The Priest who Invented the Tricolour

Written by  Gian Pietro Testa
Giuseppe Compagnoni: an extraordinary patriot, now forgotten.
On 7 January 1797, ten days after the proclamation of the Cispadane Republic, the Congress of one hundred representatives of the cities of Bologna, Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio adopted as their flag the white, red and green. The man who submitted the idea of the tricolour to the revolutionaries was Giuseppe Compagnoni, born in Lugo on 3 March 1754, and secretary to the Central Administration in Ferrara under the new Napoleonic government.

Giuseppe Compagnoni, a die-hard supporter of the battle against the temporal power of the church and a man for whom nothing was sacred, was a priest. A priest from the Romagna of the pre-anarchic days who lived in Ferrara, where conservation and conformism were, then too, part of one diffuse culture. It suffices to think that in the referendum held to approve the new Constitution (19 March 1797) Ferrara was the only one of the Cispadane cities with more "noes" than ''ayes". The fact IS, had it been FOR Ferrara, the Cispadane Republic would never have seen the light. Yet it was the birthplace OF the tricolour: a contradiction typical OF the folk OF Ferrara, who either slumber IN the shadow OF power OR become, FOR brief moments, fiercely iconoclastic. However, there IS NO record OF ANY PUBLIC measures against Giuseppe Compagnoni, who was allowed TO make his libertarian AND revolutionary proclamations even IN the soporific climate OF the city. Perhaps this was because this unusual clergyman was independent OF the French. WHEN he swore allegiance TO the new republic, he said: "the proclamation of the sovereignty of the people has freed the provisional government from its dependence on France".
However, he did not succeed in decanting his more extremist ideas into the constitution. While the Cispadane Constitution proclaimed all men to be equal, abolished feudal privileges, suppressed customs duties, recognized that education was a public need and laid the foundations of the welfare state, the moderates succeeded in having the Catholic religion recognized as dominant.

On the other hand, the clergy bore no love for the Constitution either. In Ferrara, when faced with the constitutional principle of the freedom of the press, Cardinal Mattei, who was not renowned for his open minded views, commented that the business was "contrary TO the divine RIGHT OF the Church TO prevent its sons FROM exposure TO coming perversions... therefore the said proposal IS heretical ... AND detrimental TO the authority OF the Church". How could two characters like Compagnoni and Mattei co-exist? It may be that each one pretended that the other did not exist and that the accusation of heresy was launched generically by the cardinal, who never dared to oppose that learned subverter of the faith. Priest or ex priest? The records are somewhat vague. At that time, Compagnoni considered himself to be outside the Church and he had set aside the cassock; but the vicissitudes of his life suggest that he still felt himself to be a man of religion. This is demonstrated by one fact: since the Cispadane Constitution forbade members of the clergy to accept political posts, he gave up his institutional posts and asked the university of Ferrara to create a chair in constitutional law for him.
His brief period in the chair, little more than a year, was nonetheless full of initiatives and - culturally speaking - represented an exciting time for the youth of Ferrara.

But Compagnoni's differences with the city's repressive institutions became irredeemable: "We were subjected TO two legislations [canon law AND civil law, ed.] that were occasionally opposed IN terms OF means AND always IN terms OF ends, we were IN the power OF two authorities that were usually struggling against each other AND that agreed ONLY about the need TO oppress us". He was a supporter of the social contract and proclaimed the goodness of representative democracy. His lessons dealt with concepts of liberty, independence, and the rule of the people. He was against the death penalty. Having abandoned his chair to take his place in the parliament of the Cisalpine Republic, he proposed the legalization of polygamy.

His star waned with the end of Napoleon, which for the Jacobin priest spelled the end of hopes and illusions. The pre-Revolutionary powers were restored in Ferrara and in 1809 a new attempt to foment revolution in the area was bloodily suppressed by Austrian troops. Compagnoni returned to the fold, donned his cassock once more, and disavowed his own books, which are still worth reading today. In 1833, a forgotten man, he died in Milan.

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