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.

The Physiognomy of Napoleon

What did Napoleon look like? There are hundreds of painted portraits, etchings, sculptures, busts, drawings, figures, and caricatures. But what did he really look like? Most of the portrayals (even some of the of most famous) were not made while Napoleon was alive. Others were made for propaganda reasons and heavily censored. Did any contemporary artist have both the nerve to ignore censorship and the audacious talent to be not accurate but revealing? Napoleon’s painters were an impressive lot: David, Ingres, Gros, Gérard all painted famous portraits, yet confusingly different.

Worse, the first-hand accounts of his apparence and features are equally mystifying, some polished tributes to the man, others no better than slander. I found this wonderful little collection of quotes compiled by Tom Holmberg. The accounts come from different times of Napoleon’s life, from people who saw a schoolboy or an emperor, a fiasco or sphinx, a conqueror or corruptor. Ultimately, all we see is the legend.

Photo: The Monolith

Go to that chalet in Bechtesgaden, in Southern Bavaria. Despite the panoramic pastrolare, you will feel nothing but revulsion for its most famous Nazi occupant. Go to the Red Square. You may have a tremor or two for the October Revolution, but you will feel only hatred for the man who betrayed it with his murderous tyranny over the Soviet empire, 1923-53. If you visit the mausoleum-like memorial for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoniette in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, you may feel reverence for a rich past, but it is one that is irretrievably far away and long ago. As for the Republic’s Pantheon for France’s “great men,” you will find it a place that disappoints you for its spiritual void — surely emptier than the parish church of Sainte Genevieve, which it replaced.

Now go to Les Invalides, which is a veterans’ hospital complex, an army museum, and a large church, on Paris’s Left Bank. Here lies Napoleon Bonaparte, in a gigantic sarcophagus, emplaced on a high plinth, arising from the lower depths of the Church of Saint-Louis. The tomb lies directly under grand cupola, towering two hundred feet above. The visitor looks down on it from a marble balustrade.

Visiting Les Invalides is like visiting the Lincoln Memorial: amid all the funeral marble and the airless geometric space, something is alive. You revere Abe Lincoln, you long to have known or at least heard him, you feel proud to be part of the republic that spawned him, and if you are born north of the Mason-Dixon line, you feel proud to be a descendant of those who fought for him.

But at le tombeau de l’Empereur, something is different. Here the abyss peers back.

The imperial sarcophagus is a costly slab of reddish porphyry — a hard and expensive crystalline rock — that is sculpted like a wave, a shape cut from a continuum: dense and heavy, frozen in stone yet eternally cresting. The stone is unexpectedly, almost shockingly, flesh-colored, not the customary black or white, which would more easily relegate it to a dead past. It is livid and living, the color of a flayed chest in an autopsy, exposing a raw, still-beating heart. The tomb is remarkably modern for an object constructed in the 1850s, quite impersonal and unpictorial, having no story to recount or symbolism to impart. It is not even characteristically French, but is more like the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 — still and powerful, knowing and alive, overwhelming the impressive ecclesiastical and military setting which it is placed. You forget you are in a church and a hospital, and despite the presence of all the trophy flags of battle, which the Michelin guide has told you to look for, you even forget that this is a military establishment.

If the large presence is not characterized, it is because the architect of the tomb, Louis-Tullis Visconti (1791-1853), was all too aware of the paltriness of characterization in this case. Unlike historians and writers, the architect was satisfied with seeking to evoke, not to describe or (still less) explain, and in that regard he has succeeded with Nietzschean force: to power, the will, the threat, the thrill are all here. For how to describe or explain this man, though it has been tried and tried — and will be tried again in the pages of this book? As what do you characterize Napoleon? As Hitler? As Prometheus? Both analogies, and even Jesus Christ himself, have been invoked, but the man lying in this tomb was very far from any of them. One might rather say that Napoleon is a character unfinished, like Hamlet; and like Hamlet, a puzzle — full of contradictions, sublime and vulgar. One is pulled in opposing directions.

