Napoleon’s astronomical clock


Napoleon Bonaparte's first Italian campaign is cited in military field manuals as a model illustration of the art of successful warfare.

In less than a year, between 1796 and 1797, and aged just 28, the illustrious general commanded a small, well-disciplined army that used diversionary tactics to conquer Italy and defeat the Austrians. The victories at Castiglione, Arcole and Rivoli continue to echo through the streets of Paris.

The wars spared neither civilians nor buildings, both public and private. In Verona, a beautiful house was severely damaged during Napoleon's campaign. It belonged to Antoine Cagnoli.

Antoine Cagnoli was a remarkable character. An extremely gifted scholar, he initially seemed destined for a diplomatic career. However, in 1780, when passing through Paris at the age of 37, he visited the Observatory and discovered Saturn's rings, which amazed and fascinated him.

"This year, the most remarkable of my life, I have suddenly renounced my metaphysical and political studies for mathematics and astronomy."

He proceeded to study geometry, algebra, differential and integral arithmetic and finally astronomy, thanks to the renowned Parisian astronomer Jérôme De La Lande.

He subsequently set up a fully equipped observatory at his home in Verona. He became president of the Italian Astronomy Society and published numerous works, including a treatise on elementary astronomy that was destined to popularize the discipline among his fellow citizens. Until, that is, the fateful day in 1797, when Bonaparte's cannons demolished the tools of his trade.

Although he did not really expect a response, his friend De La Lande sent a letter to Bonaparte in person, explaining the facts. To his great surprise, the general answered him:

"I gave the requisite orders as soon as I received your letter, and will take all the measures necessary to ensure that the Society of Verona is compensated for the damage done to its property and establishment, and that this is remedied forthwith. If the famous astronomer Cagnoli or any of his esteemed colleagues have been offended by the woeful events that have occurred in this city, I shall make the necessary amends. I assure you that I shall take every opportunity to redress these actions in a manner favourable to you, in order to convince you of my estimation and of the high regard in which I hold you. Finally, I must thank you; your letter will perhaps permit me to remedy one of the evils of war, and to protect men as honourable as the scholars of Verona."

The general kept his promises: 10,000 francs were sent to the Society of Verona, Cagnoli was introduced at the Observatory of Milan, his instruments were replaced and he was appointed professor in Modena. In the words of De La Lande:

"General Bonaparte did not stop at this; he wished to donate a clock to the Observatory of Milan which was more sophisticated than the existing instruments. His aides wrote to London for one of Arnold's clocks, with pivots which rotated on rubies, anchor escapements encrusted with diamonds and a compensator made of iron and zinc: it cost 110 guineas, or 2,800 francs, and it is a veritable masterpiece; it was installed in 1802."

The beautiful astronomical clock given by Napoleon served the astronomers at Milan's Observatory for over 50 years. It was used until 1975.



De La Lande, Jérôme,Bibliographie astronomique(Paris, 1803).


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