This year is the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s death. Considered a Great Man by his admirers and as tyrant by others, Napoleon Bonaparte is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in French History ! He was capable of the greatest genius just as he could commit the worst horrors in the name of the greatness of France! He was a shrewd strategist, a conqueror, a power hungry person, a despot, the man who re-established slavery in the french colonies, who condemned hundreds of thousands of soldiers to death in pursuit of a dream, but what a dream…
This year is an opportunity to reflect on his greatest victories, his biggest defeats, the cost in human lives of his mistakes. The monuments he built, his influence on French society and the opportunity to (re)discover the man behind the myth!
As a tour guide, I often talk about him with my visitors during my Paris city tours, my guided tour of the Louvre, at the Palace of Versailles or even in London. I have noticed that many of visitors have forgotten the history behind the streetnamess, bridges and metro stops in both Paris and London. This is the perfect occasion to correct this situation!
The bicentenary of Napoleon’s death is the perfect occasion to talk about Napoleon’s greatest achievements such as the creation of the Civil Code with the help of Regis de Cambacéres.The Civil Code, promulgated on 21 March 1804, is the foundation of French law and about half of its 2,281 original articles remain in force today! We also owe him the creation of the Banque de France, the Légion d’Honneur (the equivalent of the Victoria cross) and quite a few beautiful monuments in Paris such as the Arc de Triomphe, the column on Vendôme Square(the Square where the Ritz hotel is) and quite a few other monuments.
40 victory and 3 astounding defeats!
Napoléon on the battlefield at Eylau
By Antoine-Jean Gros, 1808
This year I will also talk about Napoleon’s seven greatest victories: Pyramids, Austerlitz, Iena, Eylau, Friedland, Wagram and Moskova. Now, you might wondered what the others were called! Well, His other 33 victories are all engraved on the Arc de Triomphe and three of them gave their names to major Parisian avenues.
Napoleon also used Art as a propaganda. By ordering monumental paintings from great painters of the period such as Gros, Gérard and David to whom we owe the extraordinary painting of Napoleon at the Col du Grand St Bernard and the monumental painting of the Coronation of Napoleon. These 12 paintings allowed the construction of the myth of Napoleon and then fed his legend!
These paintings are exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris , if you are interested in seeing them, and the idea of learning more about art as a propaganda tool do not hesitate to book one of our TOUR of the Louvre! The others are at Kunstgeschishte museum in Vienna.
The battle of Trafalgar
By Joseph Mallord William Turner,1822
Catastrophe for France, a resounding victory for the English, Trafalgar’s vision differs according to the camp that speaks of it. If you grew up in France or if you were rocked by French culture, like me you studied Napoleon in history and you may have had the chance to climb the top of the triumphal arch and admire all of Paris! You will no doubt have noticed that it is rarer to speak of his defeats in France, apart from the disastrous campaign of Russia, which cost in a few weeks, the lives of 200,000 men or 28% of the men who constituted the great army!
I’d like to tell you the story of his 3 biggest defeats this year: the Battle of Trafalgar, the great victory of Admiral Horatio Nelson that marks the end of Napoleon’s ambition to conquer Britain, the Battle of Leipzig and of course the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, after which Napoleon had no choice but to abdicate on 22 June 1815.
I would also like to tell you about Napoleon “dark” side, which us french NEVER speak about such as the plundering of artworks which “found their way” into the Louvre because or, thanks to the great armydepending on your point of view, such as The wedding at Cana, Veronese’s masterpiece, which was stolen from the Italians during Napoleon campaigns to Italy which remains a subject of discord between France and Italy ever since the day when the painting was hung at the Louvre…
The restoration of slavery in the islands where it had been abolished with catastrophic consequences on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who led to revolts, to the independence of Saint- Domingue and the creation of Haiti, the first black republic in history…
Napoléon had an absolutely horrendous horrid bad temper (He could go into such rage that he sometimes slashed his armchair with a knife! We will talk about the relations he had with women, we will talk about the rape he committed which is to this day, still refered to as “such a great passion he could not restrain himself”…We will also talk about his 2 marriages to Josephine de Beauharnais and later to Marie Louise of Austria ( and his numerous misstresses).
Napoléon had an unforgiving side and treated very poorly those who had the displeasure of offending him. The most famous exemple is probably Toussaint Louverture, hero of the Haitian independence, whom he let rot and die at the fort de Joux in a cold cell… while proclaiming to anyone who would listen how attached he was to the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights…
If the topic interests you, come back to this website every few weeks! This year my fellow tour guides and myself are going to make videos about Napoleon and we are going to write several articles on Napoleon to try depecting his actions in the most objective way possible so we can draw a portrait of the man behind the myth.
You might tell me, Pascaline, we all know Napoleon, yes, I know you do, but…How often do we talk about “The Good, the bad and the ugly” when we speak of him?!
Now tell me, what is your opinion of Napoleon? write it down in the comments below !