The mapping of the Napoleonic battles in Liguria and Piedmont was one of the most precise and time-consuming mapping operations undertaken by the French military administration in Northern Italy. The work was begun on October of 1802 and ended in approximately June 1809. The mapping occupied the time of a geodesist (Lasseret), a landscape painter (Bagetti), one commanding officer who was also a topographical engineer and a landscape painter (Martinel), and 4 topographical engineers (Brambilla, Castellino, Simondi and Bentabole) - one of who, Bentabole, was capable of geodetic and triangulation-quality work. While the topographical engineers worked on the mapping and also on the production of profiles, the landscape painter produced stunningly beautiful landscapes of the battles – though these were not limited to Piedmont and Liguria. In order to avoid the time and cost of baseline measurement, the maps and profiles were grounded using Beccaria’s triangles measured some two decades earlier for a memoir delivered at the Academy of Sciences of Turin. But many geodetic points were also determined to fill in, check and augment the Beccaria information and the whole map was based on a triangulation that began at Beccaria’s calculation for the distance from Mondovi to Sanfre. The mapping was originally expected to cover all of the battlefields of the 1795-96 campaigns in Piedmont and Liguria but ultimately only covered the battles of Mondovi, San Michele, Corsaglia, Ceva, Montenotte and Montelegino. This still represented a considerable swath of territory to be mapped at 1: 10,000 while recording general topography (including minerals, cultivation types, watered and dry fields, grades of road, towns down to the individual buildings and relief (including spot heights)) together with the troop placements associated with the battles. The final desired product of this mapping operation was an engraved map to be included in a publication commemorating the battles of Napoleon. There was, then, no need, and scarcely any utility in producing manuscript maps of such exquisite beauty and detail.
In a sense there is no doubt as to why these maps were produced. The idea for their construction came from Napoleon himself and he maintained a strong interest in their production (with varying degrees of attention and interference) until the war in Spain and subsequent events distracted his attention from 1809. These maps were commemorative works and as such part of Napoleon’s conquest over time (or history). In these maps he had the battles recorded as he chose to remember them, omitting actions in which he played no part, such as the battle of Loano. In fact, the Battle of Loano was so much a part of the overall campaign that the topographic engineers also mapped that battle. In the end, however, they were not allowed to complete the mapping of Loano and Loano was not included in the final manuscript version of the 1: 10,000 map. Why such detailed and finished manuscript maps were produced is a more interesting tale. It is clear that Napoleon had these maps made both as self-flattery and to “enlighten” posterity. Napoleon himself might well have been satisfied with a more functional (though still exact) cartography. The beauty of the maps came from Napoleon’s subordinates on at least three different levels: the Head of the Dépôt de la guerre (General Sanson); the Head of the Topographic Bureau in Northern Italy, (Brossier) and the Head of Section (Martinel). Each hoped to please, flatter and win the satisfaction and approval of Napoleon, or at least of an immediate superior. No one was entirely sure what would achieve that end. Was it celerity, was it accuracy, was it detail, or was it beauty? It was relatively easy to produce a rough map quickly but very difficult to reconcile speed with accuracy, detail and beauty. It was also very difficult for the administrators at various levels to coordinate their actions and proposals as they felt obliged to respond to the apparently changing moods and concerns of Napoleon and to the obstacles, competing concerns, and conditions encountered at each level of the administration. Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that the form of the final manuscript map was the product of the absolute power of Napoleon and the effect that had on his subordinates. His subordinates were not passive actors in this. These men, although very preoccupied by Napoleon’s concerns and interests, had high professional standards and a sense of what ought to be done.
There were essentially three distinct phases in the production of the manuscript maps commemorating the battles of Napoleon in Piedmont and Liguria. The original conception of the map appears to have been of an accurate map of all of Liguria and Piedmont. There are references to scales for this map of 1: 50,000 and 1: 300,000. The smallest of these would not have permitted detailed depiction of the battles. So perhaps two maps were intended: detailed depictions of the battles and a general overview map. At the same time there was some suggestion that a relief model of the area of the battlefields might be undertaken. This meant that spot heights were required of the engineers. The first phase of the mapping, then, was characterized by fluid expectations of the work of the surveyors.
In the second and principal phase of the production, from roughly 1803 to 1806 the engineers were working according to a very different set of instructions: they were to produce plans of the individual battles without trying to fill in the countryside between the battles. These were to be delivered immediately upon their completion to Napoleon. The battlefield plans were located, surveyed and drawn with extraordinary care and were accompanied by military and statistical memoirs and dictionaries of all the places recorded in the plans. These plans were drawn at a scale of 1:10,000.
Sometime in 1806 the emphasis shifted to the production of a series of maps covering the entire area of the battles. Martinel was ordered to fill in the information between the battles as quickly as he could using whatever information he could find, including rough reconnaissance maps made during the war itself and copies of cadastral maps found either in Paris or in Turin. Approximately 75 such pieces of cadastral maps survive in the archives and probably are associated with this kind of filling in operation. Also surviving in the archive is a sketch on which were combined three different grid systems. This sketch may have served as a graphic tool for the reconciliation of different maps and mapping exercises. This was very clearly a most unsatisfactory way to produce a high quality map. There is no question that the engineers regarded the combination of their highly accurate terrain-based mapping with the compilation cartography needed to produce a seamless whole as a great shame.
The concept of the whole map itself appears to have taken several forms. In 1806-7 the team was working on the production of a map of two sheets, perhaps at a scale of 1: 50,000. Sometime in 1807 the team began work on a 1: 10,000 series of maps in which the original battle plans were stitched together and filled in to form a series of bands. In 1807 and 1808 the engineers went back into the field to try to improve the cartographic depiction of the territories between the battle plans. They were successful to some extent. That is, the topographic detail appeared as correct and complete on all parts of the map. However, there is little doubt that the infilling introduced considerable areal distortion into the final manuscript map as is evident from even the roughly drawn “tableau d’assemblage” above.
Although the 1: 10,000 manuscript map itself was never used for military or civilian purposes - beyond serving as a source for the printed maps commemorating Napoleon’s battles - these are nevertheless remarkable maps. They were the most carefully, correctly and painstakingly surveyed maps produced during the French occupation of northern Italy. With a more complete set of reproductions of these maps and some further planimetric analysis, it would be possible to discern precisely how they were stitched together. Collecting cartographic representations of Napoleon’s battles from the 19th century would also permit us to ascertain the influence of this manuscript map on subsequent depictions of these battles and perhaps on the writing of their history. The time, effort and resources devoted to the manuscript maps suggests much about lines of power and communication in the Napoleonic period, to say nothing of Napoleon’s interest in his posterity.