Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Hero or despot, President Macron thinks it’s something worth marking, and will be laying a wreath and making speeches.
The famed Corsican is one of the most divisive figures in French history; his huge contribution to the creation of the modern state set against his imperialism and war-mongering. His stance on slavery, which he re-established in 1802, has also proved a thorny issue for the authorities with the emergence of a new generation of vocal anti-racism campaigners in France.
It is a difficult decision as Napoleon means so much to the French state as it is now, that some nod to his achievements seems, perhaps inevitable. Over the years many generations have sought ways to commerorate and celebrate the man and of course he indulged in such activities himself during his lifetime with various monuments and art works to his own perceived greatness.
It puts me in mind of the rare Italian carved bust I found which depicts Napoleon as King of Italy and was created around the time he became monarch in 1805. Unlike the French busts of the period, which show his head adorned with laurel leaves echoing the ancient classical world, he is depicted here wearing the historic crown of Lombardy.
Pictured above it is finely executed in alabaster, a stone recognised by early sculptors as a softer, semi-translucent alternative to marble, it is in a remarkably good state of preservation and available for purchase.
In 1805, Napoleon was in the unusual position of being both an Emperor and a president – in late 1804, he had crowned himself Emperor of France, but he was also president of the Italian Republic which comprised the regions of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna in the north of modern day Italy. Consolidating his military power, on 17th March 1805, he created the Kingdom of Italy to replace the existing Republic. Two months later on 26th May at Milan Cathedral, he crowned himself King of Italy with suitable splendour and magnificence. Seated upon a superb throne, he was invested with the usual insignia of royalty by the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, and ascending the altar, he took the iron crown, and placing it on his head, exclaimed, being part of the ceremony used at the enthronement of the Lombard kings, Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche – “God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it”.
The military and political significance of this action was to have far reaching effects. A fortnight after placing on his head the crown once worn by Charlemagane he delegated the government of Italy to his 23-year-old stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, as Viceroy. Further, on the 4th June he annexed the republic of Genoa, incorporating it in his Kingdom of Italy. This continuous expansion of the French empire in Europe thoroughly alarmed the Austrians, who began to prepare for war of revenge – having lost massive territory in Italy – and entered into secret negotiations with Russia. This fear of a united attack by a coalition of forces ultimately contributed to Napoleon deciding to hold off from the long planned invasion of Britain.