For your amusement, a comic strip “honoring” Napoleon Bonaparte on the anniversary of man’s July 20, 1969 landing on the moon:
Napoleon Bonaparte: it’s hard to keep a determined man in check.
Thank you, XKCD.com.
For your amusement, a comic strip “honoring” Napoleon Bonaparte on the anniversary of man’s July 20, 1969 landing on the moon:
Napoleon Bonaparte: it’s hard to keep a determined man in check.
Thank you, XKCD.com.
As I explained in my last post, in general, the Spanish aren’t fans of Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, I didn’t find a single portrait of Napoleon in the Prado Museum’s huge collection. The Prado was, however, hosting a travelling exhibition of works by the French painter Ingres (1780-1867). There to my delight I found two.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres studied in Paris under Jacques-Louis David whose paintings have been featured in a number of my posts. In 1803, Ingres was one of five artists commissioned to do full-length portraits of thirty-four-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul. That painting (seen below) was given to the city of Liège where it usually hangs in the Curtius Museum.
The Emperor on his Imperial Throne was the second Napoleon portrait in the Ingres exhibit. Over the years, this stiff, stylized painting has hung in the Louvre and Les Invalides. It now resides in the Musée de L’Armée. One look at Napoleon’s pale, puffy face explains why the critics (and probably Napoleon himself) hated it. Of course, I was excited to see it in Madrid. Two hundred years later, the man’s still ubiquitous even in hostile territory.
When you’re visiting Madrid, it’s painful to be an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte.
It’s similar to how I felt on my visit to Vietnam when I heard the Vietnam War called “the War of American Aggression.” In Madrid, what I know as “the Peninsula War” became “the War for Spanish Independence.” History’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? You can find heroes and villains on all sides, and enough conflicting justification to make your head spin. In this case, the evidence seems clear: the British and the French used the Iberian Peninsula as a convenient place to stage a war.
My January 2015 post, “Finding Napoleon in Richmond and Spain,” provides a historical snapshot of this conflict. Here’s a bit more backstory:
By 1808, the corrupt reign of Spain’s Carlos IV had been cut short through a coup by his equally corrupt son, Ferdinand VII (seen here in a painting by Francisco Goya). Carlos IV fled to France, seeking Napoleon’s support. Wily Napoleon lured Ferdinand into negotiations on French soil where he strong-armed the feuding family into ceding their throne to him. Napoleon then turned Spain over to his brother Joseph. There are, of course, more twists to this story, but that’s the short edition.
Joseph Bonaparte, although reluctant, thought he might do some good as Spain’s monarch. He barged in with ideas for a modern constitution and decreed an end to the Inquisition. But before he’d even set foot in his new realm, the Spanish populace was in revolt.
On the 2nd of May, 1808, Spanish patriots fired on French troops in the heart of Madrid. This plaque in the Puerta del Sol plaza commemorates the first shots. Goya’s painting (above) of “The Charge of the Malmalukes,” shows Spaniards attacking Napoleon’s soldiers on that date. Perhaps this French regiment, in its fancy Arab dress and comprised of Muslims and Christians alike, incensed the devoutly Catholic Spaniards. The melee cost hundreds of lives on both sides.
Goya captured the next day’s events in his most famous painting, “The Third of May.” On that day, Napoleon’s forces took revenge with hundreds of executions. Today, the “The Charge of the Malmalukes” and “The Third of May” hang side by side in the Prado Museum.
So began the first “guerrilla warfare,” the Spanish people’s asymmetrical fight against the well-equipped Napoleonic army. After atrocities on both sides, it took the British under Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington and Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, to clear the French from Spain.
Just as we Americans remember the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord, the Spanish haven’t forgotten the patriots who started their War for Independence. One block from the Prado, in Madrid’s Plaza de la Lealtad (the Plaza of Loyalty), they buried their bodies and burn an Eternal Flame.
On October 27, 1806, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte marched his Grande Armée into Berlin. He spent the night at the Charlottenburg Palace, home to the Prussian King Frederick William III and his queen, Louise. His hosts weren’t at home—following the Prussian army’s disastrous losses at Jena and Auderstädt, the monarchs had taken refuge in the eastern corner of their realm.
