The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte’s School Days

As schools begin their fall sessions, Napoleon Bonaparte’s educational experience comes to mind.

Napoleon the new boy at school, by Realier DumasBRIENNE, by Realier-Dumas.At nine years old, little Nabulio Buonaparte traveled a thousand kilometers from Ajaccio, Corsica, the only home he’d known, to a military school in Brienne, France. Along the way, he spent four months in Autun, France, long enough for the Italian-speaking child to learn French. Four years passed before Napoleon had one brief visit from his parents. He turned seventeen before he returned home to Corsica.

I know it’s not wise to superimpose our cultural norms on the past, but can you image doing that to your child or to any young person today? Have children changed that much?

In addition to being foreign, young Napoleon was poor. He attended the school on a scholarship the French King provided, a circumstance the wealthier students mocked. Legend tells us that he made few friends at school, but ultimately became a leader there. Indeed, it was at Brienne that he directed the first of his many battles: a snowball fight among the students. 

Napoleon commands snowball fight at Brienne by Horace Vernet

Saint Helena The Man

A Childhood in 19th Century St Helena

If you are reading this blog, you probably know that Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last six years in exile on St Helena Island in the remote south Atlantic Ocean. I visited  the island in 2011 and I’m always interested in learning more about its fascinating connection to Napoleon.

I owe this blog post to one of my readers, Roger Knights. Roger’s been researching his ancestors who were members of the Moss family on St Helena. They married into the Solomon family, prominent merchants whose name still graces the largest retail business in Jamestown, St Helena. You can see one of their establishments in the background of my photo of the St Helena Day parade in 2011.

St Helena Day with Solomon's store in background

Roger’s great aunt saved this clipping of a Melbourne newspaper article, which he believes his ancestor, Walter Frederick Moss, wrote around 1940.  In it, Moss reminisces about his childhood on St Helena during the 1860s. I love the part where he describes how his elderly nursemaid, who in her youth had been in Napoleon’s household, professed a strong dislike for the Great Man.

(Readers, please forgive the old-fashioned views of the ethnic groups that peopled St Helena. Authentic documents from the past often leave us modern readers uncomfortable with our history.)

 

Article in Melbourne journal circa 1940

 

Part 2 - Article in Melbourne journal circa 1940

 

Thank you, Roger, for providing this material. 

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Iceland?

I’m on vacation in Iceland for a dozen days, but even there I’ve been on the look-out for references to Napoleon Bonaparte. I had begun to despair of finding any when I came across this sympathetic puffin. He obligingly posed in the exiled Emperor Napoleon’s iconic posture, hands clasped behind his back, staring out from St Helena’s shores in the direction of his beloved France. 

Please admit that you see the resemblance!

Puffin at Latrabjarg, Iceland

 

The Man

Big Data Shows Napoleon Bonaparte is History’s 2nd Biggest Figure

 Napoleon Bonaparte, triumphant

One hundred ninety-three years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte still matters. According to a scientifically rigorous study, published by the Cambridge University Press, Napoleon ranks second to Jesus Christ as the most influential person in history. William Shakespeare comes in third. 

Study authors, Steven Skiena of State University of New York at Stony Brook and Charles Ward of Google, Inc., based the results primarily on Wikipedia page rankings. Who had the longest article? How often was it edited? How often visited? They then refined the analysis to take into account current celebrity versus historical “gravitas.” For more detail, you can read their book WHO’S BIGGER? To get a quick overview, watch Steven Skiena’s YouTube video below.

 

 

We can argue about the methodology and the criteria used in this study. Indeed, some might contend that it’s Napoleon’s notoriety rather than his benevolence that gained him recognition. I’d respond that Napoleon was the world’s first great meritocratic leader. But should he rank above Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? 

Who's Bigger? by Steven Skien and Charles WardLike those Founding Fathers, Napoleon came to power when old regimes were giving way to new ideas. After France’s revolution, Europe teetered on the verge of anarchy. Napoleon steadied it, pulling France back from bankruptcy, installing new laws, establishing educational systems for the masses, and reestablishing free practice of religion.

Then, driven by the conservative forces of European aristocracy, Napoleon plunged into a war-filled abyss. In the end, that upstart Corsican shed his humble origins to recast himself as the leader of a new autocratic dynasty.

Yet he preserved the best of the French revolution: the opportunity for the least of us to rise to the top of the heap. In his words, when it comes to individuals “the outcome is more important than the origin.” We tend to forget how revolutionary that idea was. It remains one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great legacies.

 

Paris Saint Helena The Man

The 193rd Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on remote St Helena Island on May 5, 1821. His body was laid to rest in this modest site in the island’s Valley of Geraniums. The British government, fearing his influence even from the grave, kept the location carefully guarded.

