Category Archives: Miscellany

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

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.”

 

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.

Miscellany The Man

My favorite Novel about Napoleon Bonaparte (sort of)

Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

When I recently rediscovered Georgette Heyer’s historical novel, AN INFAMOUS ARMY, I realized it was the first Napoleonic novel I had ever read. I was thirteen when my mother introduced me to Heyer’s famous Regency novels. Most of them are love stories in the mode of Jane Austin. AN INFAMOUS ARMY is a strange mixture: half romance, half detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo. It’s told from the British point of view, definitely not Napoleon Bonaparte’s.

Written in 1937, AN INFAMOUS ARMY is the third book of a trilogy so Heyer fans will have had plenty of time to become enchanted with its main characters. It takes place in Brussels, where English society is enjoying the peaceful continent during Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement on Elba. That is, until Napoleon escapes his exile and reclaims his crown. Then Europe’s armies quickly gather to confront the Emperor’s Grande Armée in nearby Waterloo.

The book’s first 270 pages fly by with romantic stories that are a shade darker than Heyer’s usual delightful heroine-has-greater-than-expected-depth-and-snares-worldly-hero fare. Instead, in preparation for the great battle, she introduces the reader to much more complex characters and relationships. For the following 200 pages, the high-society women tend to the wounded and dying. Many of the men heroically die or lose limbs on the battlefield.

Heyer places her male antagonist, Colonel Charles Audley, on the British General Wellington’s staff. We see the battle through his eyes as, under cannon fire, he couriers orders from Wellington across the battlefield to his troops. Always a sticker for historical detail, Heyer’s battle descriptions are so accurate and inspiring that she lectured at Sandhurst, the British Royal Military Academy. Apparently, for some years, AN INFAMOUS ARMY was required reading there. Here’s a sample from the moment that the battle swung irretrievably to British victory:

‘The [French] Chasseur column, advancing steadily, was met by a frontal fire of over eighteen hundred muskets from the 95th Rifles and the 71st Highlanders, and as it staggered, the Fighting 52nd, the men in third and fourth line loading and passing muskets forward to the first two lines, riddled its flank. It broke, and fell into hideous disorder, almost decimated by a fire it could not, from its clumsy formation, return. A cry of horror arose, taken up by battalion after battalion down the French lines: La Guard recule! [The Guard is retreating!]”

As you see, this novel goes well beyond its charming love story.

In AN INFAMOUS ARMY, Napoleon Bonaparte only has cameo appearances as a distant figure rallying his troops. At one point, a young British officer informs Wellington that he could order cannon fire onto Napoleon and his senior officers to which the noble Wellington responds, “No, no, I won’t have it. It is not the business of general officers to be firing upon one another.” War was fought under more aristocratic rules back then.

Rereading the novel, I was amused to see that it must have provided my first exposure to Napoleon Bonaparte’s adversary on St Helena Island, Sir Hudson Lowe. Ironically, when Wellington arrived at Brussels before the battle, he dismissed Sir Hudson who was quartermaster, replacing him with someone whom he “could trust to do his work without forever wishing to copy Prussian methods.” In other words, in Wellington’s opinion, the worse sort of bureaucrat.

Since this novel is told from a British perspective, you might think that “an infamous army” refers to Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. It’s actually a quote from Wellington describing his own disorganized, green troops: “I have got an infamous army, very weak, and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff.” Napoleon might have said the same of his army, but when the day was over, Wellington had the decisive victory that changed the course of European history.

I highly recommend this book. It delights on so many levels.

 

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte on the Moon

For your amusement, a comic strip “honoring” Napoleon Bonaparte on the anniversary of man’s July 20, 1969 landing on the moon:

Napoleon Bonaparte: it’s hard to keep a determined man in check.   🙂

Thank you, XKCD.com.

Miscellany Paris The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Madrid – Part 2

Portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte by Ingres

Prado Museum, Madrid, 2016, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

 

As I explained in my last post, in general, the Spanish aren’t fans of Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact, I didn’t find a single portrait of Napoleon in the Prado Museum’s huge collection. The Prado was, however, hosting a travelling exhibition of works by the French painter Ingres (1780-1867). There to my delight I found two.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres studied in Paris under Jacques-Louis David whose paintings have been featured in a number of my posts. In 1803, Ingres was one of five artists commissioned to do full-length portraits of thirty-four-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul. That painting (seen below) was given to the city of Liège where it usually hangs in the Curtius Museum.

 

Napoleon Bonaparte, First Council by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

 

The Emperor on his Imperial Throne was the second Napoleon portrait in the Ingres exhibit. Over the years, this stiff, stylized painting has hung in the Louvre and Les Invalides. It now resides in the Musée de L’Armée. One look at Napoleon’s pale, puffy face explains why the critics (and probably Napoleon himself) hated it. Of course, I was excited to see it in Madrid. Two hundred years later, the man’s still ubiquitous even in hostile territory.