Napoleon Bonaparte is often blamed for every battle and every war of his time. In this case, he had spent the year negotiating for peace. Despite those diplomatic efforts, England and Russia were preparing new offensives against him. The Prussian king, egged on by his war-hungry wife, jumped the gun. Without waiting for his allies, he engaged the French army on his own.
Queen Louise had been born in Hanover. She grew up the much admired, beautiful daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Johann Gottfried Schadow, the same artist who made the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate, sculpted this lovely statue of her and her sister Frederica. The then-king of Prussia, Frederick William II, encouraged Louise’s marriage to his eldest son, while her sister married his younger son.
By all accounts, Frederick William III was an indecisive ruler with voracious personal appetites and little strength of character. Louise, however, was determined to destroy the “Monster Napoleon.” She gathered advisors into a war party and persuaded the king to act. She even accompanied her husband to the battlefront, dressed like an Amazon warrior.
On October 14, in the separate battles of Jena and Auderstädt, the Prussians were soundly defeated. The Prussian king and queen fled, seeking protection from the Russian army. Emperor Napoleon, well aware of Queen Louise’s bluster against him, spent his night in Charlottenburg in her bedroom. She refused to ever sleep in that room again.
Napoleon and Louise didn’t come face-to-face until the following summer. After Napoleon defeated the Russian army at the Battle of Friedland, Queen Louise begged for a meeting with the Emperor. There she petitioned Napoleon to give Prussia generous treatment in the upcoming Treaty of Tilsit. Napoleon didn’t grant any concessions, but reportedly, he did say, she was “the only real man in Prussia.”
Queen Louise didn’t live long enough to enjoy the Prussians’ revenge. In 1814, at the time of Napoleon’s first abdication, the Prussian army overran the Emperor’s chateau at St. Cloud on the outskirts of Paris. Among other booty they took back to Berlin was one of the five original paintings of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David. It continues to hang in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin where I photographed it.
It wasn’t too difficult to find Napoleon Bonaparte on my recent trip to Berlin.
The city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate gained international prominence on October 27, 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte paraded his victorious Grande Armée through its arches. Napoleon’s power was at its zenith. He had just won the decisive battles of Jena and Auerstädt. His army marched in dress uniform, while Napoleon, in disregard for his personal safety, rode alone, yards in front, in his humble colonel’s attire. Despite the outward modesty, he felt entitled to some regal Prussian spoils.
The Quadriga, a bronze statue of Victory and her four-horse chariot by the artist Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764 – 1850) graced the arcade, as it does now. That day in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte instructed his cultural minister Vivant Denon to send it home to Paris.
Does that make Napoleon Bonaparte a marauding barbarian? Or a thief as this contemporaneous cartoon depicts him?
As early as his first Italian victories in 1796, Napoleon seized art and treasure from his conquered territories. Some he used to finance his army. The rest he sent home to France to fill the Louvre, the first People’s museum, or to pay the bankrupt country’s bills.
Let’s put his actions into historical context. War was the normal state of affairs in Europe. Those who lost paid not only in lives and land, but in cultural treasure. As one small example, a hundred years before Napoleon, just days before the treaty that ended the Thirty Years War, Queen Christina of Sweden spirited out of occupied Prague about 600 priceless artifacts including the Silver Bible, a 6th century book that remains today in Uppsala, Sweden, despite Czech demands for its return.
Napoleon himself forced an outraged Venice to give up the Four Horses, part of another quadriga (four-horse chariot) that had graced St Mark’s Square ever since the Venetians had stolen it from Constantinople in 1204. The Papal States, too, had to pay him dearly for their losses, but they kept the Egyptian obelisk that still stands in the center of St Peter’s Square in Rome. Augustus Caesar seized that from Egypt.
I doubt there’s a major art museum that doesn’t contain or hasn’t purchased some spoil of war, but certainly, Napoleon stands out for the volume and breadth of his war booty. Perhaps that’s a reflection of his success in conquering a broad swath of Europe rich in art and treasure. He had the opportunity and he operated within the social norms of his time.
Our civilization, however, is improving in its morals. In 1899, the Hague Treaty restricted the wartime plunder of most cultural objects. Even that, however, wasn’t codified into international law with legal remedies until after World War II.
