Corsica Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

FINDING NAPOLEON BONAPARTE IN CUBA, PART 2

 

Street scene in Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg 2017

If you read my last blog post, you know I visited Havana’s Museo Napoleónico. Thanks to the Cuban sugar magnate, Julio Lobo, the museum houses the Western Hemisphere’s largest exhibition of Napoleon Bonaparte’s artifacts.

My favorite piece is Napoleon’s pocket watch from his exile on St Helena. But how did it end up in Cuba? Like so much about Napoleon, it’s complicated.

Napoleon Bonaparte's pocket watch from St Helena in the Museo Napoleónico, Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg, 2017

When Napoleon Bonaparte went into exile, the British provided him a Navy doctor. Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara was a cultured, genial Irishman who played chess and spoke fluent Italian, Napoleon’s native language. Before long, he and Napoleon became fast friends. In 1818, the British, suspecting O’Meara of treason, recalled him to London and dismissed him from the Navy.

The British offered Napoleon replacement physicians, but refused to guarantee patient-doctor privacy. Napoleon, saying he didn’t want his bowel movements discussed in the British parliament, declined their services.

So, in 1819, Napoleon’s mother sent the Corsican-born physician Francesco Antommarchi to St Helena. From the start, Antommarchi and Napoleon had a stormy relationship. On several occasions Napoleon dismissed the doctor, only to relent. By then, the Emperor was ill and Antommarchi was the only doctor on St Helena who would protect his privacy. When Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, Antommarchi performed the Emperor’s autopsy under the watchful eyes of British doctors. In this famous painting of Napoleon’s death scene, Antommarchi stands on the left with his hand on Napoleon’s pillow.

The Watch After Napoleon’s Death

Von Stuben's painting of Napoleon's death scene in the reception room of Longwood House, St Helena. Photo taken in Museo Napoleonic, Havana, by Margaret Rodenberg 2017Napoleon’s official Will doesn’t mention Dr. Antommarchi. In that document, Napoleon bequeathes to his valet Marchand’s care “two watches, with Empress’s hair-made chains, and a chain made with my hair for the other watch.” Marchand was supposed to give them, along with other personal items, to Napoleon’s son.

But when Marchand inventoried Napoleon’s possessions after the Emperor’s death, he listed only “one large silver watch (Frederick the Great’s alarm clock).” Did Napoleon before his death give Antommarchi the gold pocket watch? Or did Marchand take it upon himself to give it to the doctor? I don’t find any mention of either event in the various memoirs about Napoleon’s time on St Helena. Perhaps Antommarchi helped himself to it.

In an unfinished codicil to his Will, Napoleon did ask his wife “Marie Louise to take in her service Antommarchi and to pay him a pension of 6,000 francs, which I [Napoleon] bequeath to him.” But everyone, including Antommarchi, knew that Marie Louise would never follow Napoleon’s wishes. She’d already had three children with the man she would marry as soon as Napoleon died.

The Cuba Connection to Napoleon’s Watch

After Napoleon’s death, Antommarchi’s career took him to Poland, Louisiana, and Mexico. In 1837, he arrived in Cuba where some distant but wealthy relatives lived. Within a year, he died from yellow fever.

Fast-forward one hundred twenty-two years. In 1959, Antommarchi’s Cuban heirs—perhaps currying favor with Cuba’s new revolutionary government—presented Comandante Raúl Castro with Napoleon’s pocket watch as a wedding present. After his wife’s death in 2007, Raúl Castro donated the watch to the Museo Napoleónico.

The Museo Napoleónico’s pocket watch stops the time at a few minutes to six, the approximate hour of Napoleon’s death on St Helena. Boussot de Villeneuve, its manufacturer, no longer exists. But one other watchmaker, Breuguet, is proud enough to have had Napoleon as a client to use his image in its recent advertising.

 

Saint Helena The Man

FINDING NAPOLEON IN CUBA

Museo Napoleónico in Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg, 12-2017 Finding Napoleon in Cuba

Who knew one of the world’s great Napoleonic museums is in Cuba? Surprisingly, Havana’s Museo Napoleónico contains the Western Hemisphere’s largest collection of artifacts associated with Napoleon Bonaparte. Thanks to the Napoleonic Historical Society, I got to visit it.