 

The Emperor Napoleon on his Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

 

 

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Madrid – Part 1

Goya's El dos de mayo de 1808 in the Prado Museum, Madrid

When you’re visiting Madrid, it’s painful to be an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It’s similar to how I felt on my visit to Vietnam when I heard the Vietnam War called “the War of American Aggression.” In Madrid, what I know as “the Peninsula War” became “the War for Spanish Independence.” History’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? You can find heroes and villains on all sides, and enough conflicting justification to make your head spin. In this case, the evidence seems clear: the British and the French used the Iberian Peninsula as a convenient place to stage a war.

My January 2015 post, “Finding Napoleon in Richmond and Spain,”Goya's Portrait of Spain's Ferdinand VII in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid provides a historical snapshot of this conflict. Here’s a bit more backstory:

By 1808, the corrupt reign of Spain’s Carlos IV had been cut short through a coup by his equally corrupt son, Ferdinand VII (seen here in a painting by Francisco Goya). Carlos IV fled to France, seeking Napoleon’s support. Wily Napoleon lured Ferdinand into negotiations on French soil where he strong-armed the feuding family into ceding their throne to him. Napoleon then turned Spain over to his brother Joseph. There are, of course, more twists to this story, but that’s the short edition.

Commemorative plaque in Puerta del Sol plaza in MadridJoseph Bonaparte, although reluctant, thought he might do some good as Spain’s monarch. He barged in with ideas for a modern constitution and decreed an end to the Inquisition. But before he’d even set foot in his new realm, the Spanish populace was in revolt.

On the 2nd of May, 1808, Spanish patriots fired on French troops in the heart of Madrid. This plaque in the Puerta del Sol plaza commemorates the first shots. Goya’s painting (above) of “The Charge of the Malmalukes,” shows Spaniards attacking Napoleon’s soldiers on that date. Perhaps this French regiment, in its fancy Arab dress and comprised of Muslims and Christians alike, incensed the devoutly Catholic Spaniards. The melee cost hundreds of lives on both sides.

Monumento Dos de Mayo, MadridGoya captured the next day’s events in his most famous painting, “The Third of May.” On that day, Napoleon’s forces took revenge with hundreds of executions. Today, the “The Charge of the Malmalukes” and “The Third of May” hang side by side in the Prado Museum.

So began the first “guerrilla warfare,” the Spanish people’s asymmetrical fight against the well-equipped Napoleonic army. After atrocities on both sides, it took the British under Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington and Napoleon’s nemesis at Waterloo, to clear the French from Spain.

Just as we Americans remember the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord, the Spanish haven’t forgotten the patriots who started their War for Independence. One block from the Prado, in Madrid’s Plaza de la Lealtad (the Plaza of Loyalty), they buried their bodies and burn an Eternal Flame.

 

 

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Berlin – Part 2

Margaret Rodenberg at Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin February 2016

On October 27, 1806, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte marched his Grande Armée into Berlin. He spent the night at the Charlottenburg Palace, home to the Prussian King Frederick William III and his queen, Louise. His hosts weren’t at home—following the Prussian army’s disastrous losses at Jena and Auderstädt, the monarchs had taken refuge in the eastern corner of their realm.

Princesses Louise and Fredricka statue by Johanne Gottfried Schadow in the Alte Museum, Berlin. Photo by Margaret RodenbergNapoleon Bonaparte is often blamed for every battle and every war of his time. In this case, he had spent the year negotiating for peace. Despite those diplomatic efforts, England and Russia were preparing new offensives against him. The Prussian king, egged on by his war-hungry wife, jumped the gun. Without waiting for his allies, he engaged the French army on his own.

Queen Louise had been born in Hanover. She grew up the much admired, beautiful daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Johann Gottfried Schadow, the same artist who made the Quadriga on the Brandenburg Gate, sculpted this lovely statue of her and her sister Frederica. The then-king of Prussia, Frederick William II, encouraged Louise’s marriage to his eldest son, while her sister married his younger son.

Queen Louise's bedroom, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Photo by Margaret RodenbergBy all accounts, Frederick William III was an indecisive ruler with voracious personal appetites and little strength of character. Louise, however, was determined to destroy the “Monster Napoleon.” She gathered advisors into a war party and persuaded the king to act. She even accompanied her husband to the battlefront, dressed like an Amazon warrior.

On October 14, in the separate battles of Jena and Auderstädt, the Prussians were soundly defeated. The Prussian king and queen fled, seeking protection from the Russian army. Emperor Napoleon, well aware of Queen Louise’s bluster against him, spent his night in Charlottenburg in her bedroom. She refused to ever sleep in that room again.

napoleon-bonaparte-receiving-queen-louisa-of-prussia-nicolas-louis-francois-gosseNapoleon and Louise didn’t come face-to-face until the following summer. After Napoleon defeated the Russian army at the Battle of Friedland, Queen Louise begged for a meeting with the Emperor. There she petitioned Napoleon to give Prussia generous treatment in the upcoming Treaty of Tilsit. Napoleon didn’t grant any concessions, but reportedly, he did say, she was “the only real man in Prussia.”

Queen Louise didn’t live long enough to enjoy the Prussians’ revenge. In 1814, at the time of Napoleon’s first abdication, the Prussian army overran the Emperor’s chateau at St. Cloud on the outskirts of Paris. Among other booty they took back to Berlin was one of the five original paintings of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David. It continues to hang in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin where I photographed it.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David, Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, Photo by Margaret Rodenberg

 

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