As Americans, we’re understandably proud of the United States Army’s Monument Men who disinterestedly promoted the preservation of our enemies’ cultural heritage. Since this well-known photo shows American soldiers discovering art the Nazis had plundered, I was surprised to see the same painting in the Alte NationalGalerie in Berlin. It turns out that particular painting (The Winter Garden, by Edouard Manet) had been legitimately purchased and donated to the German museum in 1896. Nevertheless, after the war, we Americans brought it and 200 other works we’d confiscated on tour to US museums. We did return them to Germany in 1959.
By the way, after Napoleon’s fall, Venice got back its Four Horses. And when the Prussians invaded Paris in 1814, they took their Quadriga back to Berlin. That made it possible for Hilter and his storm troopers to march under the gaze of Victory and her four horses. In the war that followed, Allied bombs all but flattened Berlin. In 1958, the Gate was restored and the statue recast from its original molds. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, it was serving as a backdrop to peaceful human rights demonstrations.
Humanity is still a work in process, as it was in Napoleon Bonaparte’s era, but we are moving forward.
My last post covered a few of the ways Napoleon Bonaparte filled his days during his five-and-a-half-year exile on St Helena Island. However, his most important pastime—the one he did every day—was reading.
Throughout his life, Napoleon was a voracious reader and book collector. As an impoverished young man, he lived a monkish life, often skipping meals and entertainment to purchase books. As a general and emperor, he carried a traveling library in a mahogany chest on all his journeys. So it’s no surprise that, during his enforced “retirement” on St Helena, Napoleon read and reread his favorite volumes as well as any new ones he could obtain.
Napoleon’s books reflected his broad interests. Of course, there were the histories: Arrian on Alexander the Great, Livy and Tacitus on Rome, Barrow on England, among many others. Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans was an early and perennial favorite. He preferred The Illiad to The Odyssey. Always open-minded about religion, he’s known to have read not only the Bible, but also the Koran and the Indian Vedas. In addition, he read science, philosophy, law, and geography.
But he also enjoyed poetry and fiction. On St Helena, he reread plays by Molière, Racine, Voltaire, Beaumarchais, and the ancient Greek authors. His favorite epic poems were Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and Macpherson’s Ossian. Perhaps surprisingly, he loved tragic romantic novels. He reread Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther many times.
Napoleon didn’t just read alone. Memoirs by members of his St Helena entourage recall long evenings after supper when all remained around the table or moved to Longwood’s salon to listen to the Emperor read aloud. Madame Albine de Montholon, for example, describes an evening when Napoleon read Voltaire’s tragic play Zaïre over dessert.
In her memoir, she says that when reading aloud, Napoleon’s style wasn’t “remarkable, but interesting. He paused over what appeared to him to be wrong or right, and expressed his opinion with true and beautiful feeling.” His secretary Las Cases mentions him reading from the Bible, while commenting on the places he had visited during his Egyptian Campaign, which had extended into Syria. Still others bemoan how difficult it was to stay awake as Napoleon read on and on.
All that reading had encouraged young Napoleon Bonaparte to believe that he, too, could be a Caesar or an Alexander. He must have wanted his own son to have the same exposure to knowledge and ideas. In his Last Will and Testament, written on St Helena and finalized on April 15, 1821, less than three weeks before he died, he added the following instruction (visible at the bottom of the page between the numeral “VI” and his signature and translated here):
Unfortunately those books never reached Napoleon’s son, known as the Eaglet. During Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, the boy grew up in his own exile in the Austrian court. There his education, movements, and outside contacts were tightly controlled to avoid his becoming a threat to the restored Bourbon French king. He died from tuberculosis in 1832 at the age of twenty-one.
For more information on the Emperor’s reading habits, I encourage you to visit my friend Shannon Selin’s excellent blog post on the subject.
How did Napoleon Bonaparte spend the 2,029 days of his exile on St Helena? After all, the Great Man (or Monster, depending on your point of view) jam-packed his previous forty-six years.
At sixteen, he rushed through Paris’ École Militaire to graduate after one year instead of the normal two. In 1798, on his way to Egypt, young General Bonaparte conquered Malta, where he removed the corrupt Knights of St. John from power, wrote the island a new constitution, freed the Jews from religious prosecution, reorganized the legal system, and set up a French garrison—all in one week.
Throughout his reign, Emperor Napoleon kept his ministers awake much of the night strategizing campaigns, writing the Napoleonic Code, planning roads and canals, and designing France’s modern education system. He scrutinized budgets, even correcting mistakes in their addition.
