Napoleon’s influence appears everywhere in Paris, from huge monuments to tiny passages. Yet I’ve run across several essays and at least one petition that express confusion or even outrage at the fact that there’s no great plaza or building in Paris named after Napoleon. I don’t understand this sentiment at all. It seems to me that something Napoleonic lurks around every corner.
There is a Rue Bonaparte, just a block away from where I’m staying. I walked the length of it, and while it’s no Champs Elysees, it is longish as Paris streets go, and hosts upscale businesses and important institutions including the very prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. It’s even appropriate naming, as the rue features one of the many fountains Napoleon commissioned: the small but pleasant Fountain of Peace. If Rue Bonaparte were all the commemoration Napoleon got in Paris, you might wonder why there isn’t more. But the fact is, his buildings, decisions, and legacy changed the face of Paris. The Rue Bonaparte is actually a little gilding on the lily in light of all the other Napoleonic iconography in the city.
It’s true, there were once even more edifices that bore his name. The Louvre hasn’t been called the Musee Napoleon since his reign (although the main visitor’s entrance is the modern Cour Napoleon, built in 1989). If you walk along the Rue de Rivoli side of the Louvre, you’ll see life-size statues of a dozen or so generals from his army, looking down on you and the souvenir shops. The long, straight, and wide Rue de Rivoli was itself built on Napoleon’s orders and is named after one of his most famous early victories.
Napoleon’s actual name might not be on much of Paris, but it seems like every one of his many military accomplishments has a street, place, bridge, or train station named after it. Austerlitz, his famous victory over a combined Austrian and Russian army in 1805, has both a major train station and a bridge named after it. Jena (Iena in the French spelling), his total drubbing of Prussia in 1806, has a place, a metro stop, and a bridge right below the Eiffel Tower. Friedland, his 1807 defeat of Russia, has a major boulevard that intersects with the wide Avenue de la Grande Armee, which refers of course to Napoleon’s Grand Army. Those are just the big ones. There are many more, especially once you start counting generals and field marshals. Tributes to Napoleon’s military career are everywhere (nothing about Waterloo though).
The Eiffel Tower is the most recognizable icon of Paris, no contest, but I submit that the Arc De Triomphe is a close second. I’d listen to an argument for Notre Dame, but the giant triumphal arch is more distinct than the church, and its setting in the center of a star of wide boulevards (including Friedland), makes it instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen it. Shorthand for Paris in a movie or photograph is either the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, nine times out of ten. Napoleon ordered the construction of the arch to commemorate his triumphs, in particular the battle of Austerlitz. Although it has grown into a broader symbol, its carvings and inscriptions are a tribute to one emperor and his army.
Most of Napoleon’s buildings and monuments have a clear classical motif to them. The triumphal arch was an ancient Roman invention, and Rome has a few great ones, but at fifty meters in height, the massive Arc de Triomphe overshadows all of its ancient predecessors. Napoleon’s personal hero and spirit guide was Julius Caesar, and like many men and women of his era he was fascinated with ancient Greece and Rome. Commissioned in 1806, the arch took years just to design and lay the foundations. It wasn’t finished in Napoleon’s lifetime, work stopping during the restoration of the Bourbon’s to the throne and then picking up again under when the Orlean branch of the family took power under king Louis-Philippe in the 1830s. It’s thus important to note that while the Arc de Triomphe began as an act of self-aggrandizement by Napoleon, it came into being as a tribute to his memory.
The final product would likely have pleased the Emperor. Its carving groups are almost entirely tributes to his battles, with the others being Revolutionary army achievements that paved the way for his rise. Austerlitz gets a long frieze devoted to it of course, but we’ll revisit that battle at the next monument. The other three battles are from early in Napoleon’s career. Two of the victories portrayed are from the Egyptian campaign, which was certainly known to have been a failure by the time the arch as made. I think battles in exotic locales like the pyramids and Alexandria must have held a certain allure. The third is the battle of Arcole, which played an important part in building the Napoleonic legend.
Napoleon’s first command as a general of an entire army was in Italy. In 1796 the French Revolutionary Army was fighting Austria in both Germany and Italy. The Army of the Rhine was the more prestigious of the two commands, and young Bonaparte was given command of the beleaguered Army of Italy. Against all expectations and prejudices, he led the poorly equipped and demoralized troops on a tough but ultimately triumphant campaign through northern Italy, forcing the Austrians all the way back to Vienna.
