NAPOLEON, A FORGED DESTINY

Some human beings touched by the wings of genius altogether creator and destructor,, imprint on history their lasting mark and assume a mythical dimension, Thus the small Corsican corporal Buonaparte, who became Napoleon through the strength of his spirit and of his powerful hold on men and events, left behind the recently ennobled provincial Napoleone to become Emperor of the French people.

NAPOLEON, A FORGED DESTINY

According to the Ancients human fate is written in the stars before birth and determines the destiny of man or woman, who will in earthly life manifest the universal astral forces of which they are the bearers. These cosmic forces clash with each other, merge, die, are reborn, creating on earth the astral forms shaping the history of mankind. I am a tool in God’s hand used to say Michelangelo, Bernini and Rubens, fully aware that their creative genius came from spiritual forces beyond themselves.  They were only the mediums conveying in their art the  terribilità of the primal creative fire which made them rise above human condition.

While the artist, the poet, the musician or the mystic humbly bow to this fundamental reality, the pride and arrogance of the powerful in this world blind them and lead them to perdition, creating havoc, suffering and destruction on their way. However some human beings touched by the wings of genius altogether creator and destructor, imprint on history their lasting mark, and assuming a mythical dimension, they become part of a legend altogether fascinating by its dazzling brilliance and repellent through its dark shadow. Thus the small Corsican corporal Buonaparte, who became Napoleon through the strength of his spirit and of his powerful hold on men and events, left behind the recently ennobled provincial Napoleone whose aspirant officers comrades at the militaryAcademy of Brienne used to mock, to become Emperor of the French people.

On the tapestry of my own fate as a European French citizen open to the world, who became British and italophile, the Napoleonic legend appeared at first only in a discreet filigree. My childhood readings had very early made me aware of the magic lure of the East through the Italian Renaissance poet, Il Tasso’s epic and metaphysical poetry. The evocative engravings in The Jerusalem liberated  of a world governed by hidden forces influencing man’s fate, imposed itself on my soul more than the description of the Crusades warmongering. I then thought that I had Saracen blood as my black eyes used to draw inquisitive comments in the Loire Valley, until my travels in the Middle East confirmed my Circassian distant origins.  The world’s poetic reality allowed me to escape in mind and heart from a life environment made hostile through my mother’s rejection. My father’s keen interest in the Levant encouraged my dreams, he used to comment the History of the Ottoman Empire and I also read those two heavy volumes.  His other favourite subject of conversation was the Second World War and the Résistance, in which he had enrolled in the Maquis of the South West of France and  his hero was the General de Gaulle.

Napoleon only made an entrance in my inner world at boarding-school at  Sainte Marie of Blois. Our history teacher Mademoiselle Ferté had written a thesis on the Emperor and showed an unbounded admiration for him. It did not touch me as my interests then rested in other fields, the arts, poetry, music, dancing, theatre, literature and in time philosophy. Our teacher in the subject, Mademoiselle Mercier, predicted me a future as an historian, although at the time I wanted to become an anglophile, and a lecture by the curator of the château of Blois had made me want to study at the École du Louvre.  I was not concerned then by French history and its vagaries, the story of wars and bloodsheds, the political and diplomatic scheming.  I lived in and enchanted inner world where beauty, harmony and innocence reigned, which in order to survive I endeavoured to create around me, there was no room in it for ugliness and violence. Yet unbeknown to me Napoleon’s influence overshadowed my life. Thus the first film my husband took me to see in London was Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Our love at our first meeting was born around Khalil Gibran’s poetry, the Lebanon and Egypt,  I was then studying the latter at the École du Louvre under the inspired teaching of the famous archaeologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt.  My husband, an arabist who had lived in both countries,  promised to take me to Egypt.  Which he did on a visit organized by the Anglo-Arab Association in company of learned diplomats and archeologists, and there France and Napoleon awaited me.

I keep the sensual and dazzling memory of my first visit to Cairo when the smell of hot sands from the desert mingled with spices and dust overwhelmed me on leaving the plane: it remains forever for me the quintessence of Egypt. I was transported by the discovery of the Cairo Museum and of his creator,  Mariette-Bey, who had been with Champollion one of the fathers of Egyptology and is held in high regard by the Egyptian people. The statue of the Seated Scribe he had brought over to the Louvre had become my favourite piece of sculpture when I studied in the museum. I saw in it the learned scholar’s necessary peace and harmony of body and soul in order to sustain the recollection of contemplative life in his studio. In Ancient Egypt the scribes were the holders of initiatory knowledge and power.

Napoleonic splendour awaited me at the Malmaison when I visited it for the first time during a trip to Paris with my husband. I had wanted to present him to my philosophy teacher, then retired at Rueil-Malmaison in the Centre Madeleine Daniélou managed by the Congrégation of Saint-François Xavier, created by Madame Daniélou for an elite education for girls in the Collèges Sainte Marie on a par with the one reserved hitherto to boys. Simone de Beauvoir as a former alumni never gave it any credit in her  Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.  Yet the philosopher’s social and feminist engagement and her desire to accomplish an exceptional destiny on a par with her male peers reflected the humanist and universalist Jesuit spirit on which our education was based, in a teaching vision inspired by the theories of Maria Montessori, in order to bring out the best in each one of us and develop latent talents. My Philosophy year had opened me to the world under the guidance of this inspired teacher who spent a sabbatical year in Blois. In her classes she taught us comparative religions as much as Pirandello and Ionesco’s theatre, Camus, Freud and Jung. She taught me intellectual honesty and precision, discipline and excellence in an action directed by discernment, all parts of Stoicism’s eternal virtues forming the backbone of my life. Thus she brought me back to the Napoleonic legend and Josephine at the Malmaison. Years later in company of a British friend photographer I was to spend some enchanted days studying the domain, the park and the hothouse where Josephine grew exotic plants and flowers from all over the world, for an article in Country Life  in 2015, Waterloo Anniversary Year. Amaury Lefébure, the museum director and nephew of my friend Françoise de Lassus St. Geniès, had kindly welcomed us.

Fate brought once again the Emperor in my life with one of his descendant, Louis Napoléon known as Prince Napoléon, then Head of the French Imperial House.  We had met him in Paris at a dinner at one of my husband’s friend’s flat.  Like my husband he was a tall, very handsome man, with an imposing bearing, great charm and charisma.  Like him he had an international culture, and although his elder, he had a lot in common with him. The two men had both served during the Second World War and they shared similar experience as officers and prisoners of war, as well as the link with the Italian Royal Family of the House of Savoy. Louis Napoléon invited us to his Parisian flat overlooking the Arc de Triomphe, and came to visit us at our house in London. Years later on a visit to Christie’s South Kensington, I recognized his furniture in an auction sale, and learnt then of his death.

 I was then living in Rome where I had found Napoleon once more in Mario Praz’s collection. It became for me a special subject of study and brought me back to France, which had remained for me until then a conundrum. Praz had been a scholarly Italian academic and a famous anglophile author who became a self-taught art historian. His taste for the Empire style was born as a young man in Florence when his stepfather gave him a mahogany chest of drawers in the Italian Empire style.  He was appointed professor of the Italian language and literature at the University of Liverpool and he then discovered the English version of the Empire Style, the Regency style promoted at the beginning of the 20th century by scholarly collectors such Sir Albert Richardson and some art historians at the Victoria & Albert Museum. In Paris the publisher Contet had brought out five volumes on Le Style Empire between 1914 et 1930, with some illustrations of interiors at the villa in Passy of Paul Marmottan, collector and historian of the Napoleonic myth and family. Mario Praz met him a year before his death and he became his guide and mentor. Praz recollected their meeting in Riccordo di Paul Marmottan :  The Empire ! You too like the Empire! He wanted to know why I was interested in the Empire style. In this sense he and I differed, my taste for the style did not go together with an interest for Napoleon and his family. Mario Praz’s interest for Neoclassicism, which he brought back into fashion through his writings, mingled with the dark side of Romanticism. He explored it in a book which made him famous in 1930 La carne, la morte e il diavolo. Translated in English in 1933 The Romantic Agony became a best-seller, the French version only came out in 1977.

In it Mario Praz analyses, opposes and merges Classicism and Romanticism, the very essence of the French Revolution, the Consulate and the Empire period. To the myth of the Napoleonic hero depicted as conquering warrior or in majesty as Emperor is opposed the anti-hero, the revolutionary martyr, like The Death of Marat by David in 1793 or the Death of Bara in 1794. They stand as the first images of modern propaganda aiming to sensationalism in their cadaveric representation and not to the Sublime, a dimension totally lacking in Praz’s nature and work.

Bonaparte as First Consul crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint Bernard,  David, 1800-3, La Malmaison Bonaparte as First Consul crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint Bernard,  David, 1800-3, La Malmaison

 Napoleon’s life itself in its  mythical dimension,  is an illustration of these two opposing and contradictory aspects of the end of 18th and the beginning of the 19th century in France et in Europe. The painting of Bonaparte as First Consul crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint Bernard, following in the footsteps of Hannibal and  Charlemagne, executed by David between 1800 and 1803 on the King of Spain Charles IV’s commission to celebrate the harmony between his realm and the French Republic, now at the Malmaison, is the archetypal image of the Sublime, as much in the spectacular description of a hostile nature as in the representation of the conquering hero dominating it in his ride to glory. This image forged the legend and was reproduced for propaganda purpose on Bonaparte’s orders. There are five versions of the painting and numerous engravings spread out the motif used on vases, plates and dishes. The painters Gros and Géricault were also influenced by it.

But death as a philosophical and metaphysical concept as much as in its most sordid, bloody and macabre reality followed the rise to power of the young Consul. According to the Mémoires of Bourrienne, his fellow student and friend at Brienne who became his private secretary, Bonaparte had taken a copy of Goethe’s Werther to Egypt, and had studied it as an examining magistrate studies his case file. The two young men had witnessed together the horrors of the Terror’s revolutionary massacres in Paris in 1792. Death is omnipresent in the Napoleonic legend be it on the battlefield whether as a victory or a defeat, it clings to the Emperor’s footsteps. Goya became the narrator of the Imperial Eagle’s dark shadow bringing panic to the whole of Europe. His visionary painting of The Colossus 1808-12 depicts it as an allegory, while the Tres de Mayo 1814 and Los desastres de la guerra engravings 1810-20 are more explicit. The martyrs have changed camp, now the defender of Republican virtues, Napoleon himself has turned torturer.

Once he had himself become victim of his own destiny as prisoner of the English at St. Helena, Napoleon’s genius is to have succeeded to David, the painter of his glorious reign and creator of his image, in writing for posterity his own legend in the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. To the soldier, strategist, lawgiver and administrator succeeded now the chronicler dictating his memoirs to the Count de Las Cases. As Goethe said of his 1774 volume The sufferings of the young Werther, Bonaparte had come at the right time. He stood for Republican modernity while establishing his power on Ancien Régime’s principles, he brought back order to the country after the Terror’s chaos, restored France to its former grandeur and glory, and exercised a personal power to an extent rarely equalled.

My work with the Museo Mario Praz in Rome, situated since 1969 over the  Museo Napoleonico when Praz became the President of the Primoli Foundation, founded in 1927 with the bequest of the Empire collection of Count Primoli,  descendant of Joseph and Lucien Bonaparte, friend of D’Annunzio and Marmottan, gave me a new vision of Napoleon. I no longer saw him as French but viewed his virtues and his foibles under the light of his Italian heritage, despite his French education. His conquering genius, building an Empire on the ruins of the past put him on a par with the Ancient Roman Emperors. Dark moods and illuminations, this is what makes man’s destiny! This is why Napoleon was formidable! Always enthusiastic, always clear-minded and resolute and at all times endowed with the necessary energy to implement immediately what he had seen as necessary and beneficial. His walked in life as a demigod, from battle to battle and victory to victory. One could say that he was in a permanent state of inspiration, thus Goethe recollected the Emperor’s glory. In fact what is genius if not this creative force producing actions which can be shown to the face of God and nature, and hence have an impact in time and space, recounted Eckermann, his secretary, in his Conversations with the poet, who further added : All extraordinary men have a special mission they are called to fulfil. As soon as this is done, their presence under this form is no longer necessary, and Providence uses them again to some other task. One has to be touched oneself with genius to see genius in another person.

Having been married to the descendant of an ancient Italian family, living then in Rome and having become italophile, I therefore perceived Napoleon Bonaparte under a new angle. His personality altogether brilliant and oversensitive, multi-facetted, idealist as Goethe saw it but also pragmatic, spurred on by an intense creative energy, despotic and jealous but also affectionate, able to move men and seduce women, endowed with an innate talent for theatrics, la bella figura, appeared to me as the reflections of some  traits of the Italian national character. His nepotism, the idea of family as not only encompassing the bonds of blood but also those of the heart, is an Italian characteristic. La famiglia implies solidarity and indefectible support to its members, and a never-failing loyalty to faithful friends.

Yet his family was not enough for Bonaparte to become Napoleon, for this he needed to meet and love Josephine.  And if he could in 1806 upon meeting Goethe at the Erfurt Palace, reproach him to have staged in his Werther – he confessed having read it seven times -  love and ambition, he was guilty of it himself in his own life. Sweet and  incomparable Josephine, what strange effect have you on my heart!  wrote Bonaparte soon after their meeting in 1795. Your portrait and the intoxicating evening last night have not allowed any rest to my senses.  In March 1796, breaking his engagement with his fiancée in Marseilles, Désirée Clary, Bonaparte married Rose, who he named Josephine. She was the widow of Alexandre of Beauharnais and mother of two children. In doing so he acted against the will of the Bonaparte family who never accepted her. He had found in her his alter ego, akin to his own genius, a real woman, he used to say of her, she is the woman I have loved most…She was wholly art and grace… The beautiful créole’s charm and beauty, her aristocratic allure, natural elegance, exquisite and sophisticated taste, her intelligence and intellectual curiosity as much as her position in Parisian society, made her the ideal companion of an ambitious young officer. Josephine then lived in an elegant Louis XVI folly nesting in greenery rue Chantereine in the centre of Paris. There she held a salon with the support of Theresa Tallien, receiving politicians, artists and intellectuals.  She had met her in the Carmes Prison where the two women had been incarcerated, escaping by a hair’s breath death on the guillotine.  Josephine redecorated her house after her marriage and created around Napoléon a stage set which reflected and supported his military and political ambitions. In her house was conceived in 1799 the Coup d’État of the 18 Brumaire, consecrating  Bonaparte, the general, as First Consul.

The Malmaison, bought by  Josephine in 1799 during the Egyptian Campaign, was decorated in 1801 on the same military theme by the architects and interior decorators Percier and Fontaine. They had been introduced to Napoleon by David and worked in the Neo Classical taste of Ancient Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum. After the 18 Brumaire the Malmaison, together with the Tuileries Palace, became the seat of the government from January 1801 to September 1802.  There the Légion d’Honneur was created, the Code Civil was drafted and the Concordat with the Vatican discussed. Josephine with all her feminine gifts, her taste for the arts, and her support as a loving wife, created around Bonaparte the stage set which allowed his rise to power. His intuition was right when at their wedding Bonaparte had given her a ring engraved with the premonitory words: Au destin, To destiny.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Napoleon’s bedroom at La Malmaison, and Bonaparte’s first portrait by the Baron Bacler d’Albe, 1797, Photo Paul Highman Napoleon’s bedroom at La Malmaison, and Bonaparte’s first portrait by the Baron Bacler d’Albe, 1797, Photo Paul Highman

In June 1815 Hortense,   Josephine’s daughter, welcomed the defeated and deposed Emperor in this place where in olden days he had dreamt so many dreams of glory. In the bedroom they had shared, and where she had died, Napoleon recalled happier days spent there with the woman who had remained till the end the true love of his life. He then said to the Queen of Holland:  It’s true isn’t it Hortense, that the Malmaison is beautiful  ? During my work at the Malmaison I had felt the harmonious vibrations of this happiness within its walls, still present despite the restorations made necessary through the damages and vagaries of time. And in front of the first portrait of Bonaparte as general in 1797 by the Baron Bacler d’Albe, hanging on the drapes in his own bedroom furnished with the simplicity of a military tent, I had wondered what his destiny would have been if instead of seeking an ever greater glory in his desire to create an Imperial dynasty, he would have remained by the side of the woman he had so loved, and with whom he had shared his rise to power ?

Josephine’s decisive influence on Napoleon’s destiny is sadly missing from the   Napoléonexhibition at La Villette 28th May-19th December 2021 https://expo-napoleon.fr This is even more unfortunate given the fact that Bernard Chevallier, the main curator and former director of the Malmaison, has written several very scholarly and inspired volumes dedicated to the Empress.  This being said the exhibition is otherwise exemplary presenting within a spectacular scenography, in a clear and didactic manner, the various stages of the Emperor’s life and the various debates around his life, through the most evocative and representative objects and works of art. But it would have gained in evoking also the man in his privacy. The video of the actress Lou Doillon reading aloud Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine while pacing up and down the empty Great Nave of the Grand Palais is an aberration which in no way gives justice to their very particular and intense relationship, to their bond of love in all its complexity.

To complete this magnificent exhibition and to renew with the soul instead of the public face, or with the military campaigns as well as other remarkable achievements of the Emperor, one needs to pay a visit to the Malmaison exhibition, Napoléon aux 1001 visages, 5th May till 6th  September: https://musees-nationaux-malmaison.fr/chateau-malmaison/en/node/518

To understand the man beyond the myth perhaps one should go back to Goethe’s words since the German poet seems, of all his contemporaries, to have best understood Napoleon’s nature:  When one says of  Napoleon that he was a man made of granite it applies also, and equally to his body. What did not he ask and exacted of himself? From the burning sands of the Syrian desert to the snowy fields of Moscow, how many marches, battles and night bivouacs!  How many fatigues, physical hardships did he not endure? With little sleep, little food and all the while with the greatest mental activity!

Bonaparte crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint Bernard in 1800, Paul Delaroche, 1848, Musée du Louvre, Paris Bonaparte crossing the Alps at the Grand Saint Bernard in 1800, Paul Delaroche, 1848, Musée du Louvre, Paris
In the midst of the terrible tension and excitement of the Dix-huit Brumaire, time had passed, it was midnight and he had not eaten anything the whole day! Yet and wihout even thinking of refreshments, he found in himself enough energy at this late hour to draft the famous Proclamation to the French people! When one considers all this man has done, all he had to bear, one could think that none of his body parts would have remained healthy at forty. On the contrary at this age he still stood solid like a true hero.

In order to fulfil his destiny the hero’s exceptional life always includes a part of tragedy, a subject the Emperor had himself discussed with Goethe at Erfurt in reference to the French comedians’ performances of Corneille’s Oedipus and Racine’s Andromache and Britannicus. The painter Paul Delaroche who sought in his history paintings to make a philosophical analysis, had according to Henrich Heine, no predilection for the past itself but for its representation and the illustration of its spirit. His 1848 representation of Bonaparte crossing the Alps at the Grand-Saint-Bernard in 1800 shows him looking tired and riding a mule, as indeed was the case, guided along by a peasant. It is humanist in its realism.                               

This sense of the pathos of a man facing his own destiny is even more poignant in the unfinished painting of Napoleon at St. Helena in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. It depicts with emphasis the solitude of the hero who, having reached glorious heights and now stripped of his power, gazes mournfully at the empty seas from the top of his lonely rock.  To the vanquished conquering hero the abysses open at the height of his glory. But the Emperor conquers them once more in writing his own epic poem, the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. It endows this forsaken island lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with grandeur and nobility, and inscribes it forever in history.

Napoleon at St. Helena, engraving after Paul Delaroche’s painting Napoleon at St. Helena, engraving after Paul Delaroche’s painting

The motif was disseminated through engravings, and the triumphal return of Napoleon’s ashes in 1840 together with the creation of the Second Empire in 1852, renewed interest in the Napoleonic legend. In England the friendship between Queen Victoria et Napoleon III encouraged a new class of  rich entrepreneurs and industrialists to identify with Napoleon’s qualities as a leader, with his vision and audacity. Although an enemy nation, the English’s pragmatism allowed them to admire in the Emperor the self-made man whose enterprising spirit and genius had propelled to the heights of glory. Not only Napoleon embodied for the Romantic poets and artists an ideal of freedom, but the Empire style was emulated in decorative arts becoming the  Regency style created by Thomas Hope, and the Emperor’s myth became an inspiration for the great Victorian businessmen who dreamt of an international commercial empire, as I discovered at the Lady Lever Gallery in Lord Leverhulme’s personal Napoleonic collection while researching Mario Praz in Liverpool.  The Napoleonic myth in England was born and lived on during Napoleon’s life, his first biography was written in English in 1797 after the Italian Campaign. Thus with the support of Peter Hicks, an historian in charge of International Affairs at the Fondation Napoléon, arose the idea of an exhibition on the subject which would complete and close the Bicentenary Year in London.

In 2003 I had found once again Napoleon in London through Dominique de Villepin’s intervention at the UN against the Iraq war. It led me to consult his books at the Institut Français. There I discovered his volumes forming an inspired trilogy on the Emperor’s life and an analysis of power, which according to the 19th century politician Lord Acton, Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Once more the Middle East had brought me back to France and to the Empire. Upon my return to Paris, where I conducted research on Paul Marmottan and Mario Praz, the vagaries of my life led me to live in the former house of a painter, Georges Moreau de Tours, whose ancestors had fought in the Napoleonic wars. His first history painting exhibited at the Salon in 1880 Showed La Tour d’Auvergne. Premier Grenadier de France mort au champ d’honneur. It was bought by the State and hung the same year in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quimper. Its reproduction in chromolithography in the Petit Journal Supplément Illustré ensured its large diffusion. I then discovered this forgotten painter whose cousin, Sophie Moreau, the widow of Dr. Bretonneau, friend and mentor of his father, the famous psychiatrist creator of the Club des Haschischins, Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours,  had remarried in 1863 Justinien Nicolas, Comte Clary, lieutenant colonel and nephew of Désirée Clary. She was Bonaparte’s first fiancée, and wife of  General Bernadotte, Prince of Pontecorvo and of the Empire, King of  Sweden and Norway.

Napoleon’s shadow still hung over my life. It led me to Bois-le-Roi in the Forest of Fontainebleau where Moreau de Tours had lived and died. In the Second Empire in this small village, the logs and sandstone from the Fontainebleau forest were routed through the port of Cave toward Paris. Yachts were cruising on the river among barges, the bed of the Seine had been deepened and enlarged; and the river became a passageway from Paris to the country for a wealthy financial and artistic elite. On its banks the Parisian architect Louis Périn built some luxurious and extravagant villas, Les Affolantes, for rich Parisian owners, keen on flamboyant and opulent surroundings. They also sought quiet surroundings, as they would come from the capital on their boats bringing victuals and domestics for often gallant and libertine holidays. The Tout-Paris socialites and artistic personalities would stay there, such as the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt at the home of Émile Rochard, director of the  Châtelet theatre.

The arrival of the railway at Bois-le-Roi in 1848 had facilitated the access to the   Forest of Fontainebleau and brought to the village some city-dwellers. They ware attracted by the beauty of the place, a simple rural life less expensive that in Paris, and security far from the recurring political chaos of the capital.  Fleeing from the hardships of the 1870 War, from the Siege of Paris and from the Commune in 1871 a group of artists, writers, musicians and poets settled in Bois-le-Roi at the suggestion of Louis Poupart-Davyl. The so-called Louis Davyl, a dramatist and novelist, had been living there for some years, the politician Gambetta had visited him in 1865. The new residents were all politically engaged: the writer and journalist Louis Noir, whose brother Victor had been killed in a duel by Prince Pierre Napoléon, the poet and songwriter Gustave Mathieu, friend of the left-wing writer, journalist and activist Jules Vallès, and the composer Olivier Métra.  Bohemian life had arrived at Bois-le-Roi, as the painter Castellani recalled in his Mémoires, We were a colony of artists and literati all more or less equal in fortune, but all equally high-spirited, full of life and hope. We lived there filled with courage… Moreover Bois-le-Roi was a hotbed of revolutionary propaganda, a factory of subversive theory: all governments were threatened and knocked down…  

This Bohemian life had ended when Moreau de Tours settled there in 1885, and has since fallen into oblivion, just as the name of the painter himself. My artistic and historical research on these characters between Paris et Bois-le-Roi allowed me to fill some gaps in my knowledge of French history among which the Commune, and of the remarkable Napoleonic imprint which has forged at all levels the French’s everyday life. It is so profoundly embedded in collective memory that it disappears as such and appears only as obvious. Yet it has not always been so, there had been before and after Napoléon I and Napoléon III, as can be seen, among others things, in Paris’s urbanism and architecture. In 2015 the Musée Carnavalet exhibition, Napoléon et Paris, Rêves d’une capitale had shown the Emperor’s ambition to make of Paris an Imperial city on a par with Ancient Rome. Piranesi’s engravings had illustrated its grandeur and his two sons Francesco and Pietro, both of them engravers, had settled in Paris in 1799 and became friends with Talleyrand. The Second Empire was also a moment of great building fever, but this time London became the example to follow under the influence of Napoléon III, a keen anglophile and Queen Victoria’s friend. So Baron Haussmann got inspiration from the sanitisation works in the British capital and creation of parks and gardens enclosed in the urban fabric, undertaken by my husband’s ancestor, Thomas Cubitt, master builder, as he called himself, close friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, creator of the historical Victorian districts in Belgravia, Bloomsbury and Pimlico.

The Napoleonic aura seems to have always shone on me like a benevolent star. Unbeknown to me, it had influenced my destiny and guided my life’s course between Paris, London and Rome, leading me to the Middle East to bring me back to Paris, and enlightened me on the conundrum of my native country, whose collective shadow was so difficult for me to see and understand.  The Emperor’s protean figure under its various aspects of light and shade, grandeur and decadence, glory and fall, can be seen in many ways. It is the prerogative of genius to be the mirror within which human nature contemplates itself. The look of the spectator, and hence his own judgement, reflects on him and not on the contemplated subject. As André Maurois said of reading, with Napoleon as in Spanish inns, one finds what one is bringing.

Monique Riccardi-Cubitt

Paris, 1st June 2021   

 

 

 

 

         

 

         

 

 

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