10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts
Further to “10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte,” here are 10 more fun Napoleon facts you may not have come across.
1. Napoleon was a bad dancer.
Though Napoleon took dancing lessons in his youth, he did not shine as a dancer. When he danced at the balls his wife Josephine gave at her country home of Malmaison, “he confused the figures, and always called for La Monaco, as the easiest and the air to which he danced least badly.” (1)
2. Napoleon didn’t like women to wear black.
According to Pons de l’Hérault, who managed the iron mines on Elba, where Napoleon spent his first exile, Napoleon had a “profound antipathy” to black garments. When Pons’s wife presented herself in mourning clothes at dinner, Napoleon “became sombre and did not cheer up for a moment while he remained at the table. … General Drouot assured me that the Emperor had to make a great effort to remain for one hour beside a woman in black.” (2)
Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne also observed that Napoleon “detested coloured dresses, and especially dark ones.” (3)
3. Napoleon was hard to shave.
Napoleon’s valet Constant tells us that while Napoleon was being shaved,
he frequently talked, read the papers, moved round on his chair, turned suddenly, and I was obliged to use the greatest precaution to avoid wounding him. … When by chance he did not talk, he remained immovable and stiff as a statue, and one could not make him lower, raise, or bend his head, as would have been necessary in order to accomplish the task more easily. He had also one singular mania, which was to have only one side of his face lathered and shaved at a time. He would never let me pass to the other side until the first was finished. (4)
Bourrienne, who read newspaper articles to Napoleon during this ritual, notes:
I was often surprised that his valet did not cut him while I was reading; for whenever he heard anything interesting, he turned quickly round towards me. (5)
4. Napoleon liked to eat with his fingers.
It’s no exaggeration when Napoleon dips his fingers into the sugar bowl in Napoleon in America. According to Constant:
The Emperor by no means ate in a cleanly manner. He preferred to use his fingers instead of a fork, or even a spoon; we were careful to put the dish he liked best within his reach. He drew it to him…dipping his bread in the sauce and the gravy, which did not prevent the dish from circulating…. (6)
For more about Napoleon’s dining habits, see “What did Napoleon like to eat and drink?”
5. Napoleon spoke French with a Corsican accent.
Napoleon was born in Corsica, where people spoke an Italian dialect closely related to Tuscan. He was teased about his accent when he was at military school in France. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who served as interior minister under Napoleon, writes:
His native language was Corsican, which is an Italian dialect, and when he spoke French, one could easily see he was a foreigner. (7)
Though the accent stayed with him all his life, Napoleon regarded French as his first language. When he was in exile on St. Helena, he told Irish surgeon Barry O’Meara:
It has been said…that I understand Italian better than French, which is not true. Though I speak the Italian very fluently, it is not pure. Non parlo Toscana [I do not speak Tuscan], nor am I capable of writing a book in Italian, nor do I ever speak it in preference to the French. (8)
6. Napoleon had terrible handwriting.
Count de Las Cases, one of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, reports:
The Emperor left a great deal for the copyists to do; he was their torment: his handwriting actually formed hieroglyphics; he often could not decipher it himself. My son was one day reading to him a chapter of the Campaign of Italy: on a sudden he stopped short, unable to make out the writing. … The Emperor took the manuscript, tried a long while to read it, and at last threw it down, saying, ‘He is right: I cannot tell myself what is written.’ (9)
Napoleon told Dr. O’Meara that his handwriting actually improved on St. Helena.
He observed that formerly he was frequently in the habit of writing only half or three quarters of each word, and running them into each other, which was not attended with much inconvenience, as the secretaries had become so well accustomed to it that they could read it with nearly as much facility as if it were written plainly; that, however, no person, except one accustomed to his manner of writing, could read it. Latterly, he said, he had begun to write a little more legibly, in consequence of not being so much hurried as on former occasions. (10)
7. Napoleon liked to give people nicknames.
Las Cases also observes:
In his common intercourse of life, and his familiar conversation, the Emperor mutilated the names most familiar to him, even ours; yet I do not think that this would have happened to him on a public occasion. … He would frequently create names of persons according to his fancy; and, when he had once adopted them, they remained fixed in his mind, although we pronounced them as they should be, a hundred times in the day, within his hearing; but he would have been struck if we had used them as he had altered them. (11)
8. Napoleon arranged his head like a tidy closet.
Here’s another gem from Las Cases:
The Emperor accounted for the clearness of his ideas, and the faculty of extremely protracted application which he possessed, by saying that the different affairs were arranged in his head as in a closet. ‘When I wish to turn from any business,’ said he, ‘I close the drawer which contains it, and I open that which contains another. They do not mix together, and do not fatigue me or inconvenience me.’ He had never been kept awake, he said, by an involuntary pre-occupation of mind. ‘If I wish to sleep, I shut up all the drawers, and I am soon asleep.’ (12)
9. Napoleon didn’t sleep much.
Louis-Joseph Marchand, Napoleon’s valet after Constant, tells us:
The Emperor slept little…. He rose several times during the night. He was so well organized he could sleep when he wanted. Six hours’ sleep was enough, taken all together or in several naps. (13)
Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, notes that on St. Helena:
When the Emperor went to bed late the valet on duty was almost sure to pass a good night, but if he went to bed early one might expect him to ring toward one or two o’clock, ask for a light, and begin to work. Sometimes at that hour he would order a bath, which he would take or not, or might not take till daybreak. When he wanted to go to bed again after working he was often obliging enough to put out the light himself in order not to disturb the valet de chambre. (14)
10. Napoleon liked his rooms hot.
It was necessary to have fire in all his apartments nearly all the year; he was habitually very sensitive to cold. (15)
On St. Helena, Napoleon complained that the British didn’t allow him enough fuel. Governor Hudson Lowe reported:
The number of fires at Plantation House [the governor’s residence] daily in winter are from nine to eleven; at Longwood [Napoleon’s residence], when the calculation was made, in May, fourteen. They must burn a fire in every room to make up the rest, whilst the English, living in the same house, and the offices with their families at the camp, use no fires at all. (16)
For more Napoleon facts, see 10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte.
You might also enjoy:
- Antoine Claire Thibaudeau, Mémoires sur le Consulat, 1799 à 1804 (Paris, 1827), p. 18.
- André Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe (Paris, 1897), pp. 260-261.
- Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I (London, 1836), p. 284.
- Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin (New York, 1907), Vol. I, p. 153.
- Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I, p. 279.
- Constant, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, pp. 320-321.
- Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Mes souvenirs sur Napoléon (Paris, 1893), pp. 351-352.
- Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 10-11.
- Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III (New York, 1855), pp. 343-344.
- O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. II, pp. 15-16.
- Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, p. 345.
- Ibid., p. 346.
- Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 88.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 181.
- Constant, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, p. 333.
- William Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena from the Letters and Journals of the Late Lieut-Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe, Vol. II (London, 1853), p. 207.
Assassination Attempts Against Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte feared assassination and reportedly took precautions against it. His friend Betsy Balcombe asked him about this when he was in exile on St. Helena.
I told him I had heard that he wore armour under his dress, to render him invulnerable, as he was continually in dread of assassination, and that he never slept two nights together in the same bedroom. He told us all these things were fabrications; but he adopted one rule – never to make public his intention whither he meant to go, five minutes before he actually took his departure, and he doubted not many conspirators were thus foiled, as they were ignorant where he was at any time to be found. (1)
According to historian Philip Dwyer, Napoleon faced between 20 and 30 assassination plots during his reign over France. (2) Here’s a look at some of them. But first, an assassination attempt that wasn’t.
Coup of 18th-19th Brumaire, 1799
Napoleon began his rule over France by complaining of an assassination attempt that probably didn’t happen. On November 10, 1799, during the coup d’état that brought him to power, Napoleon illegally barged into the Council of Five Hundred (the lower house of the French legislature), interrupting the debate. The legislators yelled at and man-handled the intruder until he was rescued by his soldiers. Napoleon claimed that his life had been at stake.
I offered myself to the Chamber of Five Hundred, alone, unarmed, my head uncovered…. Instantly the daggers which menaced the deputies were raised against their defender. Twenty assassins rushed upon me, aiming at my breast. The grenadiers of the Legislative Body, whom I had left at the door of the chamber, hastily interposed between the assassins and myself. One of these brave grenadiers…received a thrust from a dagger, which pierced his clothes. They carried me off. (3)
Though it is highly unlikely a dagger was raised against Napoleon or anyone else, the supposed assassination attempt became a justification for the coup. (4)
Poisoning & other plots at Malmaison, 1800
After Napoleon became First Consul, Malmaison – an estate west of Paris, owned by Napoleon’s wife Josephine – became the site of several alleged assassination plots. According to Napoleon’s valet Constant, this included a poisoning attempt.
Sundry alterations and repairs had to be made in the chimney-piece of the First Consul’s apartments at La Malmaison. The person superintending this work sent certain stone-cutters, some of whom were in league with the conspirators. … [J]ust as the First Consul was about to take up his residence in the newly-prepared apartments, upon a desk at which he sat a snuff-box was found, precisely similar to one which he was in the habit of using. At first they supposed that it actually belonged to him, and that it had been left there by his valet-de-chambre. But the suspicions aroused by the strange appearance of some of the workmen took deeper root. The snuff was taken out and analysed. It was poisoned.
