Napoleon artifacts on display in Philadelphia

June 29, 2009 4:48:11 AM PDT
Almost two centuries after Napoleon Bonaparte met his Waterloo, all many people may know about him is that he was short. Except that he wasn't, really. The life of the Corsica-born military genius who rose from obscurity to command the armies of France and conquer much of Europe before ending his life in lonely exile is celebrated in "Napoleon," an exhibition at the National Constitution Center through Sept. 7.

The exhibition features more than 300 objects from the life of the military leader, drawn from the extensive collection of Pierre-Jean Chalencon and ranging from the earliest known letter he penned at age 14, detailing his daily schedule, to the monogrammed shirt and long johns he wore shortly before his death.

Chalencon said Napoleon's rise from obscurity to greatness can serve as an example to young people.

Napoleon, he said, "came from nowhere, and in a few years he become emperor and creator of the instititions. He was a self-made man ... and for young people, to see this guy made it himself, maybe at the end of the show they want to do something themselves."

Visitors can see a lock of Napoleon's hair - snagged by a friend as the amused emperor-in-exile sat getting a haircut - and one of the brown tresses of his beloved Josephine. They can examine his snuff box and the sword with which he had himself declared emperor, or imagine bedding down with the troops beneath the green canopy of his collapsible camp bed.

And they can see the gilt leather portfolio that carried the signed Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon's $15 million sale of 828,000 acres of the New World to the United States in 1803, which doubled the size of the young nation at a cost of less than five cents an acre.

The exhibition traces Napoleon's military exploits in Egypt, his conquests throughout Europe, his disastrous invasion of Russia, his first exile to Elba from which he escaped to wage a fierce "Hundred Days" campaign that ended with his final defeat at Waterloo, and the melancholy final six years in exile on isolated St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

A number of portraits on display show Napoleon wearing laurel leaves in the style of a Roman emperor or even toga-clad and riding in a chariot. The exhibition contrasts such grandeur with the style of George Washington, who avoided aristocratic flourishes and retired after two terms although there was no requirement that he do so.

But as a boy, Napoleon saw parallels between America's war for independence and his own Corsica's efforts to free itself from Genoa. "We share the labors of George Washington; we enjoy his triumphs ... His cause is that of humanity," he once wrote. After his final defeat, he talked about resettling in the the United States "to live on the produce of the earth and my flocks," and had a book on "The English's American Troubles" with him in exile.

A painting showing the young Napoleon carrying the colors across the Arcole Bridge under enemy fire helped build his legend but was an exercise in political propaganda. According to the exhibition, Napoleon never led his men across the bridge - in fact, his advance on that day was repulsed, his force almost annhilated, and he and his horse were thrown into a surrounding marsh. Cavalry forces actually secured the victory two days later.

But Napoleon also had his share of unfair portrayals, derided by his enemies as short in stature, a jibe that survives in the supposed "Napoleon complex" of a short person who compensates for feelings of inferiority by seeking power. In fact, historians say, his 5-foot-6 height was average for the era.

The traveling exhibition, which began in Washington and travels to Anaheim, Calif., in the fall and to Missouri in November 2010, also includes perhaps the first portrait of Napoleon in characteristic pose with right hand stuck into his waistcoat, a fashion in Europe dating to ancient Roman times.

And there is one of Napoleon's famous bicorne hats, which he wore parallel to his shoulders so that he could be distinguished from his officers. The black felt summer model was worn at Napoleon's 1809 Battle of Essling, not a success but one he followed up with a victory six weeks later at Wagram.

Chalencon said he believes Napoleon might have been forgotten if his record rested only on his military conquests, but instead he left a lasting legacy, notably with a civil code that has influenced legal systems around the world and with efforts to foster education and culture.

Napoleon himself may have provided his best epitaph in a remark he made in exile, according to Chalencon: "In 200 years, people will think about what I did."

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