Bonaparte’s Troops Crush Austrians at Battle of Rivoli

A key stage in the Italian campaigns began on 14 January 1797.

Rivoli marked a key stage in the Italian campaigns of the twenty-something Napoleon Bonaparte on behalf of France’s ruling Directorate – successes that brought France's youngest general to the notice of his countrymen and Europe. After the declaration of war against the new French Republic by the European allies, attacks on the territories of a key ingredient in that alliance, the Italian possessions of the Austrian Habsburgs, had become an important theatre of war for the French.

Following earlier reverses for them in northern Italy, Napoleon had steadied French nerves by a victory over the Austrian general Alvinczy at Arcole the previous November, where he showed his tactical shrewdness by moving his men by river and surprising the Austrians in the rear.

At the same time Napoleon had the historic Austrian controlled city of Mantua under siege. With supplies in Mantua dwindling, the 25,000 Austrians under Alvinczy were desperate to relieve the town and launched an attack on French positions on the heights of nearby Rivoli. Napoleon’s commander, Massena, resisted effectively and despite numerical superiority, the Austrians found themselves in a rout. With 13,000 Austrian prisoners, the victory at Rivoli was the catalyst for the collapse of anti-French resistance in Northern Italy and the vindication of Napoleon's strategy. Two days later on January 16th, the main body of the Austrian army surrendered to Napoleon at La Favorite; on February 2nd Mantua fell to the French, and by the middle of the month, Bonaparte had occupied the Papal States, forcing Pope Pius VI to sign the Treaty of Tolentino.

Napoleon had promised his troops in ltaly, ‘honour, glory and riches’ – the victories and booty he gathered in his Italian campaign made him a national hero and potentially a loose cannon, too popular for the Directory easily to rein in. Later in 1797 he established his ‘Cisalpine Republic’ based on Milan – and received people in some state at the Chateau of Montebello, just outside the city, with his wife Josephine as consort. The little Corsican was well on the way to his imperial destiny.