Split during the French Administration of Napoleon Bonaparte

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“Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

In the wake of the French revolution, revolutionary ideas of liberty, freedom, and equality were spreading over Europe like wildfire. Napoleon, in his war campaigns, made sure that these new values be implemented in the conquered regions and for the benefit of the people so as to set the basis of a paradigm shift that was supposed to supersede the old and outworn feudal laws and principles that shaped a bygone world. No different was the fate of the people on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Even though France defeated Austria and signed the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, which put an end to the 1100-year existence of the Venetian republic and placed Istria and Dalmatia under Austrian rule, it was not until after the Battle of Austerlitz, followed by the Peace of Pressburg in December 1805 that these provinces came under French governance and were included in the Kingdom of Italy, an entity under Napoleon’s full control through his stepson Eugene Beauharnais who acted as a viceroy. (Kečkemet 2006) This first period of French rule lasted until 1809 and the formation of Illyrian Provinces and was marked by the governance of Vincenzo Dandolo, who was appointed general superintendent of Dalmatia. (Kečkemet 2006)

Dandolo, a scientist, chemist-pharmacist, and agriculturalist, and a subordinate to marshal August Marmont, occupied his post in the city of Zadar, then the capital of Dalmatia. He was responsible to put into action Marmont’s commands and directions – a set of ideas and visions all fashioned in the spirit of the Enlightenment. He regarded the region as underdeveloped and was set to make improvements by building roads, introducing public education system, upgrading trade and commerce, and since he was an inveterate agriculturalist, modernising primitive agricultural methods that were predominant in the region at the time. (Kečkemet 2006)

When it comes to Split, an emphasis was put on aesthetics, culture, and social life of the city. Such was the decision to tear down old shabby houses in front of the south façade of Diocletian’s palace. Foundations for the new public park, colloquially known as Đardin, were set then from the rumbles of bastions that encircled the city core and were built during Venetian’s reign. The idea behind deconstructing parts of bastions was to open up the city and make it more susceptible to growth and development outside the city walls, and to include old city neighbourhoods Lučac, Manuš, and Dobri into shaping the city’s social life, but also to ease the possibility of defending the city in case of enemy threat. The decision to tear down the Venetian castle west of the palace and to use the remaining material to expand the boardwalk on the west coast came from the fear that Russian or British troops could seize it and use it as a stronghold to carry out attacks on the city. (Kečkemet 2006) Improvements in postal service were also made and went along with construction and enhancements to traffic routes. (Kečkemet 2006) Regarding social activities, tombola events were organized in the theatre, and part of the earnings went to the “Committee for public charity” that took care of hospitals, orphanages, almshouses, and mental hospitals that the French found in terrible conditions, and since charitable work, care for the general well-being of the citizens, as well as the incentive to bring about an egalitarian and more just society, was an integral part of the legacy of French revolution thus it was in the focus of French governance, most notably that of marshal Marmont. (Kečkemet 2006) Marshal Marmont felt a special appeal to Split. He was enchanted by picturesque landscapes and scenery but also by the city’s rich history, ruins of Salona, and most notably the remnants of the breath-taking palace.

Upon the arrival of the French, city streets were unkempt, filthy, and feculent, with drains of outflow and sewage waters running on its surfaces, including the one that today bears the name in honour of August Marmont. Having seen how big a problem this poses to public health care, a decision was made to pave the city streets and redirect the flow of sewage waters, an undertaking that was partly done at the expense of residents and clergy. (Kečkemet 2006) The general idea of participation and involvement of the citizenry in public projects was encouraged if not even imposed, and all with the aim of raising the level of consciousness of an individual and his role and influence on society as a whole. Along with introducing a public health-care system, Marmont made effort to embellish the city by issuing a decree to build public parks and gardens and forming a “Commission for the embellishment of Split”. The commission’s task was to take care that new houses on the coast be built in accordance with the plans and blueprints of Basilio Mazzoli.

The egalitarian approach in reshaping society brought about some notable resistance in certain classes of the society, particularly among the nobility, clergy, and commoners who were heavily influenced by the clergy. Redistribution of property that affected the clergy included property and church inventory being confiscated with the aim to help fund further warfare, but also some monasteries were used to accommodate the French army and officers. Nobility lost part of their lands and estates. Some fraternities, that counted thirty-four in Split alone at the time, were suspended from activity by the decree of viceroy Eugene, dating from 20th October 1808. “Fraternity of The Holy Sacrament” and “Fraternity of the Good Death” were left unharmed, most likely due to the reason that their work included burial of the deceased, especially of the poor. (Duplančić 2011)

Another feat worthy of mentioning was the full integration of the Jewish minority into society. Jews were condemned to ghetto life, and the decision to bring down ghetto doors as well as to proclaim religious liberty was greeted enthusiastically among the members of the Jewish community. (Kečkemet 2006) All citizens were regarded equal before the law, and implementation of a new set of principles that intrinsically belonged to Napoleon’s most significant work – Code Civil.

Though French initiatives were commonly perceived as anti-clerical, and secularism and laicism were instilled in changes imposed by them, marshal Marmont held members of the Franciscan order in high regard. He did not fail to see how influential the order was among commoners and that it would be opportune to be well-disposed to the order so as to try to swing in his favour the disapproving bearing of the public. Those who felt inclined towards revolutionary ideas of the French were predominantly members of the citizenry, especially intellectuals who were not averse to embracing new values and ideas of the Enlightenment. (Kečkemet 2006)

Since the foundation of Illyrian provinces in 1809 and Marmont’s relocation to Ljubljana to occupy the post of the general governor, activities on embellishing the city were slowed down, and many never saw the light of day, and the implementation of the revolutionary ideas slackened. Marmont was occupied leading war campaigns across Europe, being wounded twice but nevertheless participating in battles head high and baldly executing His Imperial Majesty’s will. Subsequently, due to disappointment in Napoleon and thinking that he had placed himself above France, he turned against him and parleyed to surrender Paris. (Kečkemet 2006)

French governance over Dalmatia lasted until 1813 and the battle of Leipzig, the decisive defeat of Napoleon’s army on the continent. (Britannica 1998) Though oftentimes regarded as usurping, particularly among those who were most affected by changes imposed, we can beyond doubt credit the French governance for doing so much for the benefit of the people in so little time, especially for the introduction of ground-breaking libertarian ideas.

To learn more about Split today, check out the Total Croatia Split in a Page guide.




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