No detail was too small, no ambition too large for him to contemplate.
So faced with house arrest on remote St Helena, how did he fill the empty hours? For work, he dictated his memoirs. For his pride, he waged petty wars with the British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe. For his health, he gardened. But for amusement?
Although a prisoner, Napoleon Bonaparte had retained his sword and his dueling pistols. At what must have been a low point for him, he used the pistols to take potshots at rabbits and at a neighbor’s goat that wandered near his vegetable garden. In a happier time, he played at sword-fighting with his young friend, Betsy Balcombe.
When I visited St Helena’s archives, I found this hint of another pastime: a receipt for the repair of “General Buonaparte’s” crossbow. I’ve never come across mention of a bow in the various memoirs from the period, but I like to imagine a bored Napoleon brightening his afternoon with archery practice.
For more peaceful activity, he played chess with his generals. I’ve read accounts that Napoleon Bonaparte—one of history’s most brilliant military strategists—was a poor chess player and, to appease him, his generals always let him win. Albine de Montholon, the wife of one of those generals, in her memoirs contradicts what she claims was this British propaganda.
She states that, “It was not easy to play with the Emperor. He marched out his pawns quickly and it amused him to begin the match with unusual moves.” She goes on to say that just when it looked as if he had lost, Napoleon would gain the final advantage using strategy his opponent hadn’t foreseen. That seems much more like the Napoleon I’ve come to know.
On October 15, 1815, four months after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on St Helena Island for his second and last exile. As you can see in the photo above, the island rises out of the south Atlantic Ocean like a forbidding rock in a vacant sea. It’s the very definition of remote: five thousand miles from France, a thousand from the coast of Africa, and eighteen hundred from South America. Its sheer cliffs could forestall rescue attempts. And British forces had already fortified it. During Napoleon’s stay—ending in his death on May 5, 1821—those troops would increase to over 2,000 men.
Just eight months before arriving in St Helena, Napoleon had escaped his loosely-guarded exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. He’d made the three-day sail to the French coast, and marched 500 miles to Paris, gathering an army and the support of the French people along the way.
But it didn’t really matter what the French wanted. The British, the Austrians, the Prussians, and the Russians were not going to accept Napoleon’s return under any circumstances. Even if Napoleon had defeated the British and Prussian armies at Waterloo, the enemy coalition would have fought on until he was defeated. Ultimately, he had no chance against their overwhelming numbers.
So why did Napoleon leave his comfortable exile in Elba? Some speculate that he was bored. Others blame Louis XVIII, the restored French king, for reneging on his treaty commitment to supply Napoleon the funds to maintain his 1,000-man army and his status as Emperor of Elba. Or perhaps it was because he’d been separated from his beloved son, the Eaglet. And then came the final straw: rumor that the Coalition powers, meeting at the Congress of Vienna, planned to move him from Elba to St Helena.
Despite his heroic effort to avoid that fate, St Helena is where Napoleon spent his last five and a half years under an ignoble British house arrest.
A belated happy birthday to Napoleon Bonaparte who was born 246 years ago, on August 15, 1769, in this house on the island of Corsica.
That lightly-populated island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean led to its repeated conquest and colonization, starting with the Phoenicians in 565 BCE. Over the next two millennia, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Barbary pirates, Greeks, and various Italians followed.
In a fascinating coincidence of history, one year before Napoleon’s birth, the Treaty of Versailles ended four hundred years of Genoese rule and transferred the island to France. The Corsicans, who had waged rebellion against Genoa for decades, rose up against the invading French. Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, numbered among the rebels. On May 8, 1769, just two months before the future French emperor was born, the Corsicans surrendered. Still, his parents named their second son Napoleon after an uncle who had died in the last major battle for Corsican independence.
Thus, with the thinnest of margins, Napoleon Bonaparte was born a French citizen. Nine years later, due to the support of Corsica’s French military governor the Comte de Marbeuf, young Napoleon entered French military school in Brienne, France. In 1785, sixteen-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte became a commissioned officer in the French Army he was later to lead into both glory and defeat.
