Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Paris Monuments - Napoleon's Tomb

It’s funny how quickly we take things for granted. Last night I bundled up a blanket, a bottle of red, and a batch of home-made gazpacho and I headed over to the Esplanade des Invalides for a dinner picnic with friends. I was on my second glass of chilled rosé – my first of the summer – before I took notice of the great gold dome that towered over us: the dome over the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, the first Emperor of France.

Bonaparte’s was a star that rose fast and fell far. He created important institutions that still survive today, but he also contributed to the violence and upheaval of a century marked by revolution, famine, and war.

His story begins in 1799, ten years after the start of the French Revolution. A corrupt government, called the Directory, then governed a France wracked by poverty and destruction. For seven years, the country had been at war with Austria and Prussia, faring badly against the better organized armies of Europe’s two greatest powers. But a young Corsican officer named Napoleon Bonparte distinguished himself by his keen sense of military strategy. He quickly advanced to general.

General Bonaparte returned from Egypt in 1799 to find that he and two other men had been chosen to head France’s new tripartite consulate. It took him mere months to throw off the others and name himself First Consul for Life. As the century turned from 1799 to 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself the sole ruler of 27 million French people. In 1804, he would crown himself Emperor.

The years of 1800-1805 saw Bonaparte working feverishly to rebuild his country. He centralized the French government, creating the Departments we know today with local administrations reporting directly to him. He established the basis of French civil law in the Napoleonic Code. He brought back taxation, structuring it so that everyone paid a fair share and levying heavy fines for lateness or default. For the first time in decades the government had money. So the Emperor founded the Bank of France. When business began picking up, he needed a Stock Exchange. So, he created La Bourse, the market.

While he was busy cleaning up the government and economy, Napoleon was also making plans to expand France’s territorial borders. He sought lands to the east, west, and north. He even had designs to invade England. Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, and Italy formed an alliance with Britain to stop Napoleon if he should attack.

And he did. Starting in October 1805, Bonaparte marched his Grande Armée all across Europe, overtaking armies at Austerlitz and Iena and Friedland, and setting up puppet regimes in Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, and Naples. By 1807, Napoleon was the “Master of All Europe”.

But the war was costing France too much in both man-power and material. The economy, only recently revived, collapsed. New businesses stopped functioning. The Stock Exchange crashed. Those who had money withdrew it from the Bank and fled. To add to the already dire situation, England imposed an economic blockade on France, making it impossible for food and other goods to reach the people.

Then came the famine. Severe thunderstorms ruined France’s 1811 crop. By the beginning of 1812, grain reserves were spent. The price of bread shot beyond what many could afford. As before the revolution, French people began to starve.

The Grande Armée was hard hit as food no longer reached the front. Morale was low; desertion became rampant. And Napoleon began to lose. He was pushed back in Spain; he was laid low in Leipzig; and outside of Moscow, the Grande Armée was forced to retreat.

Still, Napoleon would not give up, in love with battle, in love with La Gloire (glory). In 1814, he raised an army again. And in the Battle of the Nations, fought at Leipzig, Germany, Napoleon was stopped for good…or so it was thought. It took the combined powers of all of Europe to do it, but he was packed him off to prison on Elba Island.

Within a year, however, he had escaped. He went directly to battle once more, facing his final defeat in 1815 in the famous battle of Waterloo. This time, his captors sent him to an island so remote that escape would mean certain death.

Napoleon Bonaparte died on St. Helena in 1821 at the age of 52.

With Napoleon banished, the brother of beheaded King Louis XVI moved in to restore the French Monarchy. Louis XVIII was succeeded by Charles I. But their “Restoration” government did not last long. It was overthrown in 1830 by the July Monarchy, led by cousin Louis-Philippe, who, in turn, was overthrown in 1848 by the nephew of...guess who? That’s right, Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 1852, just as his uncle had done almost 50 years before, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor of France. As Napoleon III, he undertook to renovate Louis XIV’s personal chapel at Les Invalides to create a tomb for Napoleon Bonaparte and the Generals who served under him.

In 1861, France's first Emperor was installed in a sarcophagus of porphyry under the same dome that shadowed our springtime picnic. The pink rays of the setting sun glinted off the gold that is the centerpiece of the Esplanade and can be seen for miles around, reminding me that I had failed to notice it for a good 45 minutes. It's funny how quickly we take things for granted.

Photo of Les Invalides from the Esplanade by Eric Gaba
(Wikimedia Commons user: Sting), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of General Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David, 1797, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First Consul Bonaparte, by Antoine-Jean Gros, c. 1802, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David, 1805, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, by Adolf Northern (1828-1876), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Les Invalides Chapel, taken by Daniel Levine on 15 July 2003 and released to public domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon at Saint Helena, by Francois-Joseph Sandmann, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photograph of Napoleon's porphyry tomb, taken by
Willtron, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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