Julio Lobo and his Napoleonic collection Finding Napoleon in CubaThe collection belonged to Julio Lobo (1898 – 1983), Cuba’s richest sugar cane magnate. Lobo, who was of Sephardic Jewish descent, admired Napoleon Bonaparte. For one thing, the Emperor had freed Europe’s Jews from centuries-old restrictions on landownership, political activity and professions. Second, Lobo emulated Napoleon’s ambition. Like Napoleon, he rose to great heights on his own merit, hard work and risk-taking. By the 1950s, Lobo was one of the richest men in the world.

The 20th-century sugar cane industry was a cut-throat business. I imagine Lobo saw himself as the Cuban Napoleon of Commerce, always one battle (or commodity trade) away from disaster. Like Napoleon, he worked intensely, relishing every challenge. And, like Napoleon, he was fearless, even in the face of assassination attempts. Cuba’s Communist Revolution was his Waterloo. In 1960, Fidel Castro’s government seized all his property. Lobo, who had spent a fortune collecting rare artifacts from Napoleon’s exile, was forced into his own exile.

If you are interested in reading more about Julio Lobo, I recommend reading John Paul Rathbone’s The Sugar King of Havana.

The Museo Napoleónico is housed in a beautiful 1920s palace. The building’s prerevolutionary owner, Orestes Ferrara Marino, like Lobo, ran afoul of the communist government.

Grand salon of the Museo Napoleónico in Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg, 10-2017 Finding Napoleon in Cuba

This Grand Salon on the first floor features paintings, busts, and furniture as well as military uniforms and equipment. For example, they have the pistols Napoleon Bonaparte took on the Russian Campaign in 1812 and a beautiful table inlaid with portraits of the Marshals (Napoleon’s top generals).

Empire Dining Room in the Museo Napoleónico, Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg 10-2017 Finding Napoleon in CubaThe second floor has several rooms of furniture, including chairs from Joseph Bonaparte’s Villa de Prangins in Switzerland and the Empire Period dining room shown below. Napoleon gave Josephine that chandelier when he came home from the Italian Campaign. Other artifacts on this floor include two of Napoleon’s death masks, Napoleon’s molar that was extracted on St Helena, and a container of dried Everlasting Daisies from St Helena (a flower I featured in an earlier blog post).

Julio Lobo’s extensive library of Napoleonic books in French, Spanish and English is housed in this beautiful room on the top floor. I would have loved to spend a few weeks doing research in that setting.

Library at the Museo Napoleónico in Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg, 10-2017 Finding Napoleon in Cuba

 

In upcoming blog posts, I’ll highlight some of my favorite individual pieces from the museum.

 

Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon in Abu Dhabi

My last post highlighted the artist Kehinde Wiley’s satiric imitation of Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon Bonaparte Crosssing the Alps. David painted five versions of this iconic image. It turns out one of these—the one that usually hangs in the Palace of Versailles—is on long-term loan to new Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

 

 

Here’s a link to the full article in The New York Times that explains the museum and its relationship to the Louvre in France.

Abu Dhabi is about 1,500 miles farther southeast than Napoleon Bonaparte himself managed to travel during his Middle Eastern invasion. In 1798, twenty-nine-year-old General Bonaparte set out with 40,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors and 160 scientists and scholars to conquer Egypt. The primary French objective was to block British access to a shorter route to India. Undoubtedly, Bonaparte saw it as an opportunity to follow in Alexander the Great’s footsteps.

The campaign struggled through a series of wins and losses. Ultimately, British, Ottoman and local forces stymied the French on what is now the coast of Lebanon. Napoleon, hearing of political turmoil in France, returned home in August 1799. On November 18, he seized his first political power in a coup d’etat.

Napoleon might not have been so successful politically if the French had known the truth about the Egyptian Campaign’s failures. Napoleon, however, was able to maintain his aura of invincibility.

Now, more than two hundred years later, the iconic painting of Napoleon Bonaparte the great conquer is, as The New York Times writes, “the rock star” of this incredible Middle Eastern museum. One look at that painting and you can appreciate the power of propaganda. 

 

 

Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon with Barak Obama

 

Of course that’s not Barak Obama on Napoleon’s horse in the artist Kehinde Wiley’s imitation of Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. An anonymous black man has taken General Bonaparte’s place. So why bring up Barak Obama? Well, our (deeply missed) ex-president has chosen Wiley to paint his official portrait for the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist born in 1977 who grew up in Los Angeles, has a unique way of inserting Black men into classical historical paintings, imbuing them with the power and glory usually reserved for white Western rulers. In his own words, quoted from the Brooklyn Museum’s website, “Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” To me, it’s a stunning reminder to broaden my perspective of history and culture.

