It was on May 26, 1805 Napoleon Bonapart was crowned “King of Italy” with the sacred Iron Crown of Lombardy in Milan. The Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was officially formed on March 17, 1805 and succeeded the earlier Italian Republic which was a vassal of the First French Republic and itself the successor of the earlier Cisalpine Republic and of which Napoleon was the President. However, Bonapart had monarchical ambitions and, as he once famously said, had the urge to sit on any empty throne he found. So, after driving the Austrians out of northern Italy, and after crowning himself “Emperor of the French” he also assumed the title of “King of Italy”. This was extremely important to him and the attachment he had for the Italian peninsula is shown in the official title Napoleon used which was, “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” giving his Italian title precedence over all others but his French imperial title. This new Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, which covered all of northern Italy not directly annexed by France, had a parliament but it was never called to sit and, significantly, Napoleon decreed that his sons would succeed him on the throne even if it meant that the French and Italian crowns no longer be united in personal union.
The strange thing, perhaps, about that was the fact that Napoleon himself was not originally to be the first King of his new Kingdom of Italy. That honor was first offered to his brother Giuseppe Bonaparte but he declined it, “forcing” Napoleon to take up the Iron Crown himself, uttering at his coronation the famous traditional phrase, “God hath given it to me; woe to him that touches it!” Obviously, since Napoleon would be spending the preponderance of his time in Paris rather than Milan, he appointed a Viceroy to act on his behalf in the government of the Kingdom of Italy. The man he appointed to this post on June 7, 1805 was his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais. His job was to suppress republicanism which the first French revolutionaries who overran Italy tried to force on the people and to manage Italian affairs in accordance with the best interests of the French Empire.This was, by the European standards of the time, no minor satellite. After the battle of Austerlitz, the Austrians ceded part of Venezia, Istria and Dalmatia to Italy and in 1808 after the partition of the Papal States the border of the Kingdom of Italy was extended all the way to the frontier of the Kingdom of Naples.
Under the King-Emperor Napoleon, Italy was placed under French style law and civil administration with the Code Napoleon becoming the law of the land. This was not always to the detriment of Italy, in some ways it was an improvement over the patchwork system that preceded it, however, the Kingdom of Italy suffered greatly because of the ‘continental system’ imposed on all the states under Napoleonic influence to strangle trade with Great Britain. The effects on the British were rather negligible but it had a terrible effect on the Italian peninsula as well as many other regions in Europe. As with all things Napoleonic, Italy also established a very stylish and highly effective army. Their cockade was in the national colors of red, white and green and was outfitted much the same as the French army but with dark green rather than dark blue being the dominant uniform color. There was a Royal Guard, seven line regiments, two dragoon regiments, a horse artillery regiment and an engineer battalion along with the usual auxiliary and support personnel. The Italian troops the Viceroy led into battle alongside his stepfather proved themselves exceptionally courageous and served with particular distinction at Maloyaroslavets.
The end came during the disastrous Russian campaign when the Italian army was all but wiped out and this precipitated the eventual collapse of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy altogether. However, one observer still said, looking back, “The Italian army had displayed qualities which entitle it evermore to rank amongst the bravest troops of Europe”. With French power on the decline, the Kingdom of Bavaria allowed the forces of the Austrian Empire access through the Tyrol and the valley of the Adige to attack Italy. Republicanism began to spread again and the famous French Marshal Murat defected. Nonetheless, Viceroy Eugène considered by many to be the most talented of Napoleon’s relatives fought desperately to maintain his piece of Europe but he had never been truly accepted and never had the time to become so. When Lord William Bentinck landed at Leghorn on March 8, 1814 it was only a matter of time and on April 14 at Mantua the Viceroy signed an armistice and the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy was no more. Yet, the ultimate historical impact was significant.
Perhaps because of his Corsican roots, Napoleon always seemed to have a special attachment to Italy. Not only did he go to the trouble of having himself crowned King of Italy in Milan, he prised that title above others, he made his stepson and adopted son Viceroy of Italy and he possibly might have succeeded to that throne himself eventually. Napoleon also gave his own son and heir the title “King of Rome” and to some extent modelled his Empire of the French on the legions of ancient Rome. The French-backed Kingdom of Italy might have gone but the idea, particularly in the north, of a truly independent Italy, a united Italian nation under one flag and one monarchy lingered on and continued to grow over the years. When the campaign for national unification began, it did so in much the same area as the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy had existed and took as its symbol the familiar green, white and red national tricolour. When this dream was finally realised it is also noteworthy that it was done at a time when there happened to be another Bonaparte on the French throne, who was sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance but without whom Italian unification may not have happened when it did.
The Italian Army under Napoleon
The Italian Royal Guard possessed a unit of Elite Gendarmes. It had a strength of 40 men (1 officer, 1 Master Sergeant, 2 Sergeants, 4 Corporals, 30 Gendarmes, 1 trumpeter and 1 Blacksmith). The Gendarmes were attached to the Guard Dragoons and its job was to guard the Royal Household and the palaces in the City of Milan. It seems that the Gendarmes were stationed only in Milan during the six years of their existence. They did not take part in the disastrous Russian campaign as did the Guard dragoons. With the dissolving of the Italian Army on March 8th 1814, the gendarmes ceased to exist. The Elite Gendarmes carried an eagle standard.
The figures are Front Rank miniatures based on 50mm x 50mm wooden bases.
The Dragoons of the Royal Guard
When Napoleon became King of Italy in 1805, the Regiment of the Dragoons of the Royal Guard were raised.It was formed by reorganisation of the former Mounted Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Presidents Guard of the dissolved Italian Republic.The unit had a strength of two squadrons with two companies each.Total strength was 426 men until the disbanding of the unit in 1814.The first commanding officer was Colonel Viani.In 1808 the newly raised detachment of the Elite-Gendarmes was attached to the dragoons. It was only 40 men strong. The gendarmes were engaged separately from the Dragoons.In 1809 the Royal Dragoons took part in the campaign against Austria and fought at the battle of Raab 14th June 1809.On the 15th of December 1810 Colonel Jacquet became the new commander of the regiment.He led the Regina Dragoon Regiment before. On the Russian campaign the regiment accompanied the Vice-King Eugene de Beauharnaise.On the 1sy June 1812, it crossed the River Njemen entering Russia with 19 officers and 401 men.It saw action at the battle of Borodino om 7th September and entered Moscow on 15th September.At the beginning of the retreat it fought at Mal-Jaroslawetz.After this action the unit perished during the further retreat.After 1805 the regiment carried an eagle and a standard for each of the two squadrons. these colours were lost in Russia.Only some dozen mounted dragoons reached Posen in January 1813.
In Italy the Guard Dragoons were raised a second time and were complete in July 1813.The new commander was Colonel Maranesi, the former Colonel of the Napoleon Dragoons.The Guard dragoons were engaged against the Austrians in Italy until the Italian Army was finally disbanded after the treaty of Mantua on 8th March 1814.