2021 Napoléon Season: bicentenary of his death

2021 Napoléon Season: bicentenary of his death.

To commemorate the bicentenary–200 years–since the death of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor Napoléon I of France, there are a number of exhibitions and events under the banner of the “2021 Napoléon Season.” These include a large exhibition at La Villette in Paris on Napoleon from 14 April to 19 September 2021; and two exhibitions about Emperor Napoléon at the Invalides at the Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum) in Paris: Napoléon n’est plus (Napoléon is No More) and the exhibition Napoléon? Encore! (Napoleon? Again!) from 7 May 2021 to 30 January 2022.

Since January 2021, the “France Mémoire” section of the Institut de France has overseen the selection of official figures to commemorate. This year its list includes Napoléon Bonaparte, emphasising the importance of debate, democratising memory, and accurate historical information. Thierry Lentz, a major Napoleonic historian and the director of the Fondation Napoléon said that one issue with commemorating Napoléon today is his reintroduction of slavery. France abolished slavery in 1794, but Napoléon reintroduced it in 1802 (the original orders of 20 May and 16 July 1802 can be seen at the Napoléon Exhibition at La Villette). Another issue is the large death toll of his military campaigns across Europe. 

The Army Museum exhibition in Paris: Napoléon n’est plus (Napoléon is No More) focuses on the immortality of Napoléon I, works of art and portraits of Napoleon, his death, and his tomb. For example, the Army Museum presents three exceptional works of art by François Trichot, Edmond-Louis Dupain, and Louis Béroud. The exhibition also uses new scientific disciplines (archaeology, medicine, and chemistry, for example) in addition to already known historical sources. There is almost nothing on his early years since his birth on 15 August 1769.

The death of Napoléon in exile from France went relatively unnoticed throughout the world, but his companions in exile documented it extremely well. Despite the abundance of memoirs, letters, sketches, engravings, relics, and stories, as well as caricatures and songs, his history still includes grey areas, uncertainties, and contradictions. Napoléon himself largely orchestrated what would nowadays be known as his communication strategy.

In May 1821, Napoléon had been a prisoner of the English in Saint Helena for over five years. When he gave up the idea of leaving Saint Helena alive, he started writing his memoirs. He became increasingly sick and suffered from persistent stomach pains caused by a severe ulcer. Year after year, he became weaker until he was bedridden from the end of 1820. In April 1821, those close to him understood that he was terminally ill. 

Napoléon also wrote his last will, which consists of 20 separate pieces written over two weeks from 11-29 April 1821. Napoléon died on 5 May 1821 at 5:49 in the afternoon at the age of 51.

The Emperor himself asked for an autopsy to be carried out as he feared that his illness may be hereditary. For the English, this autopsy had another purpose: to prove that the exile conditions were not responsible for the death of the prisoner in their custody. Dr Antommarchi performed the autopsy the day after Napoleon’s death, with the assistance of six British doctors in the presence of the Emperor’s most loyal servants. The autopsy report, presented in the exhibition, describes an ulcer which slowly perforated the lining of the stomach.

After his death, Napoléon’s body was placed in the former study which had been converted into a chapel of rest. Laid on his campaign bed, he wore his well-known Colonel of the Imperial Guard uniform and his decorations. The servants of Longwood watched over him, according to Imperial etiquette. Abbot Vignali performed mass, and then the doors of Longwood were opened to all those who wished to pay their last respects.

From 1821 to 1840, the body of Napoléon rested in Saint Helena, in Geranium Valley. The tomb quickly became a symbol. This solitary tomb in the countryside, surrounded by weeping willows, became a subject of representation and a romantic subject.

The return of the ashes was a highly political episode. From 1821, petitions were submitted to the Assembly to repatriate Napoleon’s body to France. The petitions finally generated sufficient coverage during the reign of Louis Philippe. The repatriation was approved in 1840, thanks to the support of Adolphe Thiers.

Therefore, Napoléon’s body was installed in the Invalides in Paris, with an emphasis on the deployment rather than the transfer of the power of historical heritage. Long before the return of his ashes and the construction of his monumental tomb, Napoléon had imposed his vision and viewpoints on the nature, the organisation and the operation of the institution of the Invalides. When the tomb was completed in 1861, Napoléon became, alongside the Dôme, a national monument. Beyond the architectural object it represents, the tomb took on a particular dimension: it is the symbol of the Emperor, of his transition to posterity and of his eternal memory.

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