I’m really curious to see the setting in which Wiley portrays President Obama, who was for eight years “the most powerful man in the world.” Napoleon Bonaparte, a master propagandist, had David paint him in an idealistic pose with the names of the classical heroes Hannibal and Charlemagne carved in the rocks at his feet. To stay in power, Napoleon needed to reinforce his image as the all-conquering hero. President Obama, however, has relinquished his power in our orderly American tradition. Perhaps his portrait, which is to be revealed in 2018, will indicate his future ambitions. I wonder what advice Napoleon would have given him.

Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. Here below for your reference is one of the five paintings Jacques-Louis David made for Napoleon of Bonaparte Crosssing the Alps.

 

Corsica Miscellany The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte Still Hiding Out in Corsica?

Apparently, the French census bureau thought so!

Excerpt from the Telegraph's webpage; article dated December 11, 2013

The Man

Finding Napoleon in Portland, Oregon Part 2

Jim Riswold (American, born 1957), Le Retraite de Napoléon, 2005, Ultrachrome inkjet print on Epson photo rag paper, Gift of the Artist, © Jim Riswold, 2005.80.1

The Portland Art Museum was one of those rare museums where I couldn’t find a work representing Napoleon Bonaparte or any aspect of his reign. An internet search through their collection, however, revealed this piece. It’s a photograph called Le Retraite de Napoléon (Napoleon’s Retreat). The artist Jim Riswold must have a dark sense of humor to create such a charming depiction of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. It’s not currently on display in the museum.

Miscellany

Finding Napoleon in Portland, Oregon

 

Portland, Oregon June 2017 by Margaret Rodenberg

I actually was in Oregon because of Napoleon Bonaparte. You see, that’s where the Historical Novel Society held this year’s conference. It’s a historical novelist’s dream: a hotel full of five hundred people, all fascinated with previous eras. It’s a joyous celebration of camaraderie, craft and commerce. It’s a chance for would-be authors to pitch manuscripts to agents and publishers. But most of all, it’s a chance for them—and for me—to step away from the computer screen to share a love of writing about the past.

HNS 2017 Gordon Frye Session on Historical FirearmsReaders of historical fiction demand accuracy, not in the plot or characters, but in the historical details. A conference like this reminds writers that Vikings don’t zip up their pants any more than they call Uber on their cell phones. Many of the sessions were steeped in historical detail: Underwear from Medieval to Victorian Ages! Hooch through History! How Far Can A Horse Walk In A Day and Other Questions of Accurate Historical Travel!

I was particularly interested in the lecture, “Things that go “Bang” in the night: Firearms for Novelists—Writing It Right.” Gordon Frye who hosts the internet show Gordon’s Gun Closet is an expert on historical weapons and advises historical re-enactors. He led an excellent session, pointing out the most common errors writers, who are often unfamiliar with firearms, tend to make. A couple of years ago, I’d decidedMargaret Rodenberg at the shooting range to fill in that gap in my own education. I took a firearms safety course that culminated in the shooting range experience seen on the right. That helped me get the feel of shooting a gun. Gordon helped me understand more about historical weapons. My writing doesn’t include a lot of gun battles, but he gave me confidence in the few scenes I’ve written.

Portland made a fitting location for a writers conference since Powell’s New and Used Books is located there. The largest independent bookstore in the U.S, Powell’s takes up most of three stories of a city block. Our plane landed at 8:05 pm and I was in Powell’s before 10 pm. That’s where I “found Napoleon Bonaparte” in Portland—or at least a few shelves of Napoleonic history books, one of which is shown below.

On a final note, if you love—or want to write—historical fiction, be sure to join the Historical Novel Society’s Facebook page.

One of the Napoleon Shelves at Powell's New & Used Books in Portland

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon (and Shakespeare) on St Helena Day

 

 

May 21st is St Helena Day, when the local population celebrates the remote island’s discovery in 1502. For the 4,500 residents, it’s a big holiday with speeches, parades and picnics. I haven’t found any historical record of Napoleon Bonaparte joining in the festivities during his exile there. In all likelihood, he preferred that the place had never been found. Napoleon called his exile there “the anguish of death.” He wondered why instead “they did not put a few musket balls in my heart.”

St James Church, Jamestown, St Helena Island, Photo by Margaret Rodenberg 2011But in 1502, its fresh-water stream would have been a welcome sight to Admiral João da Nova and his Portuguese sailors. As was the custom, they claimed the deserted island for their king. Before leaving, they built a small timber chapel on the spot where, in 1774, the British constructed today’s St James Church. That history gives St Helena bragging rights to the oldest continually operating church in the Southern Hemisphere.

