Napoleon Bonaparte's first Italian campaign is cited in
military field manuals as a model illustration of the art of
In less than a year, between 1796 and 1797, and aged just 28,
the illustrious general commanded a small, well-disciplined army
that used diversionary tactics to conquer Italy and defeat the
Austrians. The victories at Castiglione, Arcole and Rivoli continue
to echo through the streets of Paris.
The wars spared neither civilians nor buildings, both public and
private. In Verona, a beautiful house was severely damaged during
Napoleon's campaign. It belonged to Antoine Cagnoli.
Antoine Cagnoli was a remarkable character. An extremely gifted
scholar, he initially seemed destined for a diplomatic career.
However, in 1780, when passing through Paris at the age of 37, he
visited the Observatory and discovered Saturn's rings, which amazed
and fascinated him.
"This year, the most remarkable of my life, I have suddenly
renounced my metaphysical and political studies for mathematics and
He proceeded to study geometry, algebra, differential and
integral arithmetic and finally astronomy, thanks to the renowned
Parisian astronomer Jérôme De La Lande.
He subsequently set up a fully equipped observatory at his home
in Verona. He became president of the Italian Astronomy Society and
published numerous works, including a treatise on elementary
astronomy that was destined to popularize the discipline among his
fellow citizens. Until, that is, the fateful day in 1797, when
Bonaparte's cannons demolished the tools of his trade.
Although he did not really expect a response, his friend De La
Lande sent a letter to Bonaparte in person, explaining the facts.
To his great surprise, the general answered him:
"I gave the requisite orders as soon as I received your letter,
and will take all the measures necessary to ensure that the Society
of Verona is compensated for the damage done to its property and
establishment, and that this is remedied forthwith. If the famous
astronomer Cagnoli or any of his esteemed colleagues have been
offended by the woeful events that have occurred in this city, I
shall make the necessary amends. I assure you that I shall take
every opportunity to redress these actions in a manner favourable
to you, in order to convince you of my estimation and of the high
regard in which I hold you. Finally, I must thank you; your letter
will perhaps permit me to remedy one of the evils of war, and to
protect men as honourable as the scholars of Verona."
The general kept his promises: 10,000 francs were sent to the
Society of Verona, Cagnoli was introduced at the Observatory of
Milan, his instruments were replaced and he was appointed professor
in Modena. In the words of De La Lande:
"General Bonaparte did not stop at this; he wished to donate a
clock to the Observatory of Milan which was more sophisticated than
the existing instruments. His aides wrote to London for one of
Arnold's clocks, with pivots which rotated on rubies, anchor
escapements encrusted with diamonds and a compensator made of iron
and zinc: it cost 110 guineas, or 2,800 francs, and it is a
veritable masterpiece; it was installed in 1802."
The beautiful astronomical clock given by Napoleon served the
astronomers at Milan's Observatory for over 50 years. It was used
De La Lande, Jérôme,Bibliographie astronomique(Paris, 1803).