The Battle of Arcole was just one of many in the campaign, and was not a showcase for Napoleon’s tactical genius. Instead it became a moment of immortalized personal bravery. The French were fighting hard to cross the bridge at Arcole, and a certain point Napoleon himself took the battle standard and waved it under enemy fire to encourage his troops. It was not the moment that turned the battle, but it was a moment that inspired paintings, stories, and created the image of Bonaparte’s bravery and boldness.
The version depicted on the Arc de Triomphe isn’t really what happened - but it is a perfect representation of what the legend of Arcole became. Telling the story of that moment in that battle helped make Napoleon a superstar back in France. If he hadn’t gone on to beat the Austrians, no one would’ve cared. But beat them he did, and so this became a moment to memorialize in marble. Napoleon would beat the Austrians many times during his reign, most famously when they had their third match-up at the Battle of Austerlitz. For more on that, let’s walk east, down towards the center of Paris, where you can see the whole story carved in bronze.
The Vendôme Column
The elegant Place Vendôme is a site we’ll return to later, when it comes time to storm the Bastille. It’s a lovely plaza not far from the palaces of the Louvre and Tuileries, enclosed by buildings that today house upscale shops and the Ritz Paris hotel. In 1800 it was earmarked as a site for a column commemorating the victories of France’s armies. In 1803 Napoleon, ever emulating ancient Rome, decreed that it should be a Trajan’s Column sort of monument, that told the tale in bas-reliefs of French prowess at arms. By 1806, the subject and the building material had been determined: The Column of the Grand Army would portray the Battle of Austerlitz. In a triumphant twist, its bas-reliefs wouldn’t be made from marble, but from the bronze of melted Austrian and Russian cannons captured at the very battle it commemorates.
Fought in December, 1805, Austerlitz was a stunning victory. For several years Napoleon’s army had been in camps along the English Channel, drilling and preparing for an invasion of England that never came. As a result, they were in top-form: disciplined, well-equipped, and rested. When war broke out with Austria and Russia, Napoleon surprised everyone with his quick action. As he would later do at Waterloo, he stole a march on his opponents and raced his Army across France to invade Austrian territory faster than anyone thought possible. After cutting off a large section of the Austrian army at Ulm, Napoleon faced a combined Austro-Russo force at Austerlitz. The French won a resounding victory and the Austrians immediately sued for peace. The Russians lingered on as enemies until the Battle of Friedland and the Peace of Tilsit in 1807.
Although Napoleon would have other great victories, Austerlitz was his first as Emperor and it was against two combined great powers. It’s no surprise that it’s the battle he wanted memorialized at every opportunity. The column in Place Vendôme was finished in 1810, and tells the story of Austerlitz in 425 bronze panels that wrap around the 42 meter-tall monument, 7 meters higher than its inspiration, Trajan’s Column in Rome. The original statue on top showed Napoleon in Roman costume. He was removed in 1814 when the Bourbons returned. When they were forced out, a new Napoleon, in appropriate military garb went back up top, only to be replaced under Napoleon III with a version of the original. That was pulled down along with the entire column during the Paris Commune of 1871, only to be resurrected in 1874 with the original statue.
Presumably that’s how the column will remain, although I can’t be sure. Currently, in summer of 2015, the column is encased in a giant box with a life-size picture of it doing poor service as a substitute for the real thing. Well-branded with the logo of the Ritz Paris, the box encourages you to follow the reconstruction on their web site. I wouldn’t bother, there’s not much there. I have no reason to believe that the refurbishment going on inside the Ritz Box is anything less than professional and historically mindful. But given the column’s troubled past, who knows what will be on top of it when the box is opened?
Why did Louis Philippe, King of the French, finish building Napoleon’s triumphal arch and restore his likeness to the Vendôme Column? He’s a king after all, and thus no natural friend to Revolution or Empires. But Louis Philippe came to power thanks to another bout of revolutionary upheaval. This time it only took three glorious days in July 1830 to oust the Bourbon King Charles X (youngest brother of King Louis XVI). In came the Orleans branch of the family, which had strong ties to the original French Revolution. Louis Philippe’s father, the Duc d’Orleans, is someone we’ll meet again. He was a noted liberal and foil to his Bourbon cousins back in 1789. He and his son both embraced the Revolution. Louis Philippe fought in the Revolutionary army at some of its most famous battles. But things turned ugly for anyone with noble blood. The Duc d’Orleans lost his head to the guillotine and Louis Philippe went into exile until after Napoleon’s final exit.
As a king put into power by revolution, he embraced many of the liberal constitutional limits and civic reforms that the Bourbons had stripped away. He also had many former Bonapartists serving in his government. Doing good by Napoleon’s memory was a populist move. After years of Bourbon abuse combined with no wars, the old Emperor’s legacy seemed more inspiring than it had been in 1815. Louis could have used some of that reflected glory. He was not the most universally adored king ever. He endured assassination attempts and financial crises and was eventually swept away with little resistance in the revolutions of 1848. He was replaced by France’s first elected president Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who staged a coup a few years later and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.
