Was Italy «freed» at Marengo? September 11th in 1802: Napoleonic France annexes the Subalpine Republic, and Italian coinage celebrates Republican Values – in French
This podcast shows you the first Italian coin using the decimal system. It was struck on behalf of Napoleon on the occasion of his victory at Marengo.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Italy. We are in the tenth year of the French Republic, according to our era somewhere between 23rd September 1801 and 22nd September 1802.
This is the first Italian decimal coin. I hope you are a bit confused now, because this doesn’t look like an Italian coin. The inscription on the coin is in French. Liberté – Egalité, I’m sure you recognise it. This is the abbreviated motto of the French Revolution. The dating is also French. L'an dix represents the 10th year after the abolition of the monarchy. And of course, the franc also has nothing to do with Italy. It was the French currency unit from 17th April 1795. And yet this is an Italian coin. It was issued in Eridania.
Never heard of Eridania? That’s not surprising, as the name was invented by the French. It was derived from Eridanus, the Latin name for the river Po. Eridania referred to the land surrounding the river Po, or as this new state was also known, the Subalpine Republic. Sub in Latin means below, so in other words, the land below the Alps.
The French had established the Subalpine Republic. Or as the coin says: L’Italie délivrée à Marengo, or Italy was freed at Marengo. Which was, of course, the French interpretation.
Many rulers saw it differently; the Austrian Emperor especially feared for his influence in northern Italy. He had allied himself with the King of Naples, the Pope, the Russian Tsar and the kings of Great Britain and Portugal, to prevent further conquests by revolutionary France.
Austrian diplomacy was expecting a quick victory, as there was chaos in France. There had been a coup that had swept a young general to the top. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte and he had just screwed up his campaign in Egypt. Why should they respond to Napoleon's overtures of peace? He would be a thing of the past soon enough...
But the opposite was in fact the case. As Hannibal had once done, Napoleon crossed the Alps with a fresh army and overturned the Austrian superiority. The battle of Marengo was decisive. The Austrians had almost won. They had four times as many cannons as the French. But a happy accident turned things in favour of the French. After the Austrian general had retired from the battleground in the belief to be the victor, the French launched a further attack. The Austrian cavalry panicked. In their wild flight they trampled the infantry underfoot. Napoleon claimed not only the battlefield, but also captured the entire Austrian artillery; and the path to northern Italy lay open.
And this coin is a celebration of that. Even though there is no mention of Napoleon: his victory is the focus. On the obverse, a woman is shown. Who is it? Because of her helmet, people have interpreted her as Minerva, but that falls somewhat short. It is the symbol of a free State, equipped with a helmet and adorned with the laurel wreath of victory. Such women's heads had also replaced the old portraits of rulers on French coins.
With this victory coin, Napoleon promised his new subordinates freedom and equality. New laws, new weights, new measures, everything according to the French model. Many felt this only as a new form of domination. And indeed, on the 11th September 1802 France annexed the Subalpine Republic. From that point, there was little trace of freedom and equality.