But how much of his Corsican roots did Napoleon retain? The proud, rebellious Corsicans have long held a reputation for ruthless violence in the name of honor. The concept of “vendetta”—in strict definition, an honor feud between two families in which the slaying of a member of one family results in the murder of a member of the murderer’s family which in its own turn is revenged and so and on and on—comes from Corsican practices that continued into the twentieth century. Where Frenchmen might challenge you to a duel, a Corsican was more likely to slit your throat—or your brother’s—while you slept. At least that was the Corsican reputation.
As it turns out, it still is. A recent Atlantic magazine featured an article about French license plates, all of which bear a symbol indicating a region of France. Originally, the symbol on the plate was the area where the vehicle’s owner resided. In recent years, an owner has been able to choose any region they would like to display. Now there’s a huge demand for plates with the Corsican Moor’s Head, apparently because it tells other drivers that this is a vehicle owned by a tough guy, “not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed.”
Yet, for all Emperor Napoleon’s overvaulting ambition, for all General Napoleon’s cold-hearted ability to send troops into bloody battle, he was surprisingly forgiving on a personal level. When his wife Josephine was unfaithful, when his brothers turned on him, when his generals, friends and subordinates betrayed him, he forgave them, often multiple times for repeated offenses.
Sometimes he was being expedient to his own needs, as when he accepted Marshal Ney back to his side in 1815. On the other hand, when after his first abdication his second wife Marie Louise deserted him for another man, he refused to even acknowledge that her perfidy had happened. He could express his anger when Tsar Alexander broke a treaty or when the malicious Talleyrand maneuvered in Europe’s courts against him, but when those he held dear betrayed him, he forgave or turned his head so as not to see. How very un-Corsican.
On June 18, 2015, people around the world who either admire or despise Napoleon Bonaparte will pause to remember his greatest loss, the Battle of Waterloo.
Two hundred years later, endless arguments continue. Did the French Marshal Ney betray Napoleon? Or was it Napoleon’s reluctance to send Ney reinforcements that caused the loss? Why didn’t the French general Grouchy, when he heard the distant sounds of battle, rush his troops back to the site of the fighting? Why did Napoleon attack so late in the day? Was the Emperor sick or at forty-six years old already past his prime? And which general was responsible for Napoleon’s defeat, the British general Wellington or the Prussian general von Blücher? I’ve seen people get red in the face over these and a hundred other details about the battle.
A few things are clear. The Allied victory was, as Wellington himself said, “a near-run thing.” The count of dead and wounded for that one battle amounted to an astonishing 47,000 men, about 55% of them on the French side. And in the end, when a valiant charge of Napoleon’s revered Imperial Guard failed, the French army fled in disorder, as word spread that “La Garde recule! Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating! Every man for himself!)
Certainly, the Battle of Waterloo destroyed any prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remaining ruler of France. While his enemies, if defeated, could have gone on to fight more battles, Napoleon’s position was so precarious and France so weak that one great loss was enough to bring him down for good. Thus, the name Waterloo became synonymous with resounding defeat.
A few months ago, I was amused to hear the battle mentioned at (of all places) the Kennedy Center during a revival of Lerner & Loewe’s musical, Gigi. In the play, a young Gigi sings Say a Prayer for Me as she prepares to go out on her first assignation with the man she loves. Here’s a charming rendition by Julie Andrews who was originally going to sing the song in My Fair Lady.
In case, you missed them, the lyrics are:
On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart
Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte
In 2011, research took me to Paris (of course!), Corsica (Napoleon’s birth place), and St Helena (an island—still without an airport—in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean where Napoleon died in exile).
Now I've completed my manuscript and hope to find a publisher soon.
Come along on the adventure and add your opinions to my blog.
He is the epitome of France, yet he didn’t speak French until he was nine. The second son of minor, impoverished Corsican nobility, he attended military school on the French king’s sou. By age thirty, he had supplanted that monarch as France’s ruler.
He faced battle fearlessly but could be petulant over a slight head cold.
Although he knowingly played the fool for an unfaithful wife, he never gave up on romance.
Famous for ruthlessness, no ruler forgave betrayal so easily. Remembered for his empire’s splendor, he always ate plain food and watered down his wine.
In the midst of revolutionary chaos, he imposed stability. Out of stability came power, devastation and loss.
Napoleon the man (and the people called him “l’homme”) is a mass of contradictions. How did he become the intricate personality he was?