Napoleon’s Papers

A selection of documents from the Milan State Archives reveals fascinating fragments of our recent history.

Illustration by Milano Art Guide with documents from the exhibition.

Napoleon is a complex and fascinating character of our recent history, and he still speaks to us. The city of Milan, in particular, owes quite some to the French military and political leader who died 200 years ago. At the beginning of the 19th century, thanks to Bonaparte, Milan became the capital of Northern Italy, and traces of his legacy are visible in various parts of the city.

In town, many events explore the history, culture, and aesthetics that characterized Napoleon’s reign. The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana hosts a fascinating exhibition (until Jan 23) on the representation of power, in architecture, theatre, and fashion, with priceless pieces from the Milanese museum’s collection, including a pair of his gloves.

Likewise, the State Archives of Milan did not miss the occasion of the 200th anniversary, celebrated in 2021, to show and study its documents and share its history. Based in the Palazzo del Senato since 1886, the institution is responsible, by law, for preserving documents from the offices of the state. Gradually assembled through the unification of the various archives in Austrian Milan between the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, today covers an area of 45 km of storage and over 6000 square feet.

Letter dated 4 February 1797 from Bonaparte, General of the Italian Army, in which he invites the General Administration of Lombardy not to sanction all the contracts of sale, of level and other that will be presented by the Commissioner of State Property, since this is not the time to harm the Republic and the Army. With the Autograph signature of Bonaparte. The header image depicts winged Victory with palm branch in hand crowning the French Republic depicted with the pole surmounted by the Phrygian cap and the fasces lictoriae at its side. ASMi, Autographs, b. 71.

The exhibition In riots and wars. The Milanese Archives during the Napoleonic Age (open until Jan 31) is a valuable source of information on the Napoleonic period and on the evolution of the archive itself, especially the history of the Milanese archives. Through the documents and parchments on Napoleon’s era, the exhibition carefully and nattily reveals a parallel history of the archives and the discipline of archiving.

While Italy confronted the impetuous advance of the troops guided by General Bonaparte, a quieter battle, with more lasting effects, was taking place in the archives.

From 1796 to 1821, the Italian archives were raided, transferred, merged, and dismembered as a result of the ups and downs of the wars during the Napoleonic era and the early years of the Restoration.

From useless documents regularly destroyed, archives slowly became treasured sources of information about our past and worthy of being stored, preserved, and studied. A long process started with various illustrious figures in the discipline at the beginning of the 17th century, including Luca Peroni, Luigi Bossi, e Luigi Osio. A complex job that Benedetto Luigi Compagnoni, the current director, is carrying on digitally with the support of the latest technologies and artificial intelligence.

The forty documents featured in the exhibition, twenty of which are originals, tell the story of the complex journeys the archives have made. 

In almost 25 years, in the quadrilateral between Vienna, Venice, Milan, and Paris, the documents followed the victories and defeats of nations. Some show collaboration between the countries, while others were destroyed to avoid them falling into enemy hands.

After the fall of the Kingdom of Italy, Austria and the restored governments in Italy requested back the documents from their respective territories and relocated them to Milan during the Napoleonic years.

Charcoal drawing of the ‘colossal statue representing the Emperor Napoleon I’ Napoleon the Peacemaker erected in the Piazza dei Leoni next to the church of San Marco in Venice on 15 August 1811. ASMi, Autographs, b. 75.

Papers, parchments of great significance, finely decorated headings, seals, projects of monuments, prints, and many other rare items from the Milanese archive have a lot to tell.

An intriguing charcoal drawing depicts the ‘Colossal statue representing Napoleon, erected in the Piazza dei Leoni next to the church of San Marco, in Venice, in 1811, now in the Correr Museum. Another document, a drawing by Giacomo De Maria, describes the statue for Piazza Nuova in Ferrara, a portrait of Napoleon represented according to the heroic Greek model as Mars the Peacemaker. The statue was later pulled down by the Austrians and replaced with the one of Ludovico Ariosto.

The itinerary ends with the curious story of three locks of Napoleon’s hair, confiscated during the arrest in 1817 of Natale Santini, one of his collaborators who had come to Italy with the unusual heirloom.

The State Archives in Milan contacted the Biology Department of the University of Florence to request DNA analysis of these hairs to obtain scientific evidence that they belonged to Napoleon, which has been confirmed through comparison with the DNA of the French Emperor’s maternal line descendants.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is Executive Editor of Milano Art Guide. He writes a column on photography for Exibart and previously he reported for Zero.eu from 2016 to 2020. He is the creator and co-curator of the best-selling “The Colouring Book” published by 24OreCultura in 2020.