Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Napoleon Bonaparte's Civic Legacy

Today, I'd like to share a recent Q&A I had with a FrancoFiles Fan and her Studious Son who is writing an extended essay on the larger-than-life character of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The two were interested in Napoleon's civic achievements, not just his battles, both successful and disastrous, about which much has been written.

Hi Sarah,

I found your blog on Google. I have a "stumper" for you, which I cannot find the answer online. Anywhere! Here goes: Under the dome, at Les Invalides, Napoleon's coffin is surrounded by bas relief sculptures that represent his most significant civic achievements. What are those achievements?

Surrounding Napoleon's porphyry sarcophagus under the dome of the Chapel at Les Invalides are first a ring of 12 statues of angels, called the "Winged Victories". They symbolize Emperor Napoleon's victorious military campaigns - of which there were 40 or so battles. Inscribed in the mosaic floor at the Victories' feet are the names of his eight greatest victories: Austerlitz, Marenco, Pyramides, Iena, Friedland, Wagram, Moscova, and Rivoli. The Winged Victories stand guard over Napoleon's remains with laurel wreaths in hand, a symbol of victory dating back to Roman times.

On the circular wall just behind the Victories can be found 10 bas relief sculptural panels that commemorate and honor Napoleon's administrative and political achievements as well as his public works. The most significant of these achievements is the Napoleonic Code, which represented the final and perhaps most lasting break from France's former rule by Absolute Monarchy. It placed all French people, no matter their family background, rank, or ties with the church or nobility, under the same system of justice and law. After the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, promulgated during the Revolution, the Napoleonic Code is perhaps one of the most important political documents in the history of democracy. Even today it remains the basis of law in some 80 countries.

The various public works celebrated in the bas relief panels include canals that brought potable drinking water to Paris; bridges; grand streets and boulevards such as the rue de Rivoli; building projects such as the Louvre extension; and monuments like the Carousel du Louvre, all spear-headed by Napoleon. He is remembered for institutionalizing the stock exchange in Paris and building La Bourse, which continues to house the exchange today. He is credited for the idea of centralized government, having carved France up into a series of departments and created localized governments that answered to him. Napoleon is also to be thanked for modernizing the postal system by numbering houses consecutively along odd and even sides of streets to ease delivery of letters and packages.

Any study of Napoleon Bonaparte should consider his great achievements in addition to his elusive military campaign for "La Gloire" that led, finally, to his being sent into exile half way around the world. For even the Emperor is remembered for having said: ...more important than the winning of 40 battles is the civil code, which will live forever.


If you have a question about French history and culture, please don't hesitate to ask!

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