Constant – not the most reliable memoirist – goes on to claim:
The perpetrators of this dastardly outrage were at that time in league…with other conspirators, who intended to resort to other means in order to get rid of the First Consul. They thought of attacking the Malmaison guards, and of forcibly abducting the head of the Government. For this purpose they had uniforms made exactly like those of the Guides Consulaires, who, night and day, were in attendance on the First Consul. In this disguise, and with the help of their confederates, the sham stone-cutters, they might easily have mixed with the guards who were lodged and boarded at the castle. They could even have got at the First Consul and carried him off. This first scheme, however, was abandoned as too risky, and the conspirators flattered themselves that they would gain their ends in a surer, less perilous way, viz., by taking advantage of the General’s frequent journeys to Paris. In such disguise they could join the escort, unnoticed, and murder him on the highway. Their meeting-place was to be the Nanterre quarries. But their plot was again discovered, and, as in the Malmaison park there was a rather deep quarry, it was feared that they might hide here and do the General some injury when he walked out by himself. So the entrance to this place was closed with an iron gate. (5)
Constant may have been referring to an alleged plot by a man named Juvenot, a former aide-de-camp to the executed Jacobin leader François Hanriot. According to Napoleon’s Minister of Police Joseph Fouché, Juvenot was conspiring in mid-1800 with “some twenty zealots” to attack and murder Napoleon near Malmaison. (6) The plan was to block the road to Malmaison with carts and bundles of firewood; when Napoleon’s carriage was forced to stop, the conspirators would shoot him. They also thought of setting fire to cottages near Malmaison, expecting that Napoleon’s staff would run to put out the flames, leaving the First Consul unguarded. Fouché had Juvenot and his accomplices arrested, but was unable to extract a confession. (7)
Daggers conspiracy (Conspiration des poignards), 1800
In September 1800, Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne was contacted by an out-of-work soldier named Harrel, who said he had been approached to take part in a plot against Napoleon’s life. Bourrienne took the matter to Napoleon, who directed the police to supply Harrel with money so the guilty parties could carry on and be caught in the act. The conspirators planned to approach Napoleon at the opera in Paris and stab him to death. The date fixed for the assassination was October 10, 1800, at the premiere of Les Horaces (music by Bernardo Porta, text by Nicolas-François Guillard). According to Bourrienne:
On the evening of the 10th of October, the consuls…assembled in the cabinet of their colleague. Bonaparte asked them, in my presence, whether they thought he ought to go to the opera? They observed that as every precaution was taken, no danger could be apprehended; and that it was desirable to show the futility of attempts against the First Consul’s life. After dinner Bonaparte put on a great coat over his green uniform, and got into his carriage, accompanied by me and Duroc. He seated himself in front of his box, which at that time was on the left of the theatre, between the two columns which separated the front and side boxes. When we had been in the theatre about half an hour, the First Consul directed me to go and see what was doing in the lobby. Scarcely had I left the box than I heard a great uproar, and soon discovered that a number of persons, whose names I could not learn, had been arrested. I informed the First Consul of what I had heard, and we immediately returned to the Tuileries. (8)
According to Fouché, the would-be assassins were Jacobin extremists. The accused, however, blamed Harrel and other agents provocateurs.
The conspirators wished, without the least doubt, the death of the First Consul, but they were incapable of striking him with their own hands…. None of them had had the courage, nor perhaps even any decided intention, to assist in the execution of the plot. The police agents, sent in as spies amongst them, and to whom they gave daggers, urged them on to a degree of guilt, which before, perhaps, they had not contemplated…. [T]hey did not make their appearance at the place fixed for the execution of the plot; and Ceracchi, the only one apprehended in the Opera-house, was not even armed with one of the daggers which had been distributed among them. (9)
Four of the men arrested –painter François Topio-Lebrun, sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi, adjutant Joseph Antoine Aréna and Dominique Demerville, a former clerk to the committee of public safety – were executed on January 30, 1801.
Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise (Infernal machine), 1800
The best-known assassination attempt against Napoleon occurred in Paris on the evening of December 24, 1800. Napoleon was heading to the opera to see Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation when a cart exploded in the street shortly after his carriage had passed.
The attack was carried out by royalists linked to the Chouan leader Georges Cadoudal, who was in the pay of the British government. The conspirators bought a horse and cart from a Parisian grain dealer, attached a large wine cask to the cart, and loaded the cask with shrapnel and gunpowder. They drove this “infernal machine” to Rue Saint-Nicaise (which no longer exists), near the intersection with Rue Saint-Honoré, on Napoleon’s route to the opera. One of the plotters paid 14-year-old Marianne Peusol, whose mother sold buns nearby, twelve sous to hold the horse and guard the cart while the would-be assassin stood at some distance with the fuse.
The conspirators expected Napoleon’s carriage to be preceded by a cavalry escort. The escort’s appearance would be the signal to light the powder. However, Napoleon’s coachman was driving very fast (some accounts say he was drunk), and the carriage appeared without warning. As noted in evidence at the subsequent trial:
The person who was to have executed the plan, not being properly instructed, was not aware of the arrival of the carriage of the First Consul until he saw it. It was not, as he had been told, preceded by an advanced guard; however he prepared to execute his plan. At that moment the horse of a grenadier drove him against the wall and deranged him. He returned, and set fire to the machine; but the powder not being good, its effect was two or three seconds too late, otherwise the First Consult must inevitably have perished. (10)
The explosion killed the horse, young Marianne, and as many as a dozen bystanders. Some 40 others were wounded, and several buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Napoleon’s wife Josephine, her daughter Hortense de Beauharnais, and Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat (pregnant with Achille) were travelling in a carriage behind Napoleon’s. They might have been killed had they not been delayed by fiddling with Josephine’s shawl, as described by General Jean Rapp, who accompanied the ladies.
The police had intimated to Napoleon that an attempt would be made against his life, and cautioned him not to go out. Madame Bonaparte, Mademoiselle Beauharnais, Madame Murat, Lannes, Bessières, the aide-de-camp on duty, and lieutenant Lebrun, now duke of Placenza, were all assembled in the saloon, while the First consul was writing in his closet. Haydn’s Oratorio was to be performed that evening: the ladies were anxious to hear the music, and we also expressed a wish to that effect. The Escort piquet was ordered out; and Lannes requested that Napoleon would join the party. He consented; his carriage was ready, and he took along with him Bessières and the aide-de-camp on duty. I was directed to attend the ladies.
Josephine had received a magnificent shawl from Constantinople, and she that evening wore it for the first time. ‘Allow me to observe, Madame,’ said I, ‘that your shawl is not thrown on with your usual elegance.’ She good humouredly begged that I would fold it after the fashion of the Egyptian ladies. While I was engaged in this operation, we heard Napoleon depart. ‘Come, sister,’ said Madame Murat, who was impatient to get to the theatre; ‘Bonaparte is going.’
We stepped into the carriage: the First Consul’s equipage had already reached the middle of the Place Carrousel. We drove after it; but we had scarcely entered the Place when the machine exploded. Napoleon escaped by a singular chance. Saint-Regent [one of the conspirators], or his French servant, had stationed himself in the middle of the Rue Nicaise. A grenadier of the escort, supposing he was really what he appeared to be, a water-carrier, gave him a few blows with the flat of his sabre, and drove him off. The cart was turned round, and the machine exploded between the carriages of Napoleon and Josephine.
The ladies shrieked on hearing the report; the carriage windows were broken, and Mademoiselle Beauharnais received a slight hurt on her hand. I alighted and crossed the Rue Nicaise, which was strewed with the bodies of those who had been thrown down, and the fragments of the walls that had been shattered by the explosion. Neither the Consul nor any individual of his suite sustained any serious injury. When I entered the theatre Napoleon was seated in his box, calm and composed, and looking at the audience through his opera-glass. Fouché was beside him. ‘Josephine,’ said he, as soon as he observed me. She entered at that moment, and he did not finish his question. ‘The rascals,’ said he, very coolly, ‘wanted to blow me up. Bring me a book of the Oratorio.’ (11)
Though Police Minister Fouché believed that royalists were behind the attack, Napoleon was initially convinced that his Jacobin enemies were responsible. He used the explosion as an excuse to exile 130 Jacobins from France. Meanwhile, police assembled the remains of the cart and horse and tried to find the owner. This led them to François Carbon, the man who made the bomb. Carbon confessed the names of fellow conspirators Pierre Robinault de Saint-Régent and Joseph de Limoëlan, as well as others. Carbon and Saint-Régent were executed on April 20, 1801. Limoëlan fled to the United States where he became a priest and died in Charleston in 1826.
Cadoudal affair (Pichegru conspiracy), 1804
Georges Cadoudal, the Breton Chouan leader who was financed by the British government, wanted to overthrow Napoleon and put the Bourbon heir Louis XVIII on the French throne. He was supported by Jean Pichegru, a general of the Revolutionary Wars who had been exiled from France. The Count of Artois (Louis XVIII’s brother and the future Charles X of France) also gave his blessing to the plan. In August of 1803, Cadoudal and other conspirators left London, landed near Dieppe and travelled to Paris. Their aim was to assassinate Napoleon and pave the way for a Bourbon restoration. Though Pichegru claimed he had the full support of General Jean Moreau (a military rival of Napoleon), when the two met secretly in January of 1804, it became clear that Moreau, a republican, would not support the Bourbons on the throne.
Around the same time that this was putting a dent in Cadoudal’s plan, the French arrested a British secret agent who had participated in Cadoudal’s landing. He revealed some details of the plot, including the involvement of Cadoudal and the two generals. Napoleon ordered their arrest. Moreau was picked up on February 15, Pichegru on February 26, and Cadoudal on March 9. Napoleon thought a minor Bourbon prince, the Duke of Enghien was in league with the conspirators. He had him arrested on March 20 and executed early the next morning. On April 5, Pichegru was found strangled by his own tie in his prison cell. According to the police, it was a case of suicide.
Cadoudal, Moreau and the other conspirators were brought to trial at the end of May. Cadoudal and 11 accomplices were executed on June 25, 1804. Moreau – for whom there was great popular sympathy – was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Napoleon changed the sentence to exile in the United States. Moreau later returned to Europe to join the forces allied against Napoleon. He was fatally wounded in the Battle of Dresden in 1813.
“Madman” Staps, 1809
In 1809, Napoleon and his troops occupied Vienna. On October 12 of that year, a German university student named Friedrich Staps attempted to assassinate Napoleon during a military parade at Schönbrunn Palace. Staps approached Napoleon on the pretense of presenting him with a petition. General Rapp became suspicious of the young man, whose right hand was thrust into a pocket under his coat. Staps was arrested and found to be carrying a large carving knife. When Rapp asked whether he had planned to assassinate Napoleon, Staps answered in the affirmative.
