“My, my, At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender” Abba
For most people, their knowledge of Napoleon Bonaparte doesn’t extend much beyond the man who was defeated on a field in Belgium. But Napoleon was much more than this. From his humble beginnings on the island of Corsica, his ambition and military prowess lead him to France where he became the supreme commander of the military and ultimately an Emperor who held sway over almost all of continental Europe.
Today at Globetrotting Grandpa we explore the Nelson Art gallery’s traveling exhibit “Napoleon: Power and Splendor.” This exhibit makes a limited run in Kansas City and showcases items from Napoleon’s Grand Palace at Tuileries near Paris. Most of the artifacts in the exhibition have never been seen outside of Europe.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. While a French possession, the primary language of the island was Italian. Napoleon was actually of Italian heritage, and his birth name was actually Napoleone di Buonaparte. At age 9, Napoleon’s parents moved to mainland France. The Buonaparte’s formally changed their name to the francophone pronunciation of Bonaparte and enrolled young Napoleon in a Military Academy which officially set his destiny.
Napoleon began to speak French by age 10 but spoke with a very pronounced Corsican accent and never learned to spell French words correctly. Given his thick accent, short stature and introverted nature Napoleon was often mocked by his classmates and preferred to read over social time with his peers. Despite these potential hardships, Napoleon became the first Corsican to graduate from the famed Ecole Militaire in 1784.
As an officer in the French military, Napoleon began to come out of his reclusive shell and began to garner a reputation for his ambition and quickly rose through the ranks becoming a General by the age of 24. Bonaparte was a brilliant strategian, and many of his battleplans are still studied in military colleges to this day. He led several successful campaigns in Italy and Egypt before becoming the Supreme Consul of the French Republic in a Coup d’etat in 1799.
As leader Napoleon began a series of expansionism. His campaigns were almost uniformly successful, and eventually, the French empire would cover practically all of continental Europe. Many supported initially Napoleon in the hopes he would bring an end to the oppressive dynastic monarchies of Europe and bring a Republic form of government. Among his early admirers was Beethoven who wrote his third symphony (The Eroica) after him. But Beethoven and many others were disheartened in 1804 when he created the French Empire and crowned himself Emperor. In his new role, Napoleon saw himself as a new Ceasar and held a lavish court in the palace of Tuileries.
It is from this period that is showcased in “Napoleon: Power and Splendor” at the Nelson Art Gallery and contains articles from Napoleon and his retinue during their time in power.
Solid Gold and Silver table service from the Royal dining room. A long way from his humble beginnings as a lower-middle-class child from a village in Corsica.
The Emperor’s formal waistcoat. Seeing himself as a new Ceasar no expense was spared to convey the message of regal splendor.
Not only did the palace contain the Emperor and his family, but had apartments for many of his officers and staff. A whole ruling class ascended with Napoleon and the exhibit includes portraits and personal items of the many retinues who attended at Tuileries Palace.
Napoleons throne room included lavish tapestries and items from the empire which included much of Europe as well as parts of Africa and the Americas as well.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler share some similarities. Both were not natural born natives of the country they would rise to power in, both were known for their brilliant military skills (at least in the beginning) and both made the same two blunders which would be their undoing. Both Hitler and Napoleon foolishly tried to invade Russia, and both failed to subdue Great Britain. Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo by a coalition of British and Prussian troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Lebrecht von Bucher in June of 1815 and was exiled to the remote island of St Helena midway between Africa and South America. Napoleon would live on the island for the rest of his life. He died of stomach cancer in May of 1821 at the age of 52.
The exhibit reminds me that despite the trappings of splendid gold and silver and regal tapestries, all empires end. Every Emperor and even want-to-be emperor is eventually laid low. Despite the monuments of vanity: palaces, statues, portraits or even border walls, time conquers even the most brilliant general or a ruthless monarch. And these items of vanity take an even more hollow tone.
“Napoleon: Power and Splendor” runs through March 10th at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. I highly recommend visiting. While there is an admission charge of 16.00$ you can get a senior discount of 2.00$ for those over 55. The rest of the museum is free (although a donation is always appreciated)