Sunday, October 9, 2016

Napoleon in Italy - The Sieges of Mantua 1796-1799

From the flap copy,
In the center of Mantua, in northern Italy, a covered bridge stretches over the narrow Rio where vendors sell fish from pushcarts just as locals did more than two hundred years ago when Napoleon Bonaparte laid siege to the city. Four cannon balls protruding out of an adjacent wall offer a tacit monument to the sufferings of townspeople during the 1796–1797 siege, when the city, held by Austrian troops, finally fell under French control. Two years later, Mantua was again barraged, this time by a combined Austrian and Russian army, which took it back after four months. In Napoleon in Italy, Phillip R. Cuccia brings to light two understudied aspects of these trying periods in Mantua’s history: siege warfare and the conditions it created inside the city.
Drawing on underutilized military records in Austrian, French, and Italian archives, Cuccia delves into these important conflicts to integrate political and social issues with a campaign study. Unlike other military histories of the era, Napoleon in Italy brings to light the words of soldiers, leaders, and citizens who experienced the sieges firsthand. Cuccia also shows how the sieges had consequences long after they were over. The surrender and proposed court-martial of Fran├žois-Philippe de Foissac-Latour, the French general in charge of Mantua in 1799, sheds new light on Napoleon’s disdain for defeat. Foissac-Latour faced Napoleon’s ire, expulsion from the army, and harsh public criticism.
Napoleon in Italy is not only the story of Mantua’s strategic importance. Mantua also symbolized Napoleon’s voracious determination to win and Austria’s desperation to retain its possessions. By placing the sieges of Mantua in an eighteenth-century international context, Cuccia introduces readers to a broader understanding of siege warfare and of how the global impacts the local.
With an interest in Napoleon's early campaigns in Northern Italy and a trip to Italy planned for September, I ordered Cuccia's book from Amazon.com to read during the long plane trip from Seattle to Rome.  Two hundred pages of text excluding notes and references ought to be easily knocked off during such a long flight.  Since Mantua would be a stop on our Italian journey, I was drawn to Cuccia as a means of familiarizing myself both to Mantua, itself, and the city's role in the campaigns of 1796-1799.

What I found upon reading Cuccia was a treatment of the multiple sieges of Mantua in great detail.  Perspectives from both combatants as well as the politics involved were covered satisfactorily to provide a firm grounding of the state of siege warfare during this time period.  What was not expounded upon were the crucial battles fought in the multiple attempts to either relieve or thwart relief of the Mincio fortress.

The four failed Austrian attempts to relieve Mantua are recounted, each in their own chapter.  Once the fortress capitulates to the French, Cuccia retells of the Austro-Russian siege of Mantua and its ultimate surrender.  In the aftermath of the French capitulation, Cuccia goes into great detail on the French commander of the fortress, General Foissac-Latour.  Was the quick French capitulation of Mantua due to treasonous acts or profound incompetence?  Cuccia, lays out the circumstances and Bonaparte's response.  Declared the worst French general of all time, these chapters offer interesting reading but seemed off-topic in relation to the book's primary theme of Mantua under siege.

Cuccia's writing style I found a bit dry and repetitive.  Many of the passages seemed to focus on the recounting of lists either chronological or categorical in nature.  As a testament to this tendency, I randomly opened the book to verify if this was as widespread as imagined.  On page 104, we find in rapid succession, "...on 17 January...On 20 January...On 22 January...On 27 January..."  

While Mantua was an important hub in these early Northern Italian campaigns, I would have enjoyed a more balanced coverage to include descriptions of the key field battles.  Still, an interesting if dry read.  It did keep my mind distracted from the cramped surroundings on the airplane.

14 comments:

  1. Seems like a book in the modern school of rather dry history. I can perhaps understand why the events outside the siege were covered as background; they have been done before, and the book is really about Mantua and its sieges. How was the book in terms of discussing he design of the fortress, its strengths and weaknesses, and how that influenced the course of the two sieges? Does it cover the original construction and subsequent modifications?

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    1. The strategic importance of the fortress is examined along with the importance of the Mincio with respect to Mantua. The original construction is not discussed. Much of the discussion centers around provisioning, logistics, and social needs for inhabitants during these long sieges. Still, an interesting read.

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  2. I tend to find that sort of history maddening, but I was always a style over substance type of chap.

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    1. Style over substance? You do have panache!

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  3. I do love the early period of Bonaparte. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. It is interesting in looking at Mantua, which is usually just a "target" in accounts of the campaigns. Ironically, the author has actually missed why Foissac-Latour surrendered the fortress.

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    1. David, please do not leave me hanging like this. Why did FL surrender Mantua so swiftly?

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  5. Sorry, you will have to wait - but not too long! It is a work in progress, which does answer this point.

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    1. Dave, can you at least share the publication's title so I can watch for it?

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  6. Phil and I came from the same graduate program; I was ahead of him by a few years. The emphasis was on rigorous archival/primary research on all sides of an issue--or battle or siege--and dates, always dates. The writing style was to be as objective and neutral as humanly possible. Works for a dissertation, but not, I think, for a book.

    I went immediately for the "style" aspect when I published, and did not spare the purple prose. Pity Phil didn't do the same.

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    1. Your comments are much appreciated, Margaret. Good scholarship and good writing do not necessarily go hand in hand.

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  7. Jon, It hasn't got one as yet, but I promise to flag it up here. I came across it by accident, Dave

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