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Napoleon Bonaparteís Life and Times On Show in Urasoe

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2001-01-26

An unusual exhibition at the Urasoe City Museum ďThe Man Napoleon BonaparteĒ has an extensive collection of paintings and etchings depicting the generalís life, personal possessions and of those close to him, historical documents and a biographical tour of the main events in his life. The 200 artifacts, 17 of which are French national treasures, have brief explanations in English, but the biography, large chunks of text lit up on the walls, is all in Japanese. So for anyone who is not familiar with Bonaparteís history, a local guide is recommended.

We learn, amidst displays of a dagger with a silver pommel, Napoleonís christening certificate and drawings of his elder brother Joseph, the younger, Louis and sister Pauline, that his family, although of aristocratic lineage was poor. He was short of stature, had a ďterrible Corsican accentĒ and a complex about all these things. He left Corsica aged nine and at the school he attended in France, was the poorest of 110 students there. Unable to relate to his peers and the butt of cruel humor on their part, he retreated into his books. He was very bad at French but good at mathematics, history and geography. Napoleon went on to the Royal Military Academy in Paris where he again studied hard. His mathematical ability helped his practice of artillery and he read a lot about the history, geography, economics and meteorology of Europe, Egypt and America. Napoleon graduated from the academy in only 11 months.

There is a big blow up color slide of the unassuming house in Corsica where he was born and such homely items as his sisterís pillow case and stationery box and his motherís portable cooking stove.

By the time the exhibits have stretched to the far end of the room, Napoleon has risen to high rank in the army at a very young age and on the far wall is an artistic rendering of him as First Consul of France at the age of 30. There is also a replica of his marriage certificate to Josephine de Beauharnais, which shows up the interesting deception of concealing her real age. She was six years older but the document gives Napoleonís age as 28 years 9 months and Josephineís as 28 years 1 month.

The next section of the exhibition concerns Bonaparteís Egyptian campaigns. It is explained that the government wanted him far from France at the time. They thought his ambitions to attack England directly were not yet possible and it would be better if the general consolidated his conquests in other lands first. The Egyptian campaign was a disaster militarily, with most of Napoleonís troops succumbing to disease. But it stimulated European interest in the Near East and the Rosetta Stone was discovered as a result of his military incursions. This allowed scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics for the first time and unlocked the secrets of ancient Egypt. There is also a striking painting of a desert scene: palm trees, tribesmen and Napoleon riding a camel.

The famous painting by Jaques Louis David of Napoleon on a rearing horse crossing the Alps is also on display. An interesting historical note is that horses were not used on this successful campaign against Austriaís attempt to subjugate Italy. Mules provided the transport. The picture of the heroic general on his white charger rather than straddling a more mundane mule is an illustration of the way romantic myths were created around Napoleon. Adept at manipulating information, he was an energetic propagandist, banning certain newspapers, creating others and ensuring a flow of information favorable to himself, some of it self penned.

The era of Napoleon as Emperor is well illustrated. An oil painting shows Napoleon I resplendent in ermine with a gilded laurel crown and a chain of gold eagles on his chest. Another painting by Pietro Benvenuti shows him in profile, reading a letter by candlelight and moonlight. There are etchings of his coronation in Notre Dame which was attended by the Pope.

The generalís success at the Battle of Austerlitz is commemorated by an etching of him meeting Francis II of Austria and there is a document signed by Napoleon, his Foreign Minister Talleyrand and Secretary of State Maret. A handwritten letter to Napoleonís son, consists only of a paragraph about the brilliance of this military victory and previous ones.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the coronation diadem of the Empress Josephine. Made of gold, silver and 1,040 diamonds it has a room to itself. Displayed inside a large glass column, it is surrounded by a huge crown-like set of steel rails. It is backed by a wall sized enlargement of a painting of the coronation, in which Josephine is wearing the diadem. Besides the splendor of the item, the dominant impression is surprise at its size and how small must have been the head it was designed to fit.

From here on is depicted Bonaparteís decline. A melodramatic etching shows Josephine weeping after being told of the decision to divorce her, following her failure to give birth to an heir. There are pictures of the disastrous Russian campaign, a watercolor of Napoleonís 1814 arrival for exile on the isle of Elba on an English ship, Emperor no more. His escape from Elba and call to arms once again are a brief interlude before his final downfall at the hands of the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian ally Field Marshal Blucher at Waterloo.

A handwritten, eyewitness account of the Battle of Waterloo is bound within large red Morocco gilt covers. There is also a document, handwritten after Napoleonís defeat, by Lord Chancellor Eldon, Englandís foremost barrister. This gives secret advice to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, following Napoleonís decision to put himself at the mercy of the British authorities and his stated desire to live in a country house outside London. The advice was that Napoleon was too dangerous to be allowed to reside freely in England, that he should be taken into custody and removed from Europe.

Napoleonís second exile to St Helena, the remote South Atlantic island from which there was to be no escape, is commemorated by some disparate mementoes in the final room of the exhibition. There is an etching of Bonaparte brooding on the deck of the ship taking him away from Europe, watched by a group of British naval officers. His gilded chamber pot, complete with its coat of arms is there. There is a large map of St Helena showing exactly where he resided and a contemporary account of his life on the island, in book form.

The death of the great dictator is marked by some linen stained with Napoleonís blood after his autopsy and later kept by his sister Caroline. There is also a replica of his death mask which was cast two days after he died and the real death mask, under glass. This is one of the most interesting of all the exhibits because it shows an exact likeness of the man. Looking at it is like staring closely into the face of the man who redrew the boundaries of Europe, caused monarchies and city states to crumble and marked a blood soaked boundary between the old order and the one that gave rise to the modern world.

The exhibition which runs until February 18th (Sun) is open 9:30am-5:00pm but closed on Mondays. Adults •1000, College & High School Students •700, Elementary Students & Junior High School Students •500. For more information: 098-869-4415

Directions: Get on Route 330 and go south toward Naha. When you come to Urasoe City, you will see Urasoe General Hospital on the right, then there is an Athletic Stadium on the left. Afterwards, the large brown building is Urasoe City Museum.

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