His tomb evokes no grief and sorrow, as does the Lincoln Memorial. The visitor’s throat is not thick with emotion, nor does his heart reflexively fill with high resolve. Rather, his mind is troubled but wide awake, in response to what lurks down there — equally menacing and thrilling, with Sphinx-like qualities of good and evil and mystery. Most present in this place is the awe-evoking sense of human possibility, which is a different thing from hope. The wave of this tomb becomes a sleigh that will carry us off into an unknown future, even if only a hundred days’ worth.

Steven Englund, Napoleon: A political life, xiii-xiv


Photo: Never Enough Hats (Paris edition)

Another hat photo. This time from the Fontainebleau Museum. Napoleon’s bicorne was made by Poupard, the official hatter whose shop was at 32 Galerie Montpensier, and as emperor he traveled with at least a dozen hats, maintained by Constant.

In Le Médecin de campagne Balzac wrote about Napoleon’s return from Elba. “Twas the greatest miracle God ever worked! Was it ever known in the world before that a man should do nothing but show his hat, and a whole Empire became his?”.

Photo: A Whiff of Grapeshot, Église Saint-Roch, Rue Saint-Honoré

This photo from Rue Saint-Honoré is the second part of the Paris series. It is me, reading my Napoleon guide book, on the staircase of the Église Saint-Roch. The baroque church is located in the 1e arrondissement, just north of Louvre (Metro: Pyramide). It was finished in 1722, but my interest takes us to 1795. (Actually, I have a side interest in the year 1763, since it turns out that de Sade was married in Saint-Roch. But that notwithstanding.) The event I’m referring to is 13 Vendémiaire. The Revolutionary calendar date refers to the battle in the streets of Paris between the French Revolutionary troops and the Royalists.

France was at this point governed by the National Convention, and the defense of Paris was entrusted to Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras. He had risen to political prominence after having sided with Robespierre’s opposition during 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794). Having voted for the execution of King Luis XVI, Barras had plenty of reason to fear the royalist uprising after the Terror. He nominated Bonaparte, then General of Brigade, to defend the Convention in the Tuileries Palace, a task the latter accepted on the condition that no one would interfere with his command.

Bonaparte then gave orders to Joachim Murat, then an unknown cavalry officer, to seize large cannons and use them to block the narrow streets north of the Palace. The famous quip ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ is apparently due to Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History, rather than Napoleon himself. At any rate, grapeshot is a type of artillery shot which consists of a number of chained metal elements, typically employed against massed infantry. Napoleon used it with devastating effect on 13 Vendémiaire, firing into the crowds in the streets next the Église Saint-Roch. The royalist uprising in Paris was promptly ended, with at least 600 dead.

Barras’ success helped him into the Directory and executive power later that year, while Napoleon took over the command of the Army of the Interior. Soon he would use his new position to leverage a commission as head of the Army of Italy.

Photo: Musée de l’Armée, Hotel des Invalides

The one movie that I’ve watched over and over without tiring is The Duellists (1977), a Napoleonic costume drama based on a Joseph Conrad shortstory. The attention paid to details in military uniform and fashion is stunning, and I was happy to learn from Musée de l’Armée in Paris that it is also largely accurate. The museum has an impressive collection of officer’s uniforms on display, categorized by campaign. They also house one of the world’s largest collection of personal effects that belonged to Napoleon, including my personal favourite, his grey overcoat from St Helena.

And then, yes, there is the-chapeau-thing. Napoleon’s famous hat is a bicorne (two corners), and was at the time not in any way characteristic of Napoleon. In fact, it was a common hat both in the army and in the navy, as can be seen on countless paintings from the time. Admiral Nelson, among others, is depicted wearing a bicorne. (I have seen people claim, however, that Napoleon’s custom of wearing the hat sideways rather than longways was unusual among higher officers, but I’d rank that as speculative at best.)

The Musée de l’Armée collection has a hat from the battle of Eylau, and a hat from St Helena; Deutsches Historische Museum in Berlin has a hat from the battle of Waterloo; while, finally, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a hat from the Russian campaign. How many more there are I don’t know yet, but it’s certainly true that these hats are among the most fetishized of all Napoleonic objects.