Napoleon and the Italian Campaign of 1796–7

The Treaty of Campo Formio
The Treaty of Campo Formio, 1797. (French National Archives/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The campaign fought by French General Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy in 1796–7 helped end the French Revolutionary Wars in favor of France. But they were arguably more significant for what they did for Napoleon: from one French commander among many, his string of successes established him as one of France’s, and Europe’s, brightest military talents, and revealed a man able to exploit victory for his own political goals. Napoleon showed himself to be not just a great leader on the battlefield but a canny exploiter of propaganda, willing to make his own peace deals for his own benefit.

Napoleon Arrives

Napoleon was given command of the Army of Italy in March 1796, two days after marrying Josephine. On route to his new base—Nice—he changed the spelling of his name. The Army of Italy was not intended to be the main focus of France in the coming campaign—that was to be Germany—and the Directory may have been just shunting Napoleon off somewhere he couldn’t cause trouble.

While the army was ill-organized and with sinking morale, the idea that the young Napoleon had to win over a force of veterans is exaggerated, with the possible exception of the officers: Napoleon had claimed victory at Toulon and was known to the army. They wanted victory and to many, it seemed like Napoleon was their best chance of getting it, so he was welcomed. However, the army of 40,000 was definitely poorly equipped, hungry, disillusioned, and falling apart, but it was also composed of experienced soldiers who just needed the right leadership and supplies. Napoleon would later highlight how much of a difference he made to the army, how he transformed it, and while he overstated to make his role look better (as ever), he certainly provided what was needed. Promising troops that they would be paid in captured gold was among his cunning tactics to reinvigorate the army, and he soon worked hard to bring in supplies, crack down on deserters, show himself to the men, and impress on all his determination.


Napoleon initially faced two armies, one Austrian and one from Piedmont. If they had united, they would have outnumbered Napoleon, but they were hostile to each other and didn’t. Piedmont was unhappy at being involved and Napoleon resolved to defeat it first. He attacked quickly, turning from one enemy to another, and managed to force Piedmont to leave the war entirely by forcing them on a large retreat, breaking their will to continue, and signing the Treaty of Cherasco. The Austrians retreated, and less than a month after arriving in Italy, Napoleon had Lombardy. At the start of May, Napoleon crossed the Po to chase an Austrian army, defeated their rear-guard at the battle of Lodi, where the French stormed a well-defended bridge head on. It did wonders for Napoleon’s reputation despite it being a skirmish that could have been avoided if Napoleon had waited a few days for the Austrian retreat to continue. Napoleon next took Milan, where he established a republican government. The effect on the army’s morale was great, but on Napoleon, it was arguably greater: he began to believe he could do remarkable things. Lodi is arguably the starting point of Napoleon’s rise.

Napoleon now besieged Mantua but the German part of the French plan had not even begun and Napoleon had to halt. He spent the time intimidating cash and submissions from the rest of Italy. Around $60 million francs in cash, bullion, and jewels had so far been gathered. Art was equally in demand by the conquerors, while rebellions had to be stamped out. Then a new Austrian army under Wurmser marched forth to tackle Napoleon, but he was again able to take advantage of a divided force—Wurmser sent 18,000 men under one subordinate and took 24,000 himself—to win multiple battles. Wurmser attacked again in September, but Napoleon flanked and ravaged him before Wurmser finally managed to merge some of his force with the defenders of Mantua. Another Austrian rescue force split up, and after Napoleon narrowly won at Arcola, he was able to defeat this in two chunks as well. Arcola saw Napoleon take a standard and lead an advance, doing wonders again for his reputation for personal bravery, if not personal safety.

As the Austrians made a new attempt to save Mantua in early 1797, they failed to bring their maximum resources to bear, and Napoleon won the battle of Rivoli in mid-January, halving the Austrians and forcing them into Tyrol. In February 1797, with their army broken by disease, Wurmser and Mantua surrendered. Napoleon had conquered northern Italy. The pope was now induced to buy Napoleon off.

Having received reinforcements (he had 40,000 men), he now decided to defeat Austria by invading it but was faced by Archduke Charles. However, Napoleon managed to force him right back—Charles’ morale was low—and after getting to within sixty miles of the enemy capital Vienna, he decided to offer terms. The Austrians had been subjected to a terrible shock, and Napoleon knew he was far from his base, facing Italian rebellion with tired men. As negotiations went on, Napoleon decided he wasn’t finished, and he captured the Republic of Genoa, which transformed into the Ligurian Republic, as well as took parts of Venice. A preliminary treaty—Leoben—was drawn up, annoying the French government as it didn’t clarify the position in the Rhine.

The Treaty of Campo Formio, 1797

Although the war was, in theory, between France and Austria, Napoleon negotiated the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria himself, without listening to his political masters. A coup by three of the directors which remodeled the French executive ended Austrian hopes of splitting France’s executive from its leading General, and they agreed on terms. France kept the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), conquered states in Italy were transformed into the Cisalpine Republic ruled by France, Venetian Dalmatia was taken by France, the Holy Roman Empire was to be rearranged by France, and Austria had to agree to support France in order to hold Venice. The Cisalpine Republic may have taken the French constitution, but Napoleon dominated it. In 1798, French forces took Rome and Switzerland, turning them into new, revolutionary styled states.


Napoleon’s string of victories thrilled France (and many later commentators), establishing him as the country’s pre-eminent general, a man who had finally ended the war in Europe; an act seemingly impossible for anyone else. It also established Napoleon as a key political figure and redrew the map of Italy. The vast sums of loot sent back to France helped maintain a government increasingly losing fiscal and political control.

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Wilde, Robert. "Napoleon and the Italian Campaign of 1796–7." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Napoleon and the Italian Campaign of 1796–7. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Napoleon and the Italian Campaign of 1796–7." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).