Category Archives: Paris

Paris The Man

A “Napoleonland” Theme Park to Rival Paris Disneyland?

The French don’t have a national museum devoted to Napoleon, but French politician Yves Jégo is proposing to build “Napoleonland,” a theme park based on the legacy of Napoleon and the First Empire. The chosen site is near Disneyland Paris, on the grounds of the 1814 Battle of Montereau, a Napoleonic victory over the Austrians during the War of the Sixth Coalition.

At first, it’s heartening to see the French honoring their best known historical figure, but then the silliness begins. The Telegraph and The Economist quote Jégo as envisioning tourists skiing through a Russian battlefield “surrounded by the frozen bodies of soldiers and horses.” He’d have reenactments of Louis XVI being guillotined. The Battle of Waterloo and the naval Battle of Trafalgar, both French disasters, would be recreated every day. “It’s going to be fun for the whole family,” Mr. Jégo told the London Times.

Is this mockery simply British bias or does it reflect the former French minister and history buff’s intentions? Perhaps we’ll hear the whole story on February 18th when Yves Jégo makes a full announcement.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the French victory at Montereau only briefly slowed the Coalition’s invasion of France. Eight weeks later, Napoleon abdicated and accepted exile on Elba with an annual pension of 2,000,000 francs.  The pension, however, was never paid, contributing to Napoleon’s decision to escape Elba and return to France for his Hundred Days rule before his defeat at Waterloo.

 

Miscellany Paris

Géricault’s Napoleonic Cavalry Officer

One of my blog readers commented on the Not Finding Much Napoleon at the Louvre post that “sadly, [I] missed the excellent romantic painting of a Napoleonic-era cavalry officer by Géricault.” His comment sent me scrambling for the DVD where I store my Louvre photos, certain I remembered the piece he had in mind. Sure enough, here’s my photo of An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging.

Among the great painters of the period, Théodore Géricault (born 1791 – died 1824) was part of a movement that romanticized heroism, agony, and savagery. His paintings were meant to instill the desire to experience grand emotions.   Contrast this heroic figure set against a burning battle scene with today’s prevalent photos of our wounded heroes.  Perhaps, we’re learning to consider consequences before glory.

Géricault painted this 12’ by 9’ canvas of a soldier controlling his magnificent wild-eyed horse in 1814. Ten years later, he himself “experienced” a fatal fall off a horse.

Paris The Man

More about Napoleon’s Son

Theoretically, Napoleon’s toddler son, known as the King of Rome and called François, became Napoleon II on June 22, 1815, when Napoleon abdicated in his favor after the battle of Waterloo.  In reality, the boy never ruled. With the help of France’s enemies, Louis XVIII claimed the throne, reestablishing the Bourbon dynasty.

Meanwhile, young Napoleon François grew up in Austria as the Duke of Reichstadt. He once said to a friend, “If Josephine had been my mother, my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena, and I should not be at Vienna.  My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.”  Sadly, he died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-one, eleven years after Napoleon I’s own death. He was buried in Vienna.

In 1940, during the World War II German Occupation, Adolf Hitler personally ordered the return of the King of Rome’s body to Paris, as “a gift to the French people.”  They quietly buried the unfortunate young man in the floor of a non-descript side chapel in Les Invalides at the foot of a statue of his father. There is, of course, no mention of Hitler’s involvement anywhere in sight.

If you wish to view some eerie photos and video of Hitler’s one-day visit to Paris in June 1940, you can find them on the website axishistory.com or by searching on YouTube.  Just beware that you may run into racist and anti-French remarks in the comments on YouTube.  There aren’t any pictures of Hilter at the top of the Eiffel Tower, because some brave Frenchman climbed up and cut the elevator’s cables so that Hitler couldn’t use it.

 

Paris The Man

Symmetry at Brienne

I’ve been thinking back about my visit to Brienne, the French country town where Napoleon attended his first military school from age nine to fifteen.  By all accounts he grew up isolated, mocked for his accent and poverty.   Even his politics brought derision as this drawing—the earliest known Napoleonic caricature—shows.  In it, a fellow student depicts proud Napoleon saving his childhood hero, the Coriscan revolutionary Pasquale Paoli.  How many potential heroes (or musicians, artists, scientists, writers) give up their dreams in the face of schoolhouse mockery?