Napoleon wanted to speak to Staps directly, so the prisoner was brought to the Emperor’s office with his hands tied behind his back. Using Rapp as an interpreter, Napoleon asked Staps a series of questions.
‘Where were you born?’ – ‘In Naumburgh.’
‘What is your father?’ – ‘A Protestant minister.’
‘How old are you?’ – ‘I am eighteen years of age.’
‘What did you intend to do with the knife?’ – ‘To kill you.’
‘You are mad, young man; you are an illuminato.’ – ‘I am not mad; and I know not what is meant by an illuminato.’
‘You are sick, then.’ – ‘I am not sick; on the contrary, I am in good health.’
‘Why did you wish to assassinate me?’ – ‘Because you have caused the misfortunes of my country.’
‘Have I done you any harm?’ – ‘You have done harm to me as well as to all Germans.’
‘By whom were you sent? Who instigated you to this crime?’ – ‘Nobody. I determined to take your life from the conviction that I should thereby render the highest service to my country and to Europe.’ …
‘I tell you, you are either mad or sick.’ – ‘Neither the one nor the other.’ (12)
After a doctor examined Staps and pronounced him in good health, Napoleon offered the young man a chance for clemency.
‘You are a wild enthusiast,’ said he; ‘you will ruin your family. I am willing to grant your life, if you ask pardon for the crime which you intended to commit, and for which you ought to be sorry.’ – ‘I want no pardon,’ replied Staps, ‘I feel the deepest regret for not having executed my design.’ ‘You seem to think very lightly of the commission of a crime!’ – ‘To kill you would not have been a crime but a duty.’ … ‘Would you not be grateful were I to pardon you?’ – ‘I would notwithstanding seize the first opportunity of taking your life.’ (13)
Staps was executed by a firing squad on October 17, 1809. His last words were: “Liberty forever! Germany forever! Death to the tyrant!” (14) Napoleon refers to this assassination attempt when he visits his former police chief Pierre-François Réal in Napoleon in America.
Thanks to Randy Ford for suggesting this topic.
You might also enjoy:
- Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 224-225.
- Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power (New Haven & London, 2013), p. 54. In comparison, Dwyer notes that about 50 assassination plots were uncovered against French kings between 1680 and 1750 (p. 56).
- Gaspard Gourgaud, Memoirs of the History of France During the Reign of Napoleon, Dictated by the Emperor at St. Helena, Vol. I (London, 1823), pp. 103-104.
- “Was a dagger ever actually pulled on Napoleon in the Orangery, as the supporters of the coup alleged? In the large number of conflicting and highly politically motivated accounts of what happened, it is impossible to say for certain, but it is extremely unlikely, partly because no blood – Napoleon’s or anyone else’s – was shed that day.” Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York, 2014), p. 225.
- Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of the Private Life of Napoleon, His Family and His Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. I (London, 1896) pp. 36-38.
- Joseph Fouché, Memoirs of Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto, Vol. I (London, 1825), p. 168.
- Gaffarel, “L’opposition républicaine sous le Consulat,” La Révolution française revue historique, Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 14, 1887), p. 549.
- Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, edited by R.W. Phipps, Vol. II, (New York, 1890), p. 42.
- Adolphe Thiers, History of the Consulate and the Empire of France Under Napoleon, translated by D. Forbes Campbell, Vol. I (London, 1845), pp. 113, 184-185.
- “Criminal Tribunal, Paris,” The Morning Post and Gazetteer (London, UK), April 13, 1801.
- Jean Rapp, Memoirs of General Count Rapp (London, 1823), pp. 19-21.
- Ibid., pp. 143-144.
- Ibid., p. 145.
- Ibid., p. 147.
Alternate History by Napoleon
In view of all the alternate history about Napoleon, of which Napoleon in America is an example, it is worth noting that a prolific speculator about Napoleonic “what-ifs” was Bonaparte himself. Napoleon often posited counterfactuals, particularly when he was in exile on St. Helena. Here are some of Napoleon’s alternate history scenarios.
If his father had not died young
Napoleon’s father, Carlo Maria Buonaparte (Charles Bonaparte), died of stomach cancer in February 1785, when Napoleon was 15 years old.
If my father, who died before he attained the age of forty, had survived some time longer, he would have been appointed deputy from the Corsican nobility to the Constituent Assembly. He was much attached to the nobility and the aristocracy; on the other hand, he was a warm partisan of generous and liberal ideas. He would, therefore, have been entirely on the right side, or at least in the minority of the nobility. At any rate, whatever might have been my own personal opinions, I should have followed my father’s footsteps, and thus my career would have been entirely deranged and lost. (1)
If his invasion force had reached England
Between 1803 and 1805 Napoleon gathered an army of 200,000 men on the north coast of France and built a flotilla of barges with the intention of invading England. He called the invasion off when his plan to gain temporary control of the English Channel failed.
Had I succeeded in effecting a landing, I have very little doubt that I should have accomplished my views. Three thousand boats, each to carry twenty men and one horse, with a proportion of artillery were ready. Your [the British] fleet having been decoyed away…would have left me master of the Channel…. Four days would have brought me to London. In a country like England, abounding in plains, defence is very difficult. I have no doubt that your troops would have done their duty, but one battle lost, the capital would have been in my power. You could not have collected a force sufficiently strong to beat me in a pitched battle. Your ideas of burning and destroying the towns, and the capital itself, are very plausible in argument, but impracticable in their accomplishment. You would have fought a battle and lost it. …
I would have offered you a constitution of your own choice, and have said ‘Assemble in London deputies from the people to fix upon a constitution.’ I would have called upon Burdett and other popular leaders to organize one according to the wishes of the people. I would have declared the [king] fallen from the [throne], abolished the nobility, proclaimed liberty, freedom, and equality.
Think you, that in order to keep the house of [Hanover] on the [throne] your rich citizens, merchants, and others of London, would have consented to sacrifice their riches, their houses, their families, and all their dearest interests, especially when I had made them comprehend that I only came to [send the king] away, and to give them liberty? No, it is contrary to history and to human nature…. Your principal people have too much to lose by resistance, and your canaille too much to gain by a change. If…they supposed that I wanted to render England a province of France, then indeed l’esprit national would do wonders. But I would have formed a republic according to your own wishes, required a moderate contribution, barely sufficient to have paid the troops, and perhaps not even that. Your canaille would have been for me knowing…that I am the man of the people, that I spring from the populace myself, and that whenever a man had merit or talent, I elevated him without asking how many degrees of nobility he had; knowing, that by joining me, they would be relieved from the yoke of the aristocracy under which they labour. (2)
If he had known warships could transport a lot of water
Napoleon also contemplated invading India.
[Admiral Plampin] says that a seventy-four gun ship will take about eighty tons more water by means of the tanks. Had I known this in 1806 or 1808, I would have sent an army of thirty-thousand men to invade India. I had made several calculations about the possibility of sending so large a body of men to India, but always found that they would have been short of water for a month. …
In Brest, I had at one time as many as fifty-six sail of the line, and often forty-six. In forty of these line-of-battle ships, I intended to have dispersed thirty thousand soldiers, eight hundred in each, and only four hundred sailors. There were to have been a proportionate number of frigates and other smaller vessels. Ten of the line-of-battle ships would have been old and of little value. They were also to take on board six or eight hundred dismounted cavalry, and a portion of artillery, with everything necessary for an army to take the field, and be provisioned for four months. They were to make the best of their way to the Isle of France, where they would have watered and provisioned afresh, landed their sick, and taken on board some other troops to replace them, with three thousand blacks to form colonial regiments. From thence they were to have proceeded to India, and to have disembarked in the nearest possible place, so as to have allowed the Mahrattas, with whom I had an understanding to join them. They were to form the cavalry of the army. A few of the French were also to be mounted, and all the horses they could procure purchased. After landing, they were to have burnt the ten old ships, and divided their crews amongst the rest, who would have been thus full manned. They would then proceed in different directions, and do you all possible mischief in your settlements. …
All this plan, however, was frustrated by the calculations I had made, which showed me that the ships must fall short of water by a month. Had I known of those tanks, I certainly would have made the attempt. (3)
If Moscow had not been burnt
In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. He made it as far as Moscow, only to find that the Russians had evacuated the city. Fires set by Russian saboteurs then destroyed most of Moscow. Napoleon retreated without having attained a decisive victory. The failure of the Russian campaign is considered one of the reasons for Napoleon’s downfall.
[If Moscow had not been burnt] I should then have held up the singular spectacle of an army wintering in the midst of a hostile nation. … On the first appearance of fine weather, I should have marched against the enemy: I should have beaten them; I should have been master of their empire. [Russian Tsar] Alexander, be assured, would not have suffered me to proceed so far. He would have agreed to all the conditions which I might have dictated, and France would then have begun to enjoy all her advantages. And, truly, my success depended upon a mere trifle. For I had undertaken the expedition to fight against armed men, not against nature in the violence of her wrath….
Peace, concluded at Moscow, would have fulfilled and wound up my hostile expeditions. It would have been with respect to the grand cause, the term of casualties and the commencement of security. A new horizon, new undertakings, would have unfolded themselves, adapted, in every respect, to the well-being and prosperity of all. The foundation of the European system would have been laid, and my only remaining task would have been its organization.
Satisfied on these grand points, and everywhere at peace, I should have also had my Congress and my Holy Alliance. These are plans which were filched from me. In that assembly of all the sovereigns, we should have discussed our interest in a family way, and settled our accounts with the people, as a clerk does with his master. …
On my return to France…I would have proclaimed the immutability of boundaries; all future wars as purely defensive, all new aggrandizement as anti-national. I would have associated my son with me in the empire; my dictatorship would have terminated and his constitutional reign commenced.
Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of nations! … My leisure and my old age would have been devoted, in company with the Empress, and, during the royal apprenticeship of my son, to visiting slowly and with our own horses, like a plain country couple, every corner of the empire; to receiving complaints, redressing wrongs, founding monuments, and doing good everywhere and by every means! (4)
If things had gone differently at the Battle of Waterloo
On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by a coalition of British, German, Dutch-Belgian and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. I have already written about Napoleon’s general thoughts on the battle. Here are a few of his alternate history speculations.
If Marshal Blucher had not arrived at eight with his first and second corps, the [French] march on Brussels with two columns, during the battle of the 17th, would have been attended with several advantages. The left would have pressed upon and kept in check the Anglo-Dutch army; the right, under the command of Marshal Grouchy, would have pursued and restrained the operations of the Prusso-Saxon army; and in the evening the whole of the French army would have effected its junction on a line of less than five leagues from Mont Saint Jean to Wavres, with its advanced posts on the edge of the forest. …
The horse grenadiers and dragoons of the guard, under the command of General Guyot, engaged without orders. Thus at five in the afternoon, the army found itself without a reserve of cavalry. If, at half past eight, that reserve had existed, the storm which swept all before it on the field of battle would have been dispersed, the enemy’s charges of cavalry driven back, and the two armies would have slept on the field, notwithstanding the successive arrivals of General Bulow and Marshal Blucher: the advantage would also have been in favour of the French army, as Marshal Grouchy’s 34,000 men, with 108 pieces of cannon, were fresh troops and bivouacked on the field of battle. The enemy’s two armies would have placed themselves in the night under cover of the forest of Soignes. …
If Marshal Grouchy had encamped in front of Wavres in the night between the 17th and 18th, no detachment could have been sent by the Prussians to save the English army, which must have been completely beaten by the 69,000 French opposed to it. (5)
If he had made his brother governor of Corsica
When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, his brother Joseph advised him to appoint their younger brother Lucien as governor of Corsica, which is where Napoleon and his family came from. Lucien would thus have been in that position when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.
If Lucien had gone to Corsica, he would still have remained master of the Island, and what resources would it not have presented to our persecuted patriots? To how many unfortunate families would not Corsica have afforded an asylum? [Napoleon] repeated that he had perhaps committed a fault, at the time of his abdication, in not reserving to himself the sovereignty of Corsica, together with the possession of some millions of the civil list; and in not having conveyed all his valuables to Toulon, whence nothing could have impeded his passage. In Corsica, he would have found himself at home; the whole population would have been, as it were, his own family. He might have disposed of every arm and every heart. Thirty thousand or even 50,000 allied troops could not have subdued him. (6)
You might also enjoy:
- Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II (New York, 1855), p. 132.
- Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), pp. 378-380. O’Meara notes, “Napoleon frequently used the word canaille, not in a degrading sense, but as the people, distinct from the nobles.”
- Ibid., pp. 197-198.
- Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. III (New York, 1855), pp. 164-166.
- Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II, pp. 186, 187, 192.
- Ibid., p. 215.
Watching French Royals Eat: The Grand Couvert
The desire to peek into royal lives goes back a long way. In France, people could indulge their curiosity at the “grand couvert,” a ritual in which the king and queen ate their dinner in front of members of the public. The tradition is usually associated with Louis XIV, who dined au grand couvert at Versailles almost every evening, surrounded by his family and a crowd of courtiers. Louis XV disliked the ceremony, which was governed by elaborate rules of etiquette. He took more of his meals in private. By the end of their reign, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette dined au grand couvert only on Sundays.
Napoleon and the grand couvert
When Napoleon became Emperor of the French, he re-introduced the grand couvert.
When their majesties dined en grand couvert, their table was placed under a canopy on a platform elevated one step, and with two armchairs, one on the right for the emperor, the other on the left for Josephine, the former wearing a hat with plumes, and his consort a diadem. Their majesties were informed by the grand marshal when the preparations were completed, and entered the room in the following order: Pages, assistant master of the ceremonies, prefects of the palace, first prefect and a master of the ceremonies, the grand marshal and grand master of the ceremonies; the empress, attended by her first equerry and first chamberlain; the emperor, colonel-general of the guard, grand chamberlain, and grand equerry; the grand almoner, who blessed the meat, and retired, leaving their majesties to a solitary board, unless when guests of kingly rank were present, or humbler ones sat down there by invitation. (1)
Speaking when he was in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon expressed reservations about the ritual.
The Emperor had hesitated for some time, he said, about re-establishing the grand couvert of the kings of France, that is, the dining in public, every Sunday, of the whole Imperial family. He asked our opinion of it. We differed. Some approved of it, represented this family spectacle as beneficial to public morals, and fitted to produce the best effects on public spirit; besides, they said, it afforded means for every individual to see his Sovereign. Others opposed it, objecting that this ceremony involved something of divine right and feudality, of ignorance and servility, which had no place in our habits or the modern dignity of them. They might go to see the Sovereign at the church or the theatre: there they joined at least in the performance of his religious duties, or took part in his pleasures; but to go to see him eat was only to bring ridicule on both parties. The sovereignty having now become, as the Emperor had so well said, a magistracy, should only be seen in full activity; conferring favours, redressing injuries, transacting business, reviewing armies, and above all, divested of the infirmities and the wants of human nature, &c….
‘Well,’ said the Emperor, ‘it may be true that the circumstances of the time should have limited this ceremony to the Imperial heir, and only during his youth; for he was the child of the whole nation; he ought to become thenceforth the object of the sentiments and the sight of all.’ (2)
Louis XVIII and the grand couvert
Louis XVIII ate au grand couvert about every three weeks, a ceremony his court maintained even when he was in exile in England. Here is a description of “the first dinner in the Tuileries at which the public was admitted to admire royalty at table – a sight dear to the Parisians,” after Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814.
The table was arranged in the form of a horse-shoe; it was splendidly garnished with the king’s plate; and the celebrated nef was not forgotten. The nef is a piece of plate, of silver gilt, representing in shape the hull of a ship without masts and rigging.… In this vessel, beneath cushions wetted with perfumed water, are kept the napkins for the king’s use…. [T]he usher of the hall, having received orders from the grand-master of the household, went to the door of the hall of the gardes-du-corps, and struck it with a cane, saying at the same time: ‘Gentlemen, to lay the king’s table!’ A guard followed him; they went together to the buttery, where each officer of the place took a piece of plate, and headed by the nef, all proceeded towards the gallery of Diana, where the table was set out, the gardes-du-corps marching beside the nef, and the usher pompously carrying two table-cloths.
The bread, the wine, water, and toothpicks destined for the king’s use were tried: the napkin was laid half hanging down, upon it was placed the plate, and the salver, on which were bread, spoon, knife and fork. The same was done for every thing that the royal family was to use; and the usher, returning to the hall of the guards, again struck the door with his cane, saying: ‘Gentlemen, to the king’s dinner.’ Three guards and a brigadier with shouldered carbines, immediately repaired to the kitchen to escort the king’s dinner; it was brought with not less pomp….
[T]he dishes arrived and were tasted, and the first maître d’hôtel, and the wine-taster…preceded by the usher of the hall, went to apprize the king that dinner was on the table. His majesty, accompanied by his family, walked to the gallery of Diana, to the sound of music performed by the band of the chapel and of the opera….
I fell to studying the figure made by the duchesses who were present, seated on their blessed stools. The old and the new regime were there confronted and reciprocally examining one another…. I had then leisure to enjoy the magnificence of the sight, the splendour of the illumination, and the stupefied look of the good citizens of Paris, put in possession again, after the lapse of so many years, of the right of being present at the king’s dinner. (3)
Charles X and the grand couvert
Louis XVIII’s brother and successor, Charles X (the Count of Artois in Napoleon in America), also kept up the practice of the grand couvert. An American, Nathaniel Carter, witnessed the ceremony on January 1, 1827.
A report had gone forth that whosoever would put on small-clothes, with the usual accompaniments of a full dress, might be admitted into the presence of majesty, and attend the regal banquet. … [A]t 5 o’clock we set out for the Tuileries…. None but the carriages of the nobility were permitted to drive into the court, and the whole plebeian multitude of both sexes were compelled to dash through mud and water, in the same shoes which were destined to trample on royal carpets. On arriving at the door, we found the arcades thronged with ladies and gentlemen from all nations, and jabbering in all languages…. The gates on either side were closed, and there was neither ingress nor egress; otherwise a hasty retreat would have been effected.
In this condition the crowd remained for an hour or more, when the doors were thrown open, and the long processions marched up the grand stair-case, guarded by a line of soldiers, into the chambers of the Tuileries. At the portal, an officer sung out, ‘a bas chapeau!’ – off hats! The ladies were dismantled of their shawls, and directed to drop the arms of their companions, to walk single-file into the presence of his majesty….
The slowness of our march toward head-quarters afforded us a favourable opportunity for examining the king’s apartments at the Tuileries, which were brilliantly illuminated by a full blaze of chandeliers, exhibiting the lofty fresco ceilings, spacious saloons, Gobelin tapestry, Savonniere carpets, silken couches and other splendid furniture up to the throne itself, to the best possible advantage….
We at length reached the dining-room, which is spacious, but was filled to overflowing, even to the windows, with ladies and gentlemen who had been presented at court, and were therefore privileged to remain during the whole banquet – a prerogative which I felt little anxiety to enjoy. Temporary boxes had been erected round the hall, overlooking the table. These were filled with ladies in full dresses, who sat the whole evening, patiently watching all the important movements at the festive board….
The table was in a semi-circular form, on the outer side of which, near the centre, the King was seated, with the Duke d’Angoulême on his right, the Duchess d’Angoulême on his left, and the Duchess de Berry on the extreme right. They all sat at respectable distances, looking cold and unsocial enough, staring at the crowd, and the crowd staring at them. His majesty is a genteel man in his appearance with rather a thin face, and a gray head, with no marks of decrepitude, though now at the age of sixty-nine. There was nothing peculiar in his dress. He seemed less embarrassed by his awkward situation than the rest of the royal group, who sat like statues over their plates, while he handled his knife and fork with a good deal of ease and dexterity….
Our observations were limited in time to a few minutes, occupied in passing through the room, close by the table…. On the whole this was the greatest farce I ever attended. It is converting the palace into a menagerie, and the royal family into so many lions, for the amusement of the multitude. Intelligent Frenchmen consider the show, which recurs annually, in the same light I have done. It is a relic of royalty, at least two centuries behind the age, which the mere progress of reason has rendered ridiculous. (4)
You might also enjoy:
- John S. Memes, Memoirs of the Empress Josephine (New York, 1832), p. 316.
- Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. I (New York, 1855), pp. 385-386.
- Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, Private Memoirs of the Court of Louis XVIII, Volume I (London, 1830), pp. 363-368.
- Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter, Letters from Europe, Comprising the Journal of a Tour through Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Italy and Switzerland, in the Years 1825, ’26 and ’27, Vol. I (New York, 1827), pp. 458-461.
The Bumpy Coronation of Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of the French on December 2, 1804 at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. A victorious general who had become leader of France through a coup d’état, Napoleon wanted to establish the legitimacy of his regime. He also needed to show – in the wake of plots against his life – that even if he was killed, his dynasty would live on. Making his rule hereditary would reassure those who had acquired land and other benefits from the French Revolution that their gains were secure.
On May 18, 1804, Napoleon’s hand-picked Senate proclaimed him the hereditary “Emperor of the French.” A national plebiscite was held to confirm this change in status. The doctored results – announced on November 6 – showed 3.6 million people (99.93%) in favour and 2,569 against. Half of the potential voters abstained. By this time, preparations for a lavish coronation were well underway. Napoleon, however, ran into a few problems.
French monarchs claimed to rule by divine right. The most important part of the traditional French coronation ceremony was the consecration (sacre), or anointing of the king with holy oil, performed by the archbishop of Reims in his cathedral. Aware of the symbolic value of associating his rule with divine providence, Napoleon invited the Pope to officiate at his coronation. Pius VII was wary of Napoleon and reluctant to go to France in the absence of some concessions for the Catholic church, which had been decimated during the French Revolution. Napoleon begged, threatened and bargained, using his uncle Cardinal Joseph Fesch as an intermediary. The Pope finally agreed.
The Bonaparte family disliked Napoleon’s wife Josephine and objected to her being crowned Empress. No French queen had been honoured with such a ceremony for centuries. When Napoleon told his sisters Elisa, Pauline and Caroline that he expected them to carry Josephine’s massive velvet train in the coronation ceremony, they made a scene and refused. Napoleon’s brother Joseph sided with his sisters and protested to Napoleon on their behalf. Napoleon was furious and threatened them all with loss of titles and wealth. The sisters fell into line. But they sulked during the ceremony and at one point may have pulled back on the train, preventing Josephine from moving forward (see below).
Instead of remaining in Paris for the coronation, Napoleon’s mother Letizia headed off to Rome to be with Napoleon’s brother Lucien, whom Napoleon had exiled for marrying against his wishes. In addition to pointedly supporting Lucien in that dispute, Letizia was also showing her dislike for the imperial title Napoleon had bestowed upon her (Madame Mère). Napoleon instructed Jacques-Louis David to put Letizia in his painting of the coronation anyhow.
Sunday, December 2, 1804, was a cold and wintry day. It snowed through the night and continued to snow until 8 a.m. Workers were quickly found to shovel the snow and lay sand along the procession route. The sun reportedly came out from behind the clouds just as Napoleon’s coach arrived at Notre Dame, which the Emperor took as a good omen.
Sleeping Masters of Ceremonies
Though detachments of six battalions of Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Guard took up their positions at the cathedral at 5:00 a.m., no one showed up to organize the large crowd that had formed.
Around Notre Dame and inside the church the confusion was terrible…. At six o’clock [a.m.] the doors were opened, and a large number of those invited, whose impatient curiosity had led them thither before daybreak, had managed to push in through the doorways on handing their tickets to the ninety-two ticket-collectors, who were each paid nine francs. As soon as they entered they walked about all over the stands and hindered the workpeople who were still busy; and for more than an hour and a half the greatest disorder reigned in the church. It was with the greatest difficulty that [the architect] Fontaine managed to induce the military authorities to take the place of the lie-abed Masters of the Ceremonies and to establish order at the entrance. (1)
A long wait
Before daybreak on the 2nd of December, all Paris was alive and in motion; indeed hundreds of persons had remained up the whole of the night. Many ladies had the courage to get their hair dressed at two o’clock in the morning, and then sat quietly in their chairs until the time arrived for arranging the other parts of their toilette. We were all very much hurried, for it was necessary to be at our posts before the procession moved from the Tuileries, for which nine o’clock was the appointed hour. … (2)
At 7:00 the senators set out for Notre Dame. At 8:00, members of the Legislative Body, the State Council, the Tribunate and Court of Appeals headed for the church. At 9:00, it was the turn of the diplomatic corps, which included James Monroe, but no representatives from Great Britain, Russia or Austria. Also at 9:00, the Pope began his ride to the church, escorted by four squadrons of dragoons and followed by six carriages full of cardinals and assorted clergy. Then came the secular carriages, led by Marshal Joachim Murat, military governor of Paris and husband of Napoleon’s sister Caroline.
At 10:00 Napoleon and Josephine left the Tuileries Palace, accompanied by artillery salvos. Security was tight, with troops three rows deep on either side of the street, amounting to some 80,000 men. There were several delays along the route, as they had not counted on “the confusion that would be caused by the immense size of the processions, shut in between hedges of foot-soldiers, delayed by the eagerness of the populace, and checked by certain petty accidents.” (3) It wasn’t until 11:45 that Napoleon was ready to enter the church.
The ceremony proceeded according to the etiquette which had been adopted after long discussion. The onlookers were cold and hungry, although some tradesmen had slipped into the church with rolls and sausages. No one saw anything of the ceremony which went on in the choir except those in the choir-stands, on the grand level, or the first tier. Luckily there was the music, the Mass and the Te Deum on a twofold arrangement composed expressly by Paësiello…. 17,738 pages of music had been [hand] copied and brought out for the different parts of the orchestra. (4)
Pius VII began the mass. He anointed Napoleon’s head, arms and hands in accordance with the ancient tradition. Napoleon then took the crown and put it on his own head. This was not spontaneous gesture, or a snub of the Pope. It had been planned and discussed with the pontiff at great length. Napoleon also crowned Josephine, who began to cry. They then proceeded up some steps to the throne.
The Empress mounted the first five steps, and then the weight of her mantle, no longer upheld by the Princesses, who remained at the bottom of the steps, brought her up with a jerk, and almost made her fall backwards. She had to put forth all her strength to recover herself and continue the ascent. Had her train-bearers plotted this vengeance? It was believed so. But a proof of their innocence is the fact that the same thing happened to the Emperor. He staggered himself, was seen to make a slight movement backwards, recovered himself with an effort, and briskly mounted the steps. When, after the enthronement, the Pope kissed the Emperor on the cheek, and pronounced the Vivat Imperator in aeternum [May the Emperor live forever], few of the onlookers understood, and scarcely any one shouted. (5)
After the mass, the civilian authorities administered the imperial oath. Shortly before 3:00, the imperial party began the return to the Tuileries, arriving there after dark. Napoleon dined alone with Josephine.
He was delighted with his day, and complimented the ladies of the Court… He displayed no penetrating emotion, no awe at having evoked the mystery of kingship, no distrust with regard to the future, only a somewhat shallow satisfaction that the pomp should have been so magnificent, and that every one should have played his part so well. (6)
The police estimated that some 2 million people were present in Paris. Hundreds of church bells rang out, followed by illuminations, fireworks, formal balls and dancing in the streets. These and other festivities continued for the next two weeks. The cost of the whole affair was 8.5 million francs, paid for by crown and state treasuries.
You might also enjoy:
- Frédéric Masson, Napoleon and His Coronation, translated by Frederic Cobb (Philadelphia, 1911), pp. 219-220.
- Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of Napoleon, his Court and Family, Vol. II (London, 1836), p. 53.
- Napoleon and His Coronation, p. 227.
- Ibid., p. 234.
- Ibid., pp. 234-235.
- Ibid., p. 241.
Given the huge influence that Napoleon Bonaparte had during his lifetime, it’s not surprising that his ghost has popped up from time to time since his death. The Museum of The Black Watch has transcribed a letter describing a British soldier’s encounter with Napoleon’s ghost during the removal of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena to France in 1840. Albert Dieudonné, who played Napoleon in Abel Gance’s 1927 film of that name, talked about spooking a night watchman at the Château de Fontainebleau who claimed to be visited by Napoleon’s ghost. The following story about Napoleon’s ghost first appeared in British newspapers in January 1832.
The Ghost of Napoleon
At the Mansion House on Saturday, M. Pierre de Blois, a French gentleman who resides in chambers in Leadenhall Street, was summoned before the Lord Mayor for beating Rafael Spaglietti, an image seller, and breaking a very fine bust of Napoleon Buonaparte.
It appeared that the Italian went upstairs to the defendant’s room door, at the top of which there was a glass; he raised up the head of the image, which was made of pale clay, to the glass and said softly, ‘buy my ghost of Napoleon.’ M. de Blois, who had known the Emperor, thought he saw his ghost, and exclaiming ‘Oh, Christ, save us!’ fell on the floor in a fit. The Italian, seeing no chance of a sale that day, went away and returned the next. M. de Blois, in the meantime, had recovered from his fit, and hearing how his terror had been excited, felt so indignant that the moment he saw Spaglietti at his door the next day, he flew at him and tumbled him and the Emperor downstairs together.
It happened that a confectioner’s man was that moment coming upstairs with a giblet pie to a Mr. Wilson, who resided in the chambers, and the Emperor and the Italian, in their descent, alighted on his tray, which broke their fall and saved the Italian’s head, but could not save Napoleon’s, which was totally destroyed – the giblet pie also suffered so much from the collision that Mr. Wilson refused to have anything to do with it. After a good deal of explanation by the parties, and a good deal of laugher amongst the auditors, M. de Blois agreed to pay for the pie, and Mr. Wilson generously paid for the loss of the Emperor. (1)
Did Napoleon believe in ghosts?
For the answer, see my post about whether Napoleon was superstitious. Charlotte Brontë seemed to think so. She wrote a short story called “Napoleon and the Spectre” (published in The Green Dwarf, 1833), which you can read for free on Project Gutenberg.
You might also enjoy:
- Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), March 28, 1832. British papers carried a longer account.
When Napoleon met Goethe
In 1808, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest German literary figure of the modern era. Each man admired the other, although Napoleon’s motives were not solely to greet the author of one of his favourite books.
The Congress of Erfurt
Born in Frankfurt on August 28, 1749, Goethe was 20 years older than Napoleon. His fame as a writer was already well-established by the time Napoleon came to power in France. The young conqueror read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther multiple times, and carried it in his campaign library.
In 1806, Napoleon conquered Prussia. French troops occupied and sacked Weimar, where Goethe had lived since 1775. Although Goethe’s house was spared, many of his friends lost everything. Goethe reconciled himself to Napoleon’s empire, which he regarded as a legitimate successor to the Holy Roman Empire.
Two years later, Napoleon organized a grand congress at Erfurt, a short distance from Weimar. It was a summit meeting between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, intended to strengthen their alliance. The congress was also a theatrical display of French power. “I want to astound Germany with my magnificence,” said Napoleon. (1) The attendees paying court included most of the kings and princes of Germany, and notables from across Europe. Napoleon brought his favourite actor, François Joseph Talma, and the best actors and actresses of the Comédie-Française. They presented 16 French plays, chosen by Napoleon himself.
Napoleon wanted to co-opt the German cultural elite and enhance his reputation as a friend of the arts and literature. To this end, the great Goethe was invited to an interview.
Goethe’s account of the meeting
Napoleon met Goethe on October 2, 1808 in the Governor’s Palace at Erfurt.
I have been summoned to the Emperor for eleven o’clock in the morning. A fat chamberlain, Monsieur Pole, tells me to wait. The crowd disappears. I am introduced to Savary and Talleyrand. I am called into the Emperor’s study. At the same time, Daru has his presence announced. He is immediately brought in. This makes me hesitate. I am summoned a second time. I enter. The Emperor is seated at a large round table. He is eating breakfast. On his right, at some distance from the table, is Talleyrand; on his left, Daru, with whom he discusses taxes. The Emperor signals to me to approach. I remain standing in front of him at a suitable distance. After looking at me for a moment, he says to me: ‘You are a man.’ I bow my head. He says: ‘How old are you?’
‘You are well preserved. You have written some tragedies.’
I replied the bare essentials. Daru began to speak…. He added that I had translated some French works and, for example, Voltaire’s Mahomet. The Emperor said: ‘That is not a good work,’ and went on in detail about how it was indecorous for the conqueror of the world to paint such an unfavourable picture of himself. He then brought the conversation to Werther, which he must have studied in detail. After several perfectly appropriate observations, he mentioned a specific part and said to me: ‘Why did you do that? It is not natural.’ And he spoke at length on this and with perfect accuracy.
I listened with a calm face, and I replied, with a smile of satisfaction, that I didn’t know whether anyone had ever made the same criticism, but that I found it perfectly justified, and that I agreed that one could find fault with this passage’s lack of authenticity. ‘But,’ I added, ‘a poet can perhaps be excused for taking refuge in an artifice which is hard to spot, when he wants to produce certain effects that could not be created simply and naturally.’
The Emperor seemed to agree with me; he returned to drama and made some very sensible remarks, as a man who had observed the tragic stage with a great deal of attention, like a criminal judge, and who felt very deeply how far French theatre had strayed from nature and truth.
He went on to talk about fatalistic plays, of which he disapproved. They belonged to the dark ages. ‘Why, today, do they keep giving us destiny?’ he said. ‘Destiny is politics.’
He turned again to Daru and spoke to him about taxes…. Marshal Soult was announced….
The Emperor rose, came straight towards me and, by a sort of manoeuvre, separated me from the other people in the line in which I found myself. He turned his back to those people and spoke to me, lowering his voice. He asked me whether I was married, whether I had children, and other personal matters.
He also questioned me on my relations with the house of the princes, on the Duchess Amalia, on the prince, and on the princess. I replied in a natural manner. He seemed satisfied, and translated for himself these replies into his language, but in slightly more forceful terms than I had managed.
I must also note that, in the whole of our conversation, I had admired the variety of his affirmative replies and gestures, because he was rarely immobile when he listened. Sometimes he made a meditative gesture with his head and said: ‘Yes’ or ‘That’s right,’ or something similar; or, if he had stated some idea, he most often added: ‘And what would Monsieur Goethe say to that?’
I took the opportunity to make a sign to the chamberlain to see if I could retire, and, on his affirmative response, I immediately took my leave. (2)
Napoleon met Goethe again on October 6, this time at Weimar, in the company of fellow writer Christoph Martin Wieland. On October 14, Goethe and Wieland were each awarded the cross of the Legion of Honour. Goethe revealed no details about about his conversations with Napoleon until many years later.
In 1815, Napoleon was defeated and exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821. In 1828, Goethe told his friend Johann Peter Eckermann:
Napoleon was the man! Always enlightened, always clear and decided, and endowed with sufficient energy to carry into effect whatever he considered advantageous and necessary. His life was the stride of a demi-god, from battle to battle, and from victory to victory. It might well be said of him, that he was found in a state of continual enlightenment. On this account, his destiny was more brilliant than any the world had seen before him, or perhaps will ever see after him. (3)
Goethe died on March 22, 1832, at the age of 82.
You might also enjoy:
- Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Mémoires du Prince de Talleyrand, Vol. I (Paris, 1891), p. 402.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Oeuvres de Goethe, X: Mélanges, translated by Jacques Porchat (Paris, 1874), pp. 307-309.
- Johann Peter Eckermann and Frédéric Jacob Soret, Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret, translated by John Oxenford, Vol. II (London, 1850), p. 40.
Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena
Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequent imprisonment on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena (from which he escapes in Napoleon in America) provided opportunity for the last great blast of Napoleon caricatures. Most of them appeared in 1815, the year of Napoleon’s second and final abdication from the French throne. Relatively few appeared in the years up to his death in 1821. Further to my post about caricatures of Napoleon on Elba, here’s a look at some caricatures about Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena.
Caricatures of Napoleon’s departure for St. Helena
A rare acquisition to the royal menagerie: A present from Waterloo by Marshals Wellington & Blucher
Napoleon, perched in a large birdcage (topped by a dead eagle), is surrounded by an angry mob. A newsboy says: “Just Caught a Ferocious Animal never Exhibited before in this Country commonly called the Corsican tyger or man destroyer to be seen for a short time for Two Pence a Piece.” Napoleon says: “Mort de ma vie. Dat be one Cossack in Petticoats she will soon skin and bone me.” A sailor says: “Once more my Dear Magg of Wapping We have got him under the Hatches and shiver my Timbers the only way to secure him is to send him to Dock Head.” Magg replies: “I’ll Dock Head and Dock Tail him. I’ll cut off his Ears I’ll cut off his ___. I’ll make a Singing Bird of him.” Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, July 28, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Boney’s trial, sentence, and dying speech; or Europe’s injuries revenged
Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher says: “You Nap Boneparte being found Guilty of all these Crimes it is fell to my lot to pronounce Sentence of Death on You—You are to be hung by the Neck for one hour till you are Dead, Dead, Dead, & your Body to be chained to a Mill Stone & sunk in the Sea at Torbay.” Napoleon replies: “Oh cruel Blucher, Oh! cruel Wellington it is you that have brought me to this End. Oh Magnanimous Emperors Kings & Princes intercede for me and spare my life; and give me time to atone for all my Sins. My Son Napoleon the Second will reward you for Mercy shewn me.” Napoleon’s offences are inscribed as follows: “NAPOLEAN BONAPARTE The first and last by the Wrath of Heaven Ex Emperor of the Jacobins & head Runner of Runaways, Stands indicted 1st for the Murder of Captain Wright in the Temple at Paris; 2d for the murder of the Duke Dangulem [d’Enghien] Pichegrew & Georges; 3 for the Murder of Palm Hoffer &c; & 4th for the murder of the 12 inhabitants of Moscow; 5th for innumerable Robberies committed on all Nations in Christendom & elsewhere; 6th for Bigamy; & lastly for returning from Transportation, and setting the World in an uproar.” Tsar Alexander of Russia is on the far left. Next to him is Britain’s Prince Regent. King Louis XVIII is on Blücher’s left. Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, July 28, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, gallica.bnf.fr
Le départ du petit caporal
Archchancellor of the Empire Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès says: “Sire, I play the follies of Spain, accompanied by the Russian, followed by a German, and I end with the English.” Napoleon says: “My last folly causes me to beat a return to the Isles.” Napoleon’s half-Austrian son chimes in: “Papa, we forget the waltz.” French caricature, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, gallica.bnf.fr
Buonaparte on the 17th of June / Buonaparte on the 17th of July – 1815
In the first panel, Napoleon shouts defiantly at John Bull, sitting on the other side of the English Channel: “Ha! ha! You Bull beast you Blackguard Islander. You see I’m come back again & now you shall see what I will do with you, you wretch! You thought I was done over did you?! You thought I was going to stay at Elba? D—n all Elbas & Abdications: Englishmen & their Allies—I’ll play Hell with them all.” John Bull emits a puff of smoke inscribed: “You may be D—d I’ll make a Tobacco Stopper of you.”
In the second panel, Napoleon (in the Bellerophon – the Royal Navy ship that transported him from France to the British coast) kneels beside papers inscribed “Petition,” “Letters to the Prince Regent,” and says: “O! good Mr Bull I wish you to know, / (Although you are my greatest foe) / That my Career is at an end: / And I wish you now to stand my Friend / For tho at the Battle of Waterloo, / I was by you beat black & blue / Yet you see I wish to live with you / For I’m sure what is said of your goodness is true / And now if in England you’ll let me remain / I ne’er will be guilty of bad Tricks again.” John Bull responds: “Let me see, first of all you sprung from the Island of Corsica—and when you was kick’d out of France & went to the Island of Elba you made another Spring into France again—And now when you are kick’d out of France a second time you want to come & live on my Island, but it won’t do Master Boney— you’ll be making another Spring into France again I suppose. So I tell you what, I’ll send you to the Island of St Helena & we’ll see what sort of a Spring you’ll make then.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, August 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Boney’s threatened invasion brought to bear or: taking a view of the English coast from ye poop of the Bellerophon
Looking at England from the Bellerophon, General Henri Bertrand points to the gallows and says: “By gar! mon Emperor, dey have erect von prospect for you.” Napoleon says: “Me no like de D—m prospect.” A British sailor gives his opinion: “I thinks as how, Master Boney, that instead of sending you to Hell bay [Elba], they should have sent you to Hell at once.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, September 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Boney crossing the line
The title refers to a traditional shipboard ceremony for sailors who are crossing the equator for the first time. Napoleon “crossed the line” on September 23, 1815 as a prisoner on HMS Northumberland. As Napoleon (sitting blindfolded in a tub) is doused with soapy water, he says: “I no like de English Valet de Chambre, Have mercy.” Neptune (holding up a trident) says: “I command you’ll cleanse him from his Iniquity’s.” A black sailor (left) says: “Massa Boney no like to be got in a Line!!” Two French officers (right) say: “I wish de Dirty job was over!!” and “Be gar me no like de Shaving Shop!!!” A British sailor responds: “Have Patience Gentlemen and we’ll shave you directly and give you a good Lathering as Old Blucher did!!” Caricature by John Lewis Marks, circa September 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Napoleon’s trip from Elba to Paris, & from Paris to St. Helena
In the first panel, Napoleon flees the battlefield of Waterloo. He says: “Sauve qui peut. The Devil take the hindmost. Run my boys, your Emperor leads the way. My dear Eagle only conduct me safe to Paris this time as you did from Moscow and Leipsig, and I’ll never trouble you again. Oh d—m that Wellington.” The eagle says: “My left wing has entirely disappeared.”
In the middle panel, Napoleon addresses John Bull from the Bellerophon: “My most powerful & most generous enemy, how do you do? I come like Themistocles to seat myself upon your hearth. I am very glad to see you.” (This is a reference to a letter Napoleon sent to Britain’s Prince Regent.) John Bull replies: “So am I glad to see you, Mr. Boney, but I’ll be d—d if you sit upon my hearth or any part of my house. It has cost me a pretty round sum to catch you, Mr. Themistocles, as you call yourself, but now I have got you I’ll take care of you.”
In the third panel, Napoleon is on St. Helena. One of his attendants (probably General Bertrand) sees a rat coming and says: “Ah! Mon dieu! Dere your Majesty, dere be de vilain rogues. Ah, Monsieur rat. Why you not pop your nose into de trap & let de august Emperor catch you?” A female attendant (probably Fanny Bertrand), with a slice of bacon, says: “Will your Majesty be please to try dis bit of bacon? Ah! De cunning rascal! Dere! Ma foi! He sniff at de bacon.” Napoleon says: “Alas! that I who caught Imperial flats, / Should now sit here to watch these scurvy rats. / I, who Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, took, / Am doom’d, with cheese, to bait a rusty hook! / Was it for this I tried to save my bacon, / To use it now for rats that won’t be taken? / Curse their wise souls! I had not half such trouble / Their European brethren to bubble. / When I, myself, was hail’d as Emperor Nap, / Emperors & Kings I had within my trap / And to this moment might have kept them there / Had I not gone to hunt the Russian bear.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, September 1, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena
Je Fume en Pleurant mes Péchés
“I smoke and cry about my sins.” The word “fume” has a double meaning: Napoleon is smoking a pipe and fuming with anger. The paper in his hand says “Mes dernières Reflexions de 1815” (my last reflections of 1815). French caricature, September 16, 1815.
Boney’s meditations on the Island of St. Helena, or The Devil addressing the Sun
Napoleon addresses Britain’s Prince Regent (the future King George IV): “To thee I call. But with no friendly voice, & add thy name, G—P—Rt! to tell thee how I hate thy beams, that bring to my remembrance from what state I fell &c.” The rays surrounding the Prince’s face are inscribed: “Alexander, Fredk William, Francis, William 1st of Orange, Wellington, Blucher, Hill, Beresford, Anglesea.” Caricature by George Cruikshank, August 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
The inhabitants of St. Helena alarmed at the appearance of their new Governor
St. Helena was notoriously swarming with rats. Napoleon’s residence of Longwood House, where the opening scene of Napoleon in America takes place, was plagued with them. Napoleon says: “Inhabitants of St. Helena, let’s be friends. I declare you a free people. I give you as a pledge this faithful servant whom I have with me.” The cat says: “Now I shall be compensated.” The leader of the overgrown rats says: “Gentlemen, we have not a moment to lose; let our Council assemble immediately to consult how we shall be able to expel these formidable invaders.” Others cry: “To arms! To arms! Our mortal enemy approaches.” British caricature, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
The inhabitants of St. Helena addressing their new Governor
The rats say: “We the ancient Inhabitants of St. Helena beg leave to congratulate your Imperial Majesty on your safe arrival in this county, in order to take on yourself the Government thereof. We are unanimously of opinion that you are signally qualified to fulfil the mighty trust reposed in you, and therefore humbly crave your gracious acceptance thereof; on our part rest assured of our most zealous attachment & support.” Napoleon says: “Ancient Inhabitants of St. Helena, accept my acknowledgements for your loyal address and believe me nothing on my part shall be wanting to complete your happiness and independence. The first wishes of my heart were directed to your interest and the happiest hours of my existence were spent in anticipating your future greatness.” British caricature, 1815. Source: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
Alte Liebe rostet nicht
Rats were a popular theme: “Old habits die hard, or the great man’s pastimes on the small, rat-infested island of St. Helena.” German caricature by Johann Michael Voltz, 1815. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France, gallica.bnf.fr
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The birth of Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Tuesday, August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica. France had acquired Corsica from the Italian city-state of Genoa the year before. Napoleon’s parents were Carlo and Letizia (Ramolino) Buonaparte. Their first surviving child, Giuseppe (Joseph), was 19 months old when Napoleon was born. Two older children, born in 1765 and 1767, had died in infancy.
August 15 marks the celebration of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady the Virgin Mary. Letizia was at mass in the Ajaccio cathedral when she felt severe labour pains. She left the service and walked the short distance to her house (Casa Buonaparte, now a museum), aided by Carlo’s sister Gertrude Paravicini.
Here, on a couch in the salon – for there was no time to reach her bedroom – with the assistance of Gertrude and a maid-servant, Mammucia Caterina, she was delivered of her fourth child – a boy, with a big head and a very intelligent face, who screamed loudly, and soon began sucking his thumb, which was considered a good augury among the peasants of Corsica. (1)
Nine days later, Letizia turned 19 years old.
Myths about Napoleon’s birth
Nobody recorded anything about Napoleon’s birth at the time, and Letizia did not leave detailed memoirs. It wasn’t until Napoleon became a famous general that people became interested in his origins. Many myths sprang up surrounding his birth. The account above is generally the received one, originally printed in a 19th century biography of Letizia by Félix Hippolyte Larrey (son of Napoleonic military surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey). However even this can be disputed. Napoleon’s brother Joseph told Charles Ingersoll, one of his friends in the United States, that Napoleon was not born in the salon.
It has been published that Napoleon’s mother, taken with the pains of child-birth in church, brought him forth in her parlor, before she could reach her chamber. That story Joseph denied to me. (2)
Another myth claims that Napoleon was born or laid on a carpet or tapestry on which were woven scenes from The Iliad and The Odyssey, or – in another version – the conquests of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Napoleon himself repeated the story of being born on a carpet when he was in exile on St. Helena.
[My mother] hastily turned back [from the church], got as far as her drawing-room, where she deposited me on an old carpet. (3)
When Letizia was asked about this in later life, however, she said:
It’s a fable, making [Napoleon] born on the head of Caesar! Did he need that? … Moreover, we didn’t have carpets in our houses in Corsica, even less in full summer than in winter. (4)
Even Napoleon’s birth date was contested. Some people argued that Napoleon had been born in 1768, and that Joseph was the younger of the two. The record of Napoleon’s baptism on July 21, 1771, confirms his August 15, 1769 birth.
The one element of Napoleon’s birth that might appear to be mythical but actually is not is the appearance of a comet in the sky over Europe. This was comet C/1769 P1, first observed by astronomer Charles Messier at the Naval Observatory in Paris on the evening of August 8, 1769. According to observers, the comet became brighter through the month of August, with a lengthening tail. It made its closest approach to earth on September 10. Messier himself later sought to associate his comet with Napoleon’s birth, hoping to receive the Emperor’s attention and monetary support. This was, perhaps, Napoleon’s original “lucky star,” for which he searches the sky in Napoleon in America. As the comet has an estimated orbital period of around 2090 years, it has not been seen since 1769.
You might also enjoy:
- H. Noel Williams, The Women Bonapartes, Vol. 1 (New York, 1909), 24.
- Charles J. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), pp. 169-170.
- Francesco Antommarchi, The Last Days of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. I (London, 1825), p. 257. Other St. Helena memoirs have Napoleon saying a version of this, e.g.: “On August 15, 1769, [my mother] was on her way home from church, when she felt the pains of labor, and had only time to get into the house, when I was born, not a bed, but on a heap of tapestry.” Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, translated by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1904), p. 37.
- Félix Hippolyte Larrey, Madame mère (Napoleonis mater): essai historique, Vol. 1 (Paris, 1892), p. 54.
Napoleon’s castrato: Girolamo Crescentini
In Napoleon in America, Joseph Bonaparte laments the lack of fine arts in the United States. “There are plays in the cities,” he tells Napoleon, “but not one Italian singer.” Joseph knew that his brother was particularly fond of Italian musicians. Napoleon’s favourite composer was Giovanni Paisiello. His favourite singers were the Italian opera virtuosos Girolamo Crescentini and Giuseppina Grassini. (1) In future, I’ll write about Madame Grassini, who became the lover of both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. This week, I take a look at her teacher, the castrato Girolamo Crescentini.
Rise to fame
Girolamo Crescentini was born on February 2, 1766 in Urbania, part of the Papal States. He was a castrato, thus throughout his life he had the voice of a male soprano. When Crescentini was 12 years old, his father sent him to Bologna to study music and singing with the singer and composer Lorenzo Gibelli. Crescentini made his debut five years later, in 1783. He played female characters in serious – as opposed to comic – operas at the theatre in Rome (women were not allowed to appear on the Roman stage). This was followed by engagements in Leghorn, Padua, Venice and Turin.
In 1785, Girolamo Crescentini appeared on stage in London.
Crescentini was thought so moderate a performer, and so little liked, that before the season was half over, he was superseded by Tenducci…an old man, who had never been very capital, and could now have scarcely any voice left…. It is but justice to Crescentini to add that when he was here he was very young, and had not attained that excellence which has since gained him the reputation of a first-rate singer. He never returned to this country. (2)
Poor reviews in England did not diminish Crescentini’s appeal to his countrymen. By 1796, when General Napoleon Bonaparte was leading the French army across northern Italy, Girolamo Crescentini was famous. Two operas were written with roles expressly for him: Gli Orazi e i Curiazi by Domenico Cimarosa, and Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Zingarelli. Crescentini himself composed an aria for the latter, “Ombra adorata aspetta,” which became known as Romeo’s prayer.
It is claimed that immediately before the start of a performance of Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, Crescentini (Curiazio) observed that the costume of Orazio was more magnificent than his own. Enraged, he sent for the stage manager and insisted that the costume be given to him.
An exchange was therefore made, in spite of the remonstrances of the manager; and throughout the evening a Curiatius, six feet high, was seen wearing a little Roman costume, which looked as if it would burst at any moment, while a diminutive Horatius was attired in a long Alban tunic, with its skirt trailing on the ground. (3)
Crescentini spent four years in Lisbon, returning to Italy in 1803. He then went to Vienna, where he was a great favourite of Maria Theresa of Naples (wife of Francis I of Austria and mother of Napoleon’s future wife, Marie Louise). He became a regular participant in concerts at the Viennese court.
An Englishman who heard Crescentini perform in Vienna in October 1805 wrote:
Crescentini has a remarkable fine clear voice, of vast compass and great power; he manages it with great taste. There was something very disgusting and unpleasant on his first coming on the stage; my feelings were shocked by hearing such a high shrill voice come from such a large stout tall man; the recollection, too, of what he is, added to the disturbed association. It was some time before I could get over a sort of repulsive dislike to the man, but by shutting my eyes and listening to the exquisite tones he uttered, I was highly gratified. He is certainly the finest he-singer I ever heard; a woman, or a boy, or a man with a feigned voice, would answer the purpose just as well. And I am told it is not the fashion now, even in Italy, to resort to this brutal and inhuman practice for the sake of pleasing the ears of a refined audience. (4)
At the court of Napoleon
In November 1805, Napoleon occupied Vienna. He heard Girolamo Crescentini sing and decided that he wanted the castrato for his own court. In the words of Madame de Rémusat, whose husband proposed the arrangement to Crescentini on the French Emperor’s behalf:
By engaging Marchesi, Catalani, Crescentini, etc., Paris would soon possess the finest possible school of music. There is a very good company in Vienna just now, who may perhaps come to us as trophies of our conquest. I wish it may be so, for Italian music is all the fashion, and it would be a good opportunity for calling it French music. (5)
Crescentini moved to Paris in 1806. Napoleon’s valet Constant writes:
I saw Crescentini make his début in Paris as Romeo in Roméo et Juliette. He came preceded by an immense reputation as the first singer of Italy. This fame he completely justified, in spite of all the obstacles he had to overcome, for I can well recollect the many hard things that were said of him before he appeared. According to certain wiseacres he was a bellower, devoid of taste or refinement, having no method, an executants of silly roulades, a cold, unintelligent actor, &c. When going upon the stage he was aware how ill-inclined were his judges to show him any signs of favour. Yet he was not in the least embarrassed, but his majestic bearing came as an agreeable surprise to those who expected to see an ungainly boor. A murmur of approval greeted him, with such electrical effect upon himself that in the very first act the whole house was with him. Gestures full of grace and dignity, absolute mastery of the art of acting, a mobile face, expressing with amazing truth all the varying shades of passion and despair – all these rare and precious equipments did but deepen the magic of this great artist’s entrancing voice, the charm of which was inconceivable, at any rate for such as had never yet heard him. With each exciting scene the audience grew more and more enthusiastic. In the third act, however, the delight of the audience became positively frantic. It was in this act, played almost entirely by Crescentini, that this admirable singer touched the souls of his hearers by his movingly pathetic presentment of love and despair, as expressed in delicious melody. The Emperor was charmed, and caused a handsome fee to be paid to Crescentini, while expressing in most flattering terms the great pleasure it had been to hear him. (6)
Napoleon, who was said to be moved to tears by Crescentini’s performance of Romeo’s prayer, conferred upon the singer the Order of the Iron Crown. This did not go down well with Parisians. Napoleon commented on the episode when he was in exile on St. Helena.
‘In conformity with my system of amalgamating all kinds of merit, and of rendering one and the same reward universal, I had an idea of presenting the cross of the legion of honour to Talma; but I refrained from doing this, in consideration of our capricious manners and absurd prejudices. I wished to make a first experiment in an affair that was out of date and unimportant, and I accordingly gave the iron crown to Crescentini. The decoration was foreign, and so was the individual on whom it was conferred. This circumstance was less likely to attract public notice or to render my conduct the subject of discussion; at worst, it could only give rise to a few malicious jokes…. I believe my experiment with regard to Crescentini proved unsuccessful.’
‘It did, Sire,’ observed some one present. ‘The circumstance occasioned a great outcry in Paris; it drew forth a general anathema in all the drawing-rooms of the metropolis, and afforded ample scope for the expression of malignant feeling. However, at one of the evening parties of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, a bon-mot had the effect of completely stemming the torrent of indignation. A pompous orator was holding forth, in an eloquent strain, on the subject of the honour that had been conferred on Crescentini. He declared it to be a disgrace, a horror, a perfect profanation, and inquired what right Crescentini could have to such a distinction? On hearing this, the beautiful Madame [Grassini] who was present, rose majestically from her chair, and with a truly theatrical tone and gesture, exclaimed, ‘Et sa blessure, Monsieur! [And his wound!] Do you make no allowance for that?’ This produced a general burst of laughter and poor Madame Grassini was very much embarrassed by her success.’ (7)
Girolamo Crescentini served as a performer and teacher at the French Imperial court for six years. He was paid a large salary. In 1812, his voice suffering from the climate, he with difficulty obtained permission to retire. Crescentini devoted himself to teaching singing at Bologna’s Liceo Musicale. He had a country house about two miles from Bologna, to which he made improvements costing over 100,000 francs. In the winter, he occupied apartments at the Palazzo Legnani. An Englishman who met him in Bologna in 1819 wrote:
His manners were highly pleasing, affable, and polite – those of a man accustomed to the best society. At this time, he had long retired from public performance. He was a man about five feet ten inches in height, somewhat corpulent – of very plain, or rather coarse features; and had lost many of his teeth. His voice, in speaking, was high-pitched and shrill….
[At the Liceo] the care and patient attention which he bestowed on the singers were admirable. He seemed all ears and eyes; now turning to one and now to another. Whenever he perceived the slightest inaccuracy in intonation – or change of the text by an improper appoggiatura, or otherwise – or any false expression – he stopped the whole, and made all begin again until he was satisfied. His unerring ear detected, instantly, in any single voice among all those voices, the slightest deviation from the correct reading and rendering of the music. He pointed to the delinquent, and called out, ‘Come sta!’ – ‘as it is written!’ – and, at last, all went as he desired. I never witnessed the training of a numerous body of singers so patiently and perfectly conducted. (8)
In 1825, Girolamo Crescentini moved to a teaching position in Naples. He died there on April 24, 1846, at the age of 80. By then castrati were out of fashion.
The young Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini, a sane, red-blooded genius, could find no place in his operas for sexless heroes. To him the virile personality and art of Manuel Garcia were worth a thousand male sopranos. It was Rossini’s scorn of the whole tribe that drove the castrato from the operatic stage. Henceforth the tenor was the King of Singers. (9)
A contemporary biographer wrote:
Crescentini is the last great singer that Italy produced…. Nothing could exceed the suavity of his tones, the force of his expression, the perfect taste of his ornaments, or the large style of his phrasing. (10)
Girolamo Crescentini wrote several ariettas for a soprano voice, as well as a number of chamber cantatas, airs with full orchestral accompaniments, and numerous solfeggi. You can download some of his scores from the Petrucci Music Library. Click here to listen to mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato perform Crescentini’s ariettas.
You might also enjoy:
- “The Emperor’s favourite singers were Crescentini and Madame Grassini.” Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), p. 96.
- Richard Edgcumbe, Musical Reminiscences, Containing an Account of the Italian Opera in England, From 1773 Continued to the Present Time, Fourth Edition (London, 1834), pp. 45-46.
- George Grove, ed., A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1880), Vol. 1 (London, 1879), p. 416.
- Henry Reeve, Journal of a Residence at Vienna and Berlin in the Eventful Winter 1805-6 (London, 1877), pp. 16-17.
- Claire Élisabeth de Vergennes, A Selection from the Letters of Madame de Rémusat to Her Husband and Son, From 1804 to 1813, edited by Frances Cashel Hoey and John Lillie (London, 1881), p. 196.
- Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Percy Pinkerton, Vol. 3 (London, 1896), pp. 96-97.
- Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, Part 5 (London, 1823), pp. 276-278.
- F. Graham, “The Singer Crescentini,” The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts for the Year 1846, No. 979 (London, August 1, 1846), pp. 795-796.
- Francis Rogers, “The Male Soprano,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (July 1919), p. 422.
- J. Fétis, Biographie Universelle des Musiciens et Bibliographie Générale de la Musique, Vol. 3 (Brussels, 1836), p. 216.