MAR at Les Invalides sarcophagusIn 1840, Queen Victoria allowed the French to return their hero to his adopted homeland. The French king, Louis Philippe I, dispatched his son, the Prince of Joinville, along with two of Napoleon’s generals, to bring the Emperor home. With great ceremony and according to Napoleon’s own wishes, his body was laid to rest near the banks of the Seine.

During my visits, I’ve been surprised how Napoleon’s charisma envelopes both of the gravesites. They are solemn, sacred places.

Paris The Man

What’s with Napoleon putting his hand in his coat?

Napoleon Statue, Musée de l'Armée, Paris

If you want to mimic Napoleon Bonaparte, just stand straight and hide one hand in your jacket. It’s an immediately recognizable pose and unique to Napoleon, right?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - hand in jacketLike so many Napoleonic myths, there’s more here than meets the eye.

In fact, the one-hand-concealed stance can be traced back to the days of Roman togas and even to Greek statues dating from 350 B.C.E. More than a hundred years before Napoleon’s rise to power, it had returned to fashion and was considered a refined pose for a gentleman’s portrait.

I’ve included here a portrait of young Mozart in 1764 and one of George Washington in 1776, both painted years before Napoleon’s fame made the pose iconic to him.

George Washington in 1776 - hand in jacketIf you search the internet, you can find similar portraits of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Simon Bolivar, the Marquis de Lafayette, Hosni Mubarak, and many others, all with one hand slipped inside their jackets.

According to Napoleon-Series.org, “in 1738 Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel Behavior describing the ‘hand-in-waistcoat’ posture as signifying ‘manly boldness tempered with modesty.’ ”

I agree that “manly boldness” describes Napoleon Bonaparte, but “tempered with modesty”?

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Washington, DC

 

National Mall - Smithsonian Castle

On this, the three-year anniversary of this website, I decided to do a post about Finding Napoleon in my own hometown.

Napoleon Banner on the National Mall in DCThankfully, last weekend, we had a break in the nasty winter weather. I headed downtown to “our nation’s front lawn,” the National Mall, to catch a few sightings of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Of course, the National Gallery of Art has Jacques Louis David’s full-length portrait of Emperor Napoleon which I featured in a post on October 12, 2012. This weekend the Gallery had promotional banners flying from lampposts in the National Sculpture Garden. Sure enough, there was the extract of Napoleon’s face from that magnificent painting. 

The next Napoleon sighting was at one of the most popular spots in the Smithsonian complex: the gem exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Most people go there to see the Hope Diamond. That famous blue diamond once belonged to French kings, but the revolutionary government forced Louis XVI to turn over the crown jewels. In 1792, the diamond disappeared, only to resurface in England twenty years later. Napoleon never had the chance to own it.

Empress Marie-Louise's crown 2 Marie-Louise w crown

However, the crown of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, is displayed in the same room as the Hope Diamond. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Marie Louise fled home to Austria, taking the crown with her. Eventually, it ended up in the possession of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it to the Smithsonian. The museum information says that in the mid 20th century, the crown’s emeralds were replaced with the less precious turquoise. Interestingly, this painting shows the Empress Marie Louise wearing a similar crown but set with rubies.

Napoleon's Napkin from ElbaOn a last poignant note, a linen napkin, bearing Napoleon’s imperial “N”, is on display in the Smithsonian’s castle building. The exiled Napoleon used it on Elba. He gave the napkin to a visiting American, William Blake, on February 26, 1815. That same day Napoleon escaped from Elba to begin his short-lived triumphant return to France. 

Like so many items that touched Napoleon Bonaparte’s hands, the napkin became a coveted keepsake.

 

Miscellany The Man

Family Legends about Napoleon

 

Emperor Maximilian I of MexicoThe most frequent communication I get from readers of this blog goes something like this: 

“I grew up being told that my great-great-great-(grandfather/uncle, etc) was a (close friend/servant/doctor/personal guard) of Napoleon. Have you come across our family name in your research?”

I’m always happy to respond. Sometimes I can point the questioner to a website where they might get help. Occasionally, particularly if the ancestor in question hailed from St Helena, I might put their information in a blog post.

But how much scrutiny can most family legends take? In this holiday season, filled with Santa Clauses, elves, and flying reindeer, it’s appropriate to tell the legend from my own family that comes closest to touching on Napoleon—in this case, Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew who ruled France from 1852 – 1870.

One of Napoleon III’s more dubious exploits—and he had several—was the installation of Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Needless to say, many locals weren’t thrilled. A rebellion ensued and the French forces were routed.

