Some years ago I had the chance to peruse some late XVIIIth century registers from a local parish. I was looking for first-hand information about the passage of Napoleon’s troops in my corner of the world between 1796 and 1797, and while most parsons ran away when the French arrived, I eventually found trace of one who didn’t.
Don Francesco Doni not only remained in his parish, but also added “current affairs” annotations in his parish books, between recordings of births, marriages and deaths…
It was thrilling to find these small notes, marked by hastily drawn manicules and written in a peculiar mix of Church Latin and what had to be memories of Don Doni’s classical studies. The ink had browned very much, and smudged in places thank to the hellishly damp climate of my parts – but was still fairly legible.
So I learned of the fearful wait, of the news treacling to the small village about the unstoppable advance of the French. They were preceded by a fame of pillage, violence and general godlessness, so Don Doni and the parish council try to protect what little silver the parish owned. Such was the fear that, when a 17-year-old girl died of an illness, she was buried hastily and without ceremony – which may have been prudent, since the French by then were laying siege to Mantova, some ten kilometres away.
Don Doni’s writing and manicules became markedly more emotional as the invading troops drew nearer, and eventually some of them were billeted in the village. There was one victim – a man of fifty who managed to pick a quarrel with the soldiers and got three sword slashes across his face, dying after fourteen hours of terrible sufferings. Don Doni is very specific on this – and calls the sword with the very literary Latin word “ensis”.
But what really broke him – if his wobbly and smudged hand is anything to go by – was the surrender of Mantova in February 1797, after months of battles and failed attempts at breaking the siege.
In the end the Austrians retired and the French, who had left the village some weeks earlier, came back and requisitioned the parish silverware after all. The small inventory Don Doni annotated in Italian and in a very sour tone.
In the end, it was a very small story, with little or no trace of the battle in my village that I had been trying to document. And yet it was very touching to read Don Doni’s increasingly colourful Latin prose, to see his fear, his indignation, his sourness and his heartbreak in the tiny notes. As far as I know, he never made annotations of this sort again after the fall of Mantova. The coming of the French was perhaps the one moment in his life when he sensed history passing by. And his notes make for a very vivid account of what it was like to be there and see it all happen.