In 1821 Napoleon I died far away from France, in exile on St. Helena in the South Atlantic. When King Louis Philippe decided to return his body to Paris in 1840, he built a massive tomb for the fallen emperor under the dome at Les Invalides. Les Invalides was a veteran’s home and hospital, constructed in the 1670s. It will play an important role in the storming of the Bastille, but more on that in another article. During the Revolution the church of Saint-Louis in Les Invalides had been hung with the banners of defeated armies, and throughout his reign Napoleon held numerous ceremonies and memorials in the church to honor his troops. He not only had some of his own fallen generals entombed there, but he moved other famous French military leaders from past eras to Les Invalides.
Surrounded by other fallen leaders and some of his own kin, Napoleon’s Tomb is an imposing monument to the Emperor and his accomplishments. Placed in the path of thousands of visitors to one of the city’s significant tourist sites, it can’t be logically argued that there’s no fitting memorial to Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris. The Tomb itself is ringed by the names of many of his famous victories, but war is only part of the picture.
The portico surrounding the tomb is executed in a classical style the dead man would’ve loved. A series of eight bas-reliefs portray Napoleon in the mode of a Roman emperor or god. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe, which was completed around the same time the tomb was built, these carvings celebrate Napoleon’s civil and cultural achievements. Each piece focuses on a different aspect of his legacy. Remember, Napoleon himself had nothing to do with this portrayal. It is how Louis Philippe and his Bonapartist friends want to remember the man. They serve as a useful accounting of the many different ways that Napoleon changed the face of Paris, viewed from the perspective of 25 years after his fall.
Some of the achievements don’t hold up as lasting impacts from Napoleon’s reign. He gets a whole panel for the Foundation of the University, but there’s little lasting connection between his promotion of higher education and the University of Paris and its previous or current incarnations. But most of the panels still do, particularly those that have to do with constructing important buildings that remain in use to this day.These get joined together under the single panel of Public Works, of which there were a great many.
That Classic Look
Towards the top of the list of buildings listed in the Tomb is the Temple of Glory. The old Eglise de la Madeleine had already been torn down and new construction had begun when Napoleon took power. The original concept for the church’s design incorporated classical elements, but Napoleon wanted to turn the church into a full-on Roman temple. He had in mind the Temple of Mars Ultor in Rome as a model. He renamed it the Temple of Glory and the original inscription was a tribute from the Emperor Napoleon to the Soldiers of the Grand Army. That military message is gone, but the church remains a very fine example of a classical Roman temple.
A straight road from its steps passes through the Place de Concorde, once the site of guillotines and famous executions. More on this place later. The line travels across the bridge to what had been the Palais Bourbon. All the Bourbons having been evicted during the Revolution, it had become the meeting place for the National Assembly. Napoleon ordered the north-facing facade remade in a classical mode that matched the portico of his Temple of Glory at the other end of the street. To this day the two facades stare at each other, comparing columns and friezes.
Running perpendicular to this axis of classicism is the long, broad, and straight Rue de Rivoli. Paris at the time did not have any of the straight thoroughfares that define its geography today. The Rue de Rivoli was the first major east-west road to cut through all the winding, medieval streets. Napoleon III would cut many more such roads through the city during his reign, but the original remains today a busy and important route across Paris. It runs into the Rue Saint-Antoine, which in its modern form leads you straight on to Place de la Bastille. The Bastille is long gone, but there’s another memorial column in its place, this one commemorating the July Revolution of 1830.
Along the way west, a block toward the River Seine, you’ll find another one of Napoleon’s monuments, the Victory Fountain (or Fountain of Palms as it’s known today). Here we have lists of Napoleon’s victories in gold letters, topped with a shining winged victory. The base consists of four sphinxes, each meant to be shooting water from its mouth (although I’ve yet to see water in it). If classical Greece and Rome inspired most of Napoleon’s architectural commissions, Egypt seems to have been the muse for the rest of them. The Victory Fountain’s sphinxes are just one example of the Egyptian motifs that appeared all over Paris in the wake of Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign. Fashion, furniture, porcelain, and the decorative arts fused these classical and Egyptian motifs into the crisp, clean lines of the Empire Style.