While St Helena’s fame rests on Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile, a Portuguese named Fernão Lopes ranks as the island’s strangest inhabitant. In 1512, in India, Lopes (also known as Don Fernando) converted to Islam and joined in a rebellion against Goa’s Portuguese rulers. He received a grisly punishment: the loss of his ears, his nose, his right hand and left thumb. On the way home to Portugal, he jumped ship in uninhabited St Helena, where he survived as a hermit for several years. Eventually, he returned to Portugal. Fearing for his soul, he traveled to Rome to beg forgiveness from Pope Clement VII. Afterward, poor mutilated Lopes returned voluntarily to St Helena. He died there in 1545 (or 1546, depending on your sources).

In his book Shakespeare’s Island: St Helena and The Tempest, author David J. Jeremiah makes the case that St Helena is the island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Furthermore, he claims the play’s savage character Caliban is Fernão Lopes. As befits someone who served as the island’s attorney general, Jeremiah lays out convincing, although circumstantial, evidence. Of course, Shakespeare himself never visited St Helena. Instead, Jeremiah says the playwright met people who had and had access to journals of their voyages. If you are fascinated with both William Shakespeare and Napoleon Bonaparte (as I am), you’ll enjoy Jeremiah’s book.

In St Helena 500: A Chronological History of the Island, the authors speculate that Daniel Defoe based his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe on Fernão Lopes. If both these stories are true, St Helena Island inspired one of the most famous plays in the English language as well as one of the first novels in English.

We’ll never know for certain, but as Napoleon Bonaparte himself said, “What is the truth of history? A fable we have all agreed upon.”

 

Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Baltimore

Napoleon 1814, by Jean-Louis Ernest Meisonnier, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

Last November I posted about Ernest Meissonier’s paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. This month I came across another of Meissonier’s paintings (shown above) in the Walters Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It depicts a sad but stoic Napoleon at the end of his reign.

Napoleon III, by Adolphe Yvon, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret RodenbergMeissonier painted his images of Napoleon Bonaparte fifty years after the emperor’s defeat. Napoleon I was back in fashion since his nephew Napoleon III was on the French throne. In 1875, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s large Meissonier painting (shown in my November post) sold sight-unseen to an American collector for an astonishing $60,000. An informational placard at the Walters Museum sheds light on the buyer: Alexander Turney Stewart, an American retailer and railroad magnate.

Baltimore’s Walters Museum also featured this fine portrait of Napoleon III, which Adolphe Yvon painted in the mid-19th century.

But best of all, as a final Napoleonic reference, the museum displays a 16th century Italian painting of Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. She’s known for converting the Roman Empire to Christianity. And, of course, she’s the saint whose name was given to the island in the South Atlantic where Napoleon Bonaparte spent his second exile and where he died.

 

Saint Helena, by Francesco Morandini, known as Il Poppi, ca. 1575, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

Miscellany

Finding a Bonaparte in Panama

Whenever I travel, I’m on the lookout for signs of Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence. I didn’t expect to find any on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Panama, but there’s a statue of his great-nephew in Panama City. In 1877, Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte Wyse, the grandson of Emperor Napoleon’s brother Lucien, obtained the first agreement from the Columbian government to build a canal across its territory which then included the isthmus of Panama.

Young Lieutenant Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse must have had a bit of his great-uncle’s spirit in him. In 1798, Napoleon himself, then General Bonaparte, set off on his Egyptian Expedition. In this grand scheme, the thirty-year-old general planned to conquer Egypt and perhaps continue on to India in Alexander the Great’s footsteps. Like ancient pharaohs before him, Napoleon contemplated a canal connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Only erroneous measurements predicting engineering feats beyond the era’s capability dissuaded Napoleon from attempting the project.

Seventy years after Napoleon’s expedition, another Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, completed the Suez Canal. Less than ten years later, Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse was exploring Panama’s isthmus on de Lesseps’ behalf. Satisfied that a canal was feasible, Bonaparte-Wyse and a French lawyer, Louis Verbrugghe, rode an arduous four hundred miles on horseback to Columbia’s capital of Bogotá. There they negotiated the territory acquisition and revenue-sharing contract called “the Wyse Concession,” which made the future Panama Canal possible.

However, the subsequent French attempt to build the canal ended disastrously. It was left to the Americans to finish it with the first ships traversing its forty-eight mile length in 1914. In 1977, one hundred years after Lucien Napoleon Bonaparte-Wyse negotiated the Wyse Concession, President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty that would return the canal to Panama.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg