The treasures of Napoleon

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“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.

 

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Napoleon’s Bicorn (two-cornered hat) was a prominent form of headgear for military leaders in the late 18th and early 19th century. The helmet today is mostly remembered as something Bonaparte wore. The hat fell out of favor after Waterloo. 

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.

 

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Napoleon served as the supreme head of the military before assuming the role of Emperor of the first French Empire. The Empire lasted for about ten years ( May 1804-April 1814)

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.

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Napoleon in his regal Emperor robes.

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.

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Napoleon’s palace throne
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While Josephine was more well known for being  Napoleon’s wife, Bonaparte was actually married twice. He divorced Josephine in 1810 after they were unable to conceive children. The same year he married Austrian Mary Louise who bore him a son, Napoleon II. This is a portrait from the exhibit featuring Mary Louise and her child. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile. Marie Louise returned to Austria with her son. Napoleon II died of pneumonia at the age of 21 and never took power.
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The Empress Mary Louise’s throne

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.

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Solid Gold Crucifix and candlesticks from the family’s private chapel. If you look at the person standing on the far left of this picture, you can get an idea just how massive these items are. 
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Very nice craftsmanship on the crucifix.
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A bust of Emperor from the collection

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.

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While France’s holdings in Africa were limited during Napoleon’s reign,  during the late 19th to the mid 20th century France would hold sway on a vast part of the continent
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France once held a large part of North America, but Napoleon sold his Louisana territory to the United States to help fund his ongoing campaigns in Europe. 
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Napoleon was called “The Eagle” for his keen tactical skills. This finely carved wooden eagle was made in honor of him. Incidentally, his son Napoleon II was called “the little eagle’ 
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Instead of a formal crown, Napoleon wore gold laurel leaves to signify his presumed role as the new Ceasar. 
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Napoleon meeting military officers and representatives from the many outposts of his Empire.

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.

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Painting of Napoleon on his deathbed.

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) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Replies to “The treasures of Napoleon”

  1. Nice job Grandpa, have you been to Waterloo in Belgium? It is a cool place, though eerie. We saw it on a foggy & misty day which just added to the atmosphere.
    And of course, his tomb in Paris.

    Liked by 1 person

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