The Ferraresi of Ninety-seven

Written by  Giorgio Franceschini
Political upheavals affecting Ferrara in the Napoleonic era.
In June 1796 the French occupied Ferrara and assumed all powers in the name of the French Republic. The Magistrato dei Savi was substituted by the Municipal government thus marking the definitive end of Papal government.
Four months later Ferrara became a part of the Cispadane Confederation and in the May of 1797, of the Cisalpine Republic. But the second upheaval was not long in coming: in May 1798 the Austrians occupied Ferrara and restored the former regime. But Napoleon's victory at Marengo, in January 1801, brought Ferrara back into the Cisalpine Republic.

And now let's go back to the republican Ferrara of 1797 to try to pinpoint who were the "Ferraresi OF the YEAR", victors or victims. Standing tall among the other figures we find Cardinal Alessandro Mattei, the archbishop of Ferrara for thirty years, from 1777 to 1807. He was encharged by Pope Pius VI with the signing of the Treaty of Tolentino (February 1797), by which the French were ceded some Legations, including Ferrara.

Mattei looked on impotent as the Church's temporal power was demolished, harsh measures were taken against the clergy, and many Legations lost. His relations with the Holy See in those distressing days, his meetings with Napoleon and the French authorities, were judged Byzantine affairs by his adversaries, but men such as he, who certainly had no love lost for the ideas and institutions imposed by the French, had to move with ability, as well as courage, to salvage what might be salvaged.
Camillo Bevilacqua, a member of one of the oldest, richest, and noblest Ferrarese families and an active promoter of industrial enterprises in the locality, was another personage accused of ambiguity, even though he was notoriously against democratic innovations. Upon the fall of the papal government, he was invited by the French Commissioner General Francesco Saliceti to take part in the central government, but he resigned almost immediately.

He was one of the thirty men of Ferrara chosen to lay the foundations of the Confederation in Modena on the 16 October 1796. Two months later he met Bonaparte in Milan. But something about him did not please the latter and so, as Frizzi wrote, «Bevilacqua comes and goes, but under arrest». Bevilacqua returned to favour when, in May 1799, the Austrian general Klenau made him President of the Regia Cesarea Reggenza but according to Antolini «he was not appointed to administrate well but merely to reward and punish».

Three quatrains of an anonymous poem quoted by Antolini serve as the memorial to posterity of Giovanni Battista Boldrini, a member of a revolutionary group.«Head of a diabolical club / of heretical murderers / was citizen Boldrini. / Of all other ministers / the most boorish member / of the astounding and renowned / executive power. / The despoliation of altars and temples / the destruction of convents / the uprooting of the holy church / were just some of his works. / Let the archbishop say / let the priests say / if ever there was persecutor / more barbarous than he».
A lawyer from Ferrara, Boldrini was considered the most energetic supporter of the new order and was zealous to the point of fanaticism. President of the Central government, he took part in the congresses of Modena and Reggio Emilia and from 1797 to 1798 was commissioner first for the Department of the Lower Po Valley area and then for the city of Ferrara.

In May 1799 the Austrians arrested him and incarcerated him in the fortress of Legnano for over a year. He also served the Cisalpine Republic and the Kingdom of Italy. The fall of Napoleon and his Italian kingdom put an abrupt end to his political career and he returned to the political struggle only for a brief period during the insurrection of 1831.

Our fourth personality is Giuseppe Compagnoni, ex-priest, journalist and eclectic writer. In 1797 he published the Elements of Democratic Constitutional Law, on which he held lessons at the University of Ferrara. He was secretary to Boldrini when the latter was in charge of the Lower Po Valley area. Compagnoni fled to France during the Austrian occupation of 1799 and returned to Italy to hold down posts under the Republic and the Kingdom of Italy.
It was he, on the 7th January 1797, who persuaded the Congress of Reggio Emilia to adopt the Tricolour as the national flag, after which, «having returned to private life, I completely forgot the past and gave myself over to the pleasures of study and conversation with friends».