Not Napoleon.  Near the end of his Brienne school days, Napoleon’s pride turned into leadership, best demonstrated by his organization of fellow schoolmates in a legendary snowball fight featuring snow forts and snow artillery bombardments.  Several years later, his hero Paoli described young Napoleon as a figure out of Plutarch’s Lives.

After his graduation in 1784, Napoleon returned to Brienne twice:  first in 1805, at the height of his powers on his way to Italy to be crowned king, and then again in 1814, during desperate battles to save his empire before his first abdication. Looking back, Napoleon said, “Brienne is my homeland.  It’s there I formed the first impressions of my fellow man.”  It was in Brienne that he learned, as he later wrote, “to be alone in the midst of men.” It was there he became a leader, and it was there he felt the crumbling of the empire he had built.  Few of us experience such symmetry in our lives.

 

 

Miscellany Paris

The French ♡ USA

 

My husband's dad (center back) in Le Mans, France, June 1944

We Americans think the French don’t like us, and, in turn, we portray them as ungrateful for our aid during the World Wars.  Remember Freedom Fries in 2003?  Perhaps, we should apologize for that one since sadly they were right about Iraqi WMDs.

A quick look around Paris tells you the French find kinship in the revolutionary spirit that gave birth to both our republics. Indeed, without their financial and military help, our own revolution might have failed.  And where would we be today if Napoleon hadn’t sold us the Louisiana Purchase?  If he’d been allowed, the Great Man himself would have settled in America after Waterloo, but the British had no intention of letting Napoleon add to their troubles in the New World.

In 1886, the French people gave us our Statue of Liberty, the symbol of America.  On the banks of the Seine, they still maintain a small replica of the statue as well as this full-size copy of the torch.   Directly across the river you’ll find a statue of Thomas Jefferson.

I’ve always found the French welcoming.  Admittedly, it helps to speak French, although mine is far from perfect.  Today, you’ll find most French are pleased at your attempt to speak their language, and smilingly endure your efforts.  During our recent two weeks in France, my French was corrected only twice:  first, by a shop clerk, and second, by my own American husband.

 

Paris The Man

Ecole Militaire, Paris

Nine years in impoverished Corsica followed by six years in countrified Brienne couldn’t have prepared fifteen-year-old Napoleon for the Paris Ecole Militaire.  He must have been overwhelmed when he first saw the grand buildings of Paris, especially his new home at L’Ecole Militaire where he would learn to be an artillery officer.  How did he react to the splendor?  He wrote the Minister of War a letter protesting that the luxury the cadets lived in was a poor introduction to the hardships of military life! Then he sped through his studies so that he graduated near the bottom quarter of his class, but after only half the normal time in the school.

 

Paris The Man

Grapeshot at Saint-Roch

Napoleon first became famous for routing the British navy out of Toulon in 1793.   This is the view (without the cars) that he would have had in 1795 during his second great exploit, routing protesting Frenchmen in the streets of Paris.   He’d been charged with stopping royalist insurgents who were bent on bringing down the Revolutionary government.  The insurgents were warned that cannon were in place, yet they charged forward in the narrow streets.  Napoleon gave the order to fire, and small musket balls sprayed the rioting citizens.   The battle culminated in the royalists’ last stand in front of the Paris church of Saint-Roch.  To this day, the building bears pockmarks from the deadly grapeshot.

Should Napoleon be considered a war criminal for firing on his own country’s citizens?  It’s often a mistake to use today’s moral standards to judge historical events, plus this was a violent mob trying to bring down the government and reinstate former tyrants.  After all, some might consider Lincoln a war criminal for fighting the southern states’ succession. But then doesn’t Quaddafi use the same justification against Libyan insurgents today? Time and again, Napoleon walked the line between honorable and criminal.

Whatever the moral questions are, Napoleon’s swift actions on that day saved the French Revolution and quashed the return of the monarchy—until the fall of his own empire almost twenty years later.

Paris Sources The Man

Not Finding Much Napoleon at the Louvre

Finding Napoleon at the Louvre was harder than I expected.  After unsuccessfully searching their website, I wrote in advance for a list of Napoleon-related paintings: no response.  I queried several agencies for a specialized guide: no luck.  So, when we arrived, we headed straight for the Information Desk.  Did I know about the Coronation painting by David?  Yes, but are there others?  No, I was assured, no other portraits or statues in the Louvre related to Napoleon.  I switched to French to see if the answer changed.  It did not.  Meanwhile, my husband approached the manager.  Oh, yes, she said, one other painting and she put a mark on the Sully wing of our museum map.

We headed to the Denon wing to view the coronation scene.  The second largest painting in the Louvre, it’s both incredible art and a magnificent public relations piece.  Napoleon had his mother prominently positioned in the painting, although she refused to attend, since as a republican and pessimist, she felt he was overstepping his bounds.  Then he had the painter David obscure the fact that he had crowned himself by portraying instead the less notable event of him crowning Josephine as empress.  If you look carefully, you can still see the revision on the canvas. We can only be grateful that, after divorcing Josephine, Napoleon didn’t have David paint his second wife’s face onto the neck of the first empress’s body!  Still, it is a magnificent piece of art and history.

We headed to the Sully wing to find the location the Information manager had marked for us.  The Louvre is huge and even in March crowded with tourist groups, although few Americans.  Fifteen minutes later, at our destination, we entered a gallery with paintings from fifty years after Napoleon’s time.  After a heated discussion, a museum guide flagged down a passing high-level Louvre official.  The gracious curator directed us to the room just beyond the coronation painting.  All the while apologizing that there really isn’t much else Napoleonic in the Louvre, he also marked on our map the site of a small First Empire furniture exhibit.

We rushed back to the Denon wing and found a bit of what I was expecting:

Yet, even after finding these masterpieces and a few pieces of First Empire furniture, I was surprised there was so little of France’s greatest hero at its greatest museum.

Paris The Man

Malmaison

Malmaison, the country mansion Josephine chose while Napoleon was on his Egypt campaign, provides my first glimpse into a personal residence.  The couple lived here and in the Tuileries Palace in Paris from 1800 to 1802, while Napoleon was First Consul, his stepping stone to absolute French ruler.   After their divorce, Josephine retired to Malmaison, cultivated roses in its gardens, and ultimately died here in 1814.

If I were looking for Josephine rather than Napoleon, this is where I would search.  Primarily a social creature, her grace and style are evident throughout the house.  I can envision her playing the harp in the lovely music room and entertaining lively guests in the light and airy dining room.

Napoleon himself may be found in the chamber where he directed his ministers and generals.  Like his rooms in Fontainebleau, this is draped in a military-tent style, but with a flair Josephine probably injected.  Again, his sleeping quarters are small in comparison to Josephine’s lush bedroom.  Unfortunately, the original furnishings have been lost.   Malmaison also contains a small museum and art work which I will discuss in a later post.

 

Paris The Man

Chateau de Fontainebleau

Fontainbleau!  Home to French kings for eight centuries, Napoleon spent vast sums to restore it, initially to house the pope whom he’d coerced into attending his 1804 coronation (only to crown himself rather than allowing the pope to do it).  Years later, Emperor Napoleon imprisoned that same pope within its walls for eighteen months until he agreed to give up temporal powers—that is, to stop interfering with Napoleon.  Meanwhile, it served as a country palace.

It’s a grand place full of large ornately gilded rooms.  Interestingly, Napoleon chose for his bedchamber a smallish plain room.  He decorated the antechamber where he met at all hours with his generals and advisors in a distinctly military style, draping the ceiling and walls with fabric to create a campaign-tent atmosphere.  The furniture, too, is sleek and business-like.  You get the distinct impression of a man who could have everything, but chose to keep his private surroundings simple.

In 1814, Fountainbleau was the site of Napoleon’s abdication.  Before leaving for exile on Elba, he gave his farewell speech to his military guard in the grand front courtyard.  It’s now called the Cours des Adieux, the Courtyard of Farewell.  Less than a year later, after escaping from Elba, he returned for one day, on his way to Paris to briefly re-establish himself as emperor.

 

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