only remembered through the recollection of a literary culture based on the myths of Greek-Roman classics, in an attempt to engage the present of ongoing political and social transformations with the only cultural platform - after the failure of the return to the age of the communes - shared by many members of the public. Training citizens for a new society that was pushing for immobile civil relations and on the same consciences of the men in our city: this is the commitment placed on the weak shoulders of the local ruling class. And because of that it was necessary to overcome all the issues relating to the foundation of a modern state. The first steps of a generation that would never forget such a lesson seeding in the difficult and conflicting subsequent years to bring Bologna into the most advanced European civilization for the achievement of freedom, justice, as well as political and social participation.


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