The Emperor and me
Updated: Jan 13
For anyone who knows me, anything about the Emperor would probably mean Japan. In this case, however, I’m talking about the Emperor of France: Napoleon.
If you are in Paris, you can go visit the Emperor. Cross the iconic Alexander III bridge and head for the large gold Dome on the Left Bank. The dome used to be the tallest building in Paris (until the Eiffel Tower was built), and it marks the location of Les Invalides. The Emperor’s tomb was built right under that dome.
I always find Les Invalides confusing. It was built in 1670 as a hospital and a retirement home for soldiers. It still serves that function, but it also houses the Musée de l'Armée, the military museum of the Army of France, the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, which has models of French towns and fortresses dating back to 1788, the Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine, the National Cathedral for the French military, and the tomb of Napoleon.
Napoleon, of course, has the reputation of being a French military genius. Battles like Austerlitz show that, in his prime, he indeed was a master. But if you delve deeper into the record things become more clouded. Napoleon had the ability to spin minor victories (or even defeats) so they sounded like French triumphs. He also spun his personal image with great care. There’s an iconic painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps, mounted on a rearing stallion and looking like a true hero. In actual fact, he crossed the Alps sitting on a mule. The stallion painting was so striking he eventually had five copies made (with different colored horses). When things looked grim, he abandoned at least two armies, in Russia and the Middle East, so he could return to France, leaving the armies to survive on their own. He embroiled Europe in two decades of almost constant warfare. He schemed to get dictatorial powers and conducted a coup. And his wars caused the deaths of more French citizens than any other leader in history (plus, of course, the huge number of non-French dead).
After he died in 1821, Napoleon was buried on the Island of St. Helena, where he was exiled after Waterloo. There used to be a rumor he was poisoned, but now they think he died of stomach cancer, which seemed to run in his family. His tomb in Paris was started in 1840 and his body was moved to the tomb in 1861. The tomb is surprisingly restrained, if you are familiar with the Napoleonic Style, which is full of faux Egyptian motifs and complex decoration. A massive, coral colored block of quartzite cut in neoclassical style sits on top of a couple of large slabs of granite, serving as a marker.
The tomb is a circular gallery with two main levels. On the balcony level you can look down at the tomb, and on the next level down are some sculptures, the names of Napoleon’s greatest victories incised on the walls, and also tombs for Napoleon’s brothers and a few others.
I’ve made several visits to Les Invalides and in 2016 I was lucky to see a wide variety of artifacts brought to the museum from Napoleon’s time in St. Helena. This included the bed where he died, various personal objects, and even Napoleon’s death mask, cast of the Emperor’s face a short time after he died. By the way, I can personally vouch for the fact that many artifacts in the Museum are protected by invisible beam alarms. I confirmed this by holding my camera directly over the death mask for a picture. Several guards showed up and I didn’t understand I was the cause until a guard could explain this in English to me. To the guard’s credit, his English explanation was brusque, but polite. Heaven only knows what he said in French (I probably haven’t learned those words yet).
Napoleon's Tomb. The remains are in a vault under the quartzite marker.
View from the second floor. Yes, that's me.
The underside of that golden dome.
Yes, it's that hat. His uniform, too. Napoleon was around 5'6" (typical for his time) and not exceptionally short.
A Golden Eagle carried by part of Napoleon's army. Note the bullet holes.
Bed where Napoleon died.
Napoleon's death mask, made soon after he died.
This picture of the death mask set off alarms at the exhibit. Who did it? C'est moi! PS - I think the blue color is just the result of the passing years on the plaster.