Happy Birthday Napoleon!

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David. Photos are mine unless otherwise indicated. Help yourself.

 

Napoleon Bonaparte was born 243 years ago today!

Disgracefully, until recently, most of what I knew about Napoleon Bonaparte derived from numerous viewings of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure coupled with the catchy ABBA song, Waterloo, where “Napoleon did surrender”.

Bill and Ted’s Napoleon – image from  http://historicalhistrionics.wordpress.com/tag/69-dudes/

One day it dawned that virtually every museum I visited had some of Napoleon’s stuff.

In London, they have his toothbrush at the Wellcome Collection and one of his death masks at the British Museum

Plaster cast death mask made from a mold taken by Napoleon’s doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, two days after death.

  There is an entire Napoleon wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal

 where they proudly display his hat and shirt and boots and  gloves and hair. 

Here in New York, we have loads of Napoleon swag at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including this gorgeous tapestry portraying Napoleon in his coronation robe.

Of course in France, you can’t swing a chat without hitting a Napoleon relic – there are thousands of Napoleon’s theengs there.  Can you think of any other non-religious figure whose chattel is so cherished?

One of Napoleon’s billiards tables.

I was curious about the estate plan of a man who had so much tangible personal property.  And wow, what a treat it was to study  Napoleon’s Last Will and Testament and Many Codicils! 

Turns out I needed to learn a bit about the man, his family and his fascinating life to make sense of the documents which mention more than 70 people.  Also turns out one could spend an entire lifetime learning about Napoleon. Instead, I resorted to Wikipedia, a few books and articles cited infra and obsessive browsing on Napoleon. org  for the basics.

Today, on his birthday, I hope you will enjoy reading this synopsis of what I learned about Napoleon, the Military/Political Herole (part hero/part asshole – see Ulysses S. Grant for an example of an American herole).

Our next posts will cover Napoleon the Lover, the Testator and the Tourist Attraction.

Napoleon the Herole

Although Napoleon is a French hero, he was born on the island of Corsica to Italian parents. His first language was Italian but he later learned French so he could attend military school.  Young Napoleon quickly became a great soldier and politician and by the time he was 24, he was a brigadier general!

In 1800, after commanding armies in Italy and Egypt (a campaign complete with bubonic plague and other horrors), Napoleon maneuvered to get himself elected First Consul, the highest position in the country. Four years later, after many machinations, he proclaimed himself Emperor for life.

The very famous picture below, The Coronation of Napoleon, showing the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon crowning his wife Josephine as Empress, was painted by Jacques-Louis David. It is gigantic – 32 by 20 feet!  Many of Napoleon’s family and friends are in it.  David made two copies. Today, one is at the Louvre, the other at Versailles.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Image from Wikipedia

This painting was such a big deal that another painter, Louis-Leopold Bolly, painted the crowd-scene at the Louvre when the Coronation of Napoleon was put on display there!

The Public Viewing David’s “Coronation” at the Louvre, by Louis-Leopold Bolly.

Guess where this painting of the painting can be viewed? Here, in NYC at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! The above image is from its website.

Once Napoleon ascended the throne, there were wars galore “the Napoleonic Wars” – with England, Austria, Prussia, Russia (a particularly horrific war where Napoleon’s Grande Armee was decimated and the Russians lost hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians), Portugal, Spain and even Sweden mixing it up.  Napoleon was a genius at military strategy and France won many battles. In fact there were seven different coalitions of countries that fought Napoleon and he won five of those wars. Millions of soldiers and civilians died during the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon’s throne is at the Louvre.

In 1814 after Paris was captured by the Sixth Coalition of armies, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and he was exiled to the island of Elba just off the coast of Italy (a gorgeous vacation retreat nowadays – lucky Napoleon).

Elba today. from Wikipedia

Napoleon escaped from Elba and raised an army that went on the offensive against the British and their allies by marching into what is now Belgium.  The battle of Waterloo occurred there in June, 1815 and the British General Wellington et. al. whupped Napoleon, who did surrender.

The British were over-joyed.  There are  various celebratory tea sets and such at the British Museum including this “Bonaparte Dethroned” pitcher.

Other celebratory items included this Waterloo medal that honors the monarchs who finally conquered Napoleon – Frederick William III of Prussia, Alexander I of Russia, Francis II of Austria, and George III of England.  It took an artist 30 years to create this object that nowadays is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

Waterloo Medal

After Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled again but this time to the super-remote island of St. Helena, in the middle of nowheresville (it looks to be somewhere between Africa and South America in the South Atlantic). Napoleon didn’t much like it there and his British captors may not have treated him so well during his almost six years as their prisoner before he died at 51.

Durimg Napoleon’s rule, there were many improvements in France.  For example, France gained a new, more inclusive educational system, a new tax system, improved infrastructure, a stock exchange. a central bank, the Legion of Honor and more.   Charismatic and brilliant strategist that Napoleon was, even though France lost Waterloo and its huge empire, the French still  adored him.  He was especially revered by his soldiers and officers whose loyalty remained steadfast, long beyond the date of his death.

Of course, Napoleon had his critics too.  An English friend tells me that he studied about old “Boney” in school and about “Britain standing against a dictator bent on the domination of Europe … and we beat the French!!”

But hey, it’s the guy’s 243rd birthday and he remains a French hero and as we shall see, a potent tourist attraction.

Napoleon’s Tomb at Les Invalides in Paris

Bonus:  Five Random Napoleon Factoids

1.   He sold us more than 800.000 square miles of land that the French owned in North America (the Louisiana Purchase) for less than 3 cents an acre – thanks Napoleon!

2.   He was responsible for a new set of civil laws (“the Napoleonic Code”).  Napoleon’s civil law system was eventually adopted by many nations, but not by us in the ‘States except for…..Jeopardy Question: Which one U.S. state  adopted a civil law legal system?  Hint, see above.

3.  He took 167 scientists with various specialties with him on his ill-fated Egyptian campaign. They found the Rosetta Stone!  My brilliant artist friend and City Tech professor,  Adrianne Wortzel,  told me the story of this crazy expedition.  Professor Wortzel created a fantastic artwork depicting Napoleon’s military strategy in Egypt  “A Re-inactment of the Battle of the Pyramids”.   In her piece, Napoleon’s army are  reconfigured Tickle Me Elmos!

4.  He was a consummate public relations/propaganda genius – Napoleon burnished his image constantly right until the end of his life – even in his Last Will and Testament!  I love that he commissioned artists to paint him in heroic poses – on horses, looking brave, leading battles – and was not at all concerned that the Napoleon in the paintings actually looked like himself.

Napoleon on the Battlefield at Eylau, by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (fragment)

5.   He wasn’t that short – shame on Bill and Ted who portray Napoleon the size of Ted’s kid brother.  Napoleon was between 5″5′ and  5’7”, depending on who you believe. The  average height of a Frenchman back then was like 5’3″ anyway.  The whole Napoleon Complex deal is based on a false premise.

In our next posts, we dish on Napoleon’s love life, his final days in exile, his fascinating estate plan and his ultimate resting place.

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3 Responses to “Happy Birthday Napoleon!”


  1. 1 Julian Pardoe August 15, 2012 at 8:08 am

    There was a great exhibition,Treasures of Napoleon, that went to various US cities. I saw it at the National Geographic Society : http://www.napoleonexhibit.com/press-installation.php

  2. 2 Leeza August 17, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Herole. I never heard of this term before. Love it! Who know Napoleon was so vein. cheers.

  3. 3 Leeza August 17, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    I meant knew…..


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