The walls of his tomb give Napoleon credit for his public works besides buildings, an area in which he did truly excel. Napoleon was building fountains not just because they were impressive and a way to honor himself, but because he was committed to bringing water to the people of Paris. In terms of pure volume of space, his biggest project of all was the Canal de l’Ourcq. Napoleon himself rode out on horseback to survey part of the canal’s 96 kilometer course. The canal brought drinkable water to Paris, as well as providing a new way to ship goods in and out of the city.
It was begun in 1803 and built very quickly, thanks in part to help from military labor and Prussian prisoners of war. It was operational by 1809 and finished in 1813. Today the canal still cuts a clean, smooth route through northeastern Paris. A series of locks allow boats to navigate the sloping terrain as they travel into the heart of the city. At the outer end of the city the Vilette basin is given over to pleasure boat and leisure activities rather than providing water for a thirsty Paris.
The early years of Napoleon’s reign saw the French economy rebound from years of turmoil. In part this was because he was winning his wars and offloading the massive cost of his army onto his defeated foes. But he also undertook numerous initiatives to modernize the country’s economic system, including the creation of a Bank of France in 1800 and the Palais Bourse stock exchange. The Bourse is another example of Napoleon’s love of the Classical in architecture. Although he didn’t originate this design, he did choose it. These are but two of the bigger examples of the many ways Napoleon endeavored to remake and modernize the French economy and the city of Paris. There are many more.
In the category of, “well someone had to do it at some point,” Napoleon’s Imperial regime was responsible for the creation of the city’s first permanent firefighter brigade - the Sapeurs Pompiers. Sapeurs refer to engineers, and were an important part of any army - building fortifications and destroying enemy ones. These were engineer-pumpers, ready to put out fires or destroy buildings to create firebreaks as needed. When the first brigade was formed in 1811, the 140 members were drawn from the ranks of the army and authorized to carry weapons. The firefighters in Paris are still called Sapeurs Pompiers, which always strikes me as a little odd and militaristic. Although I guess the English version also has “fighter” right in the name too, so it’s not so different.
A Better Society
For all his building and infrastructure improvement, Napoleon was probably even more proud of some of his less physical achievements. His tomb’s bas-reliefs devote three panels to accomplishments that were monumental in their impact on society even though there’s no building program attached to them.
The first of these is the End of Strife. Since before the revolution, banditry had been a serious problem in the French countryside. It only got worse as the Revolution destabilized everything, and soon the bandits were joined by the counterrevolutionary armies of the Vendee and the guerrilla-like Chouans of Brittany. The War in the Vendee had been a brutal, deadly civil war that lasted for years. It was something no Revolutionary government could ever get under control.
Napoleon was able to quash most of this strife. In part, it was because he actively encouraged the emigre nobles and royalists to return to France and rejoin their country, sapping away much of the foreign support for the rebels. He also mounted an effective counterinsurgency campaign and rebuilt the local police presence all over France. His government’s methods were not necessarily any less brutal than the previous governments had been, but combined with a stabilizing economy and an end to political turmoil, civil strife did see a sharp decline.
At the other end of the emotional and patriotic spectrum, the Tomb allocates a panel to the establishment of the Legion of Honor. Napoleon was a great believe in the psychological power of symbols and totems. In the manner of Ancient Rome, he gave his army regiments individual eagles, just as the Roman legions has carried. He also created the Legion of Honor, an award that still carries great esteem in France today. Napoleon inaugurated the Palace of the Legion of Honour as an institution devoted to granting and supporting this chivalric award. Adjacent to the Musee d’Orsay, you can visit today (although it is a modern replica building, since the original burned down in 1871). Although the medal came with a monetary reward as well, Napoleon thought the titles and honorifics were a vital tool for building loyalty to the nation and him personally.
The Concordat of 1801 also gets its own panel, and this was indeed a big deal. The Revolutionary governments had confiscated church lands and pretty much driven the Catholic Church out of France. Although not a believer in church doctrine, Napoleon was a firm believer in the utility of organised religion in keeping a population content. In 1801 he reached an accord with Pope Pius VII, allowing the Papacy to once again assert some authority over its parishes and parishioners in France. But Napoleon reserved all the most important authority for himself and the restored French Catholic Church remained a shadow of its former self. Although Napoleon and the pope later had the most serious falling out possible, the principals of the Concordat remained in place until France became entirely secular in the early 20th century.
Napoleon relished these other achievements, but there was one great work that he seemed most proud of: the Civil Code. While he had no use for democracy, had a heavy hand as a censor, and generally stepped away from the more liberal elements of Revolutionary doctrine, Napoleon was passionate about the idea of equality before the law. France was in sore need of a modern legal system, and ten years of Revolutionary rule hadn’t done the job. Napoleon brought in fