Click, click (#37): The Apotheosis of Napoleon

The Apotheosis of Napoleon (1830) by Bertel Thorvaldsen. The marble piece sits in the final room of the Ben Weider Collection in Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Thorvaldsen was also responsible for the monument to  Eugène de Beauharnais in Munich, erected in the same year, 1830. (Why not return to my post here, a mere 35 clicks away.)

Click, click (#36): The Sphinx

The Egyptian Campaign is one of the most mythologized periods in Napoleon’s career: The Alexandrian ambitions, the visit to the plague-ridden soldiers in Jaffa, the siege of Acre, Monge and the accompanying scientific expedition. But most of all it is the Battle of Pyramids with its famous tagline, “From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us” (as quoted by Eugène de Beauharnais). In Jean-Léon Gérôme‘s painting Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1868) we see Napoleon as myth-maker, juxtaposed with the Sphinx itself. Napoleon is, as Peer Gynt after him, wondering where he has seen this face before.

Above is a photo of the Sphinx taken not long after Gérôme’s painting was finished. Presumably the soldiers are English.




Click, click (#35): Canova’s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, Apsley House, London

I had to do some rather inelegant sneaking around to take illicit photos of the Canova statue in Number One, London, or Apsley House. Perhaps precisely because of my efforts to dodge security, my photos came out terribly. So the one above I’ve stolen online.

Actually there isn’t much security at Apsley House. Or much of anyone. I was practically alone in the building for a good hour, except for an old couple whose taste was Portugese silverware, not Napoleon artefacts. The upstairs has a number of well known Napoleonic themed paintings, including some of his brothers and Josephine. But it is really the downstairs exhibition that has the most interesting items. Among the many gifts the Duke received from monarchs across Europe is a collection of marshal batons.

The Duke was a Field Marshal of the Austrian Army, the Hanoverian Army, the Army of Netherlands, the Prussian Army, the Russian Army, Marshal-General of the Portugese Army, and Captain-General of the Spanish Army. Oh yes, and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces.

All these trinkets come to feel pretty insignificant, however, if you have time to study the exhibition room ceiling. Hidden above in the dark are countless standards captured during Wellington’s campaigns. The Aigle de drapeau is everywhere staring back at you. French soldiers swore to defend the Imperial Eagle with their lives, and battle accounts are littered with anecdotes about those who died attempting to avoid the disgrace of returning without their regimental standard.

I don’t know if Wellington also had a rank in Louis XVIII’s army. What he did have, at least, was another token of their appreciation—the enormous marble statue by Italian scultpurer Canova. After Waterloo, the French convinced the British government to buy the statue as a gift to Wellington. It was then brought to Apsley House where the floor had to be reinforced to carry the weight. It seems that Napoleon never took to Canova’s design, finding it too athletic for the dignity of an aging emperor.

Of course, it might just be that Canova’s controversial nude of his sister, Pauline Bonaparte, as Venus clouded his artistic judgement.

Click, click (#32): Huys Schimmelpenninck, Groningen

During my visit to Groningen in the summer, I was staying at Huys Schimmelpenninck, a wonderful hotel in the center of Groningen. The name rang a distant bell, and no wonder since Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck figures frequently in a book I’m reading: Michael Broer‘s Europe Under Napoleon, 1799-1815. The book is a recent account of political change in the Napoleonic era, clearly inspired by the scope of Georges Lefebvre’s Napoléon. Broer brings out the gradual shift in political institution not via the policy-makers as much as the policy-implementers. And it is especially the non-French officials in the inner and outer Empire that receives attention.

Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck (1761-1825) is an important example. Schimmelpenninck was Grand Pensionary of the Batavian Republic. He had been present at the Amiens Treaty negotiations, where his abilities as a legislator came to Napoleon’s attention. He helped draft the constitution of the Batavian Republic on Napoleon’s orders, and became Napoleon’s political extension in the new republic. According to Broer, Schimmelpenninck’s political profile was typical for Napoleon’s reformist ambitions. He had been in a moderate in the Dutch republic prior to the French invasion. He was skeptical towards radical Jacobine elements in the government, but an advocate of substantial political reform.

Unfortunately it’s not at all clear to me what the exact connection between Schimmelpenninck and the hotel is. Here I can only hope that I’ll be helped by some of my Dutch friends. There is a plack on the outside of the building, but expect for making a connection with French occupation forces (and apparently mentioning a statue of Schimmelpenninck), it wasn’t very informative.

That said, I’d stay there again, of course.

Click, click (#31): Centre Pompidou

Although the Centre Pompidou had the same Richter panorama that I’ve already seen in Berlin, it was fantastic to see the permanent collection again. I’ve only been once before, and the mere size is overwhelming. There is a whole catalogue of Braque and Picasso cubism, and a monumental Kandinsky collection. It also helps when I stumble over gems such as Maryan’s grotesque seven part series Napoléon (yes, omnipresent), or Oleg Kulik’s photo installation Mad Dog.

Above you see Peter Doig’s 100 Years Ago (2001). The theme is inspired by a The Allman Brothers Band cover sleeve, with band members in a boat together. In Doig’s painting only one member is left though (bassist Berry Oakley). He’s not rowing, but staring towards us while the boat drifts aimlessly, maybe forwards, maybe backwards. In the background, balancing on the horizon, a prison island off Trinidad. But the island looks serene and lively, setting into relief a ‘different kind of prison’ beneath, where Oakley’s singular shadow reflects the red of the boat.

Why not solo away?

Update: And then suddenly there is this.

Photo: Back at Hotel des Invalides

My holiday in France just came to an end. I’m now in Oxford for some days before I return to the semester in Munich. The French odyssey brought me from Nice to Les Arces for my dad’s 60th birthday. I just had time to see Antibes, Napoleon’s landing site after the Elba exile. Unfortunately I bungled the GPS navigation and didn’t reach the museum in time—bad luck which was only made up for with a splendid walk in Gorges du Verdon on the following day.

The next leg was from Provence to Marseille (with a three hour stop over), and finally on to Paris.

Above you see me hiding from the crowds in the tomb at Hotel des Invalides.

The Fate of a Bavarian Publisher

According to a popular anecdote, Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) once asked to give a toast at a dinner with fellow authors. The toast, which was met with anger and disbelief, was for Napoleon Bonaparte. A tribute to Britain’s enemy at wartime was nothing short of an outrage. As the table’s objections increased in volume, Campbell interrupted to defend himself.

“Gentleman”, he said, “you must not mistake me. I admit that the French Emperor is a tyrant. I admit that he is a monster. I admit that he is the sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But, gentlemen, we must be just to our great enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a publisher.”

The speech was met with thunderous laughter.

The publisher Campbell referred to was a Bavarian bookseller from Nuremberg, Johann Philipp Palm. Palm was arrested in 1806 after allegedly publishing an anti-French pamphlet in Augsburg entitled  Deutschland in seiner tiefen Erniedrigung. The author of the pamphlet is unknown, but the French, assisted by Bavarian authorities, traced the sold copies back to Palm. Berthier, who was stationed in Munich, received orders from Napoleon to have anyone involved in the distributions of the tracts “led before a military court and shot within twenty-four hours.” The letter is worth quoting at length:

Mon cousin, I imagine that you have had arrested the booksellers of Augsburg and Nuremberg. My wish is that they be brought before a military committee and shot within twenty-four hours [of arrival before committee]. It is no ordinary crime to propagate libels in areas where there are French troops stationed with the sole intention of exciting the inhabitants against them: it is a crime of high treason. The sentence will carry that, wherever the army may be, and the duty of its commander in chief being to watch over its safety, the individuals concerned, having been convicted of attempting to incite uprising amongst the residents of the Swabian region against the French army, are condemned to death. It is in this way that the sentence will be carried out. You will give the culprits over to a division, and you will name seven colonels to judge them. [1]

Palm was arrested on the 14th of August, and brought first to Ansbach and subsequently to Braunau where the French had a garrison. There he was tried by an Extraordinary Military Commission consisting of seven French colonels with Latrille, colonel of the 46th Line, presiding. In the absence of his attorney, Palm was found guilty of treason, together with four other booksellers. While the others were ultimately released on the mercy of the Bavarian King, Maximilian I, Palm was executed by a French firing squad on August 26th.

Why did Campbell know about the unfortunate bookseller’s fate? The execution of Palm didn’t go unnoticed in Europe, and it was used as yet another example of Napoleon’s tyranny. Some even compared to the infamous execution of the aristocrat duc d’Enghien in 1804. There is now a statue raised of Palm in Braunau, and by many he is considered a significant figure in the development of German national romanticism.

More details about the incident here.


May 12th 1797 Napoleon conquered the Republic of the Venice, a state whose island existence and naval dominance had helped them remain independent for over 900 years. With the defeat of the First Coalition, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, and Venice was given to Austria [not, as I first proposed, the other way around …] as compensation for the loss of territories closer to France. With the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805, Venice was included in the new (French controlled) Italian Republic.

The Italian Campaign was notorious for its pillaging, and Venice was no exception. Some Italian friends mentioned the theft of the Venetian horses the other day, and as it seemed to ring a bell I had to check out the details. The ”horses” are the horses of the Triumphal Quadriga which nowadays resides in the museum of the Saint Mark Basilica in Venice. A quadriga is an ancient chariot pulled by four horses. The Saint Mark Quadriga is apparently the only surviving ancient quadriga, although it is not known whether it is Roman or Greek.

What is known is that the Quadriga was originally plundered from Constantinople’s Hippodrome by Venetian crusaders in the 1204 Siege of Constantinople. They were installed on the top of the Basilica by Doge Dandolo, and remained there until Napoleon’s arrival. The insulant general of the Italian army ordered the Quadriga dismantled and had it brought to Paris. Here it served as a model for the for the quadriga on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.

In 1815 the French returned the Quadriga, and it took up its former vantage point on the Basilica. The travel-weary horses didn’t have to move again until the first world war when they were sent to safety in Rome. The picture above is of the bronze horses leaving for the mainland during the second world war (1942).

Alexander von Humboldt and Napoleon

Napoleon and Alexander von Humboldt are born in the same year, 1769. In fact, just weeks apart. Since the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP) is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, I thought I’d better check if there was any Napoleonic connection. It turns out that there is widely circulated anecdote about a meeting between Napoleon and Alexander von Humboldt. After being introduced at Napoleon’s court in 1804 (presumably before the coronation), the following exchange is said to have taken place:

“So, monsieur,” Napoleon asked, “you collect plants?” Humboldt smiled in modest agreement. Before walking away, Napoleon replied curtly, “So does my wife.” (NYT)

Perhaps it’s appropriate then that Alexander’s older brother — Wilhelm von Humboldt — exacted some measure of revenge as a principal delegate for Prussia at the Vienna Congress (1814-15), where Napoleon’s ultimate fate was sealed by members of the Sixth Coalition.

Photo: Arenenberg, View from

The view from Arenenberg, Switzerland. In the background you see the Bodensee (Lake Constance). I took this picture some weeks ago, on my second trip to Arenenberg. It’s a huge favourite of mine, although Napoleon himself was never there of course. Hortense moved into exile in Switzerland, and it was here that Napoleon III grew up. Later as emperor he bought the house back and restored it in the fashion of his childhood.

The museum shop offers a whole line of unrelated junk, but to my surprise they also had a little book sale, including several rare editions of first hand memoirs of the Napoleonic era. I had to summon all my self restraint not to purchase the whole lot. I can’t bear the thought of those books falling in the wrong hands, even if they were wildly overpriced.