The Objects

3rd May 1815

Source: © Archivio Fotografico Museo Napoleonico, Roma

Arcangelo De Dominicis, Bartolomeo Pinelli,
La disperazione di Murat,
incisione a bulino, mm 316 x 415
Roma, Museo Napoleonico (inv. MN 3381)

The Battle of Tolentino

Contributed by: Fabio Camilletti

On 2-3 May 1815, the battle of Tolentino, fought between the Austrian army and that of the King of Naples Joachim Murat, put an end to Napoleon's domination over Italy.

In the days immediately following, the seventeen-year-old philologist and poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) wrote an 'oration' in the style of ancient Greek rhetors, praising the defeat of Murat as a first step towards Italian political independence: Agl'italiani. Orazione in occasione della liberazione del Piceno.

Leopardi's oration can be taken as an eloquent symptom of the multifarious and often ambiguous ways Italian culture portrays and interprets the Napoleonic experience. In particular, Leopardi's focus on illusions, his reiterated stress on the Greco-Roman heritage of Italian culture, and his attempt at revitalizing an ancient ideal of heroism in a post-revolutionary age, testify to a tension between tradition and modernity, which takes the shape of a clashing opposition between Italy - the only legitimate heir of classical culture and values - and France.

In Leopardi's words, the Enlightenment dream of 'geometrising all the world', rather than enhancing human happiness, had inaugurated an age of disenchantment that threatened to erode the very grounds of social life. The memory of classical antiquity, as a consequence, was not to be intended as a revivalistic operation, but rather as a fully aware reaction against the triumph of technocracy and cultural relativism. Such tension between antiquity and modernity will pervade Leopardi's later work, and also underlie the ways Italian culture will negotiate and cope with the legacy of the Napoleonic experience in the Bourbon Restoration decades.