Shirt Emperor Maximilian wore at his ExecutionIn 1864, my grandmother’s grandfather, Ferdinand Heinrich Englebert Osthaus, had followed Maximilian to the New World, expecting to make his fortune as “a gentleman farmer.” From here, I’ll quote the document my father left me:

“After the army of Juarez captured Mexico City in 1867, Maximilian and his followers took refuge in Querétaro north of Mexico City. Querétaro, too, was captured and Maximilian tried by court martial and executed in June of that year. Family tradition has it that Maximilian was “shot in Grosspapa’s shirt,” because his clothing was in such disrepair after being in prison that Osthaus lent him a shirt, which he was wearing when he was executed.”

It turns out there was a photographer, François Aubert, who took photos of Maximilian’s body and his effects. In this photo,  Aubert memorialized the very shirt my ancestor claimed as his own. Since the photograph was famous in its time, I do wonder if it prompted my great-great grandfather to claim a little of its gory glory after he fled Mexico to join his brother in Wisconsin.

As a child, this family myth fascinated me. Now it makes me realize how much I wish there had been photography (Video! Audio!) in the Age of Napoleon I. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a candid shot of the Great Man? Think of all we could learn that can’t be discerned from the staged portraits of his day.

 

Miscellany The Man

Dying Gaul, Once a Guest of Napoleon Bonaparte

Dying Gaul, from 100 AD, seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Yesterday when I saw this beautiful, life-sized statue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I was surprised to learn of its history with Napoleon Bonaparte.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, DCOriginally crafted about 100 AD, it was rediscovered in 1623 during construction of a Roman villa. Its fame swiftly spread throughout Europe. King Philip IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France had full-sized replicas made. Lord Byron mentioned it in his poem Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, and painters from Velázquez to David were inspired by it. Thomas Jefferson hoped to acquire a copy for an art gallery he envisioned at Monticello.

Scholars say it depicts a defeated Gallic warrior in the moment before his death. The mortally wounded man, who probably was the sculptor’s enemy, is portrayed with dignity, compassion, and humanity. Although made of marble two thousand years ago, Dying Gaul almost breathes in agony. 

What does this all have to do with Napoleon? It turns out the statue’s trip to DC is only its second voyage ever. The first took place in 1797. While conquering Italy, Napoleon confiscated the Dying Gaul as a war prize and had the statue transported to Paris where it was displayed in the Louvre. In 1816, after Napoleon was ensconced in St Helena, Dying Gaul was repatriated to Rome.

Don’t judge Napoleon too harshly for stealing artworks from his conquered foes. He was following the custom of his time. At least he didn’t destroy them as many other conquerors have done.

The Man

How tall (short) was Napoleon Bonaparte?

BBC Chart- height_world_leadersRecently, a friend of mine said, “The one thing we all know about Napoleon Bonaparte is that he was short.” Thus two-hundred-year-old British propaganda still overrules established fact. 

British cartoon from Napoleon's eraThe truth? Napoleon Bonaparte was between 168 and 170 centimeters, or 5’6” – 5’7” in height. While that’s not imposing—all but five US presidents have been taller—it was above the 5’ 5’’ average for a French male in Napoleon’s era. Coincidently, James Madison, at 5’4″ our shortest president, was in office during six years of Napoleon’s reign. Yet we revere him as a founding father and never mention his height.

So how did Napoleon become characterized as a pint-sized guy in a huge hat?

Convenient circumstances help justify the myth. First, in his time, the French standard for a “foot” was larger than that of the British, so Napoleon’s 5’2” in French feet equated to 5’7” under the British (and American) system. Next, Napoleon surrounded himself with the tall, imposing figures of his Imperial Guard who dwarfed his average stature. Then there was his nickname, “the Little Corporal,” earned while he was a young general who could not resist micromanaging artillery positions during battle. His troops bestowed that title out of fondness for the officer who so intimately shared their danger under fire.

All that fed into the British narrative of a pipsqueak upstart who threatened the aristocratic status quo. What better way to diminish his figurative stature than to mock his physical one? For more than a decade, the British papers were full of cartoons like the two shown here. With no photography or television to correct the impression, the British, and by extension the American public, took it as fact.

British cartoon from Napoleon EraIn the late 19th century, Leo Tolstoy added to the myth. In War and Peace, Tolstoy, who had fought in Crimea against Napoleon III and despised Napoleon I as an enemy of Russia, depicted the Emperor as “the undersized Napoleon,” and “the little man with white hands.” He called him “child-like” and “spoiled.”

Finally, in the early 20th century, psychotherapist Dr. Alfred Adler dealt a crucial blow to Napoleon’s image. An Austrian contemporary of Freud, Dr. Adler proposed the Napoleonic Complex as a part of his Theory of Personality. In it, he attributed excessive aggressive behavior to short men due to their inferiority complex. To this day, research goes on to debunk this widely-held, non-scientifically-based view.

But perhaps, I’m overly sensitive to this particular Napoleonic myth. Full disclosure: I’m 5’2” (almost).

Copyright © 2011, 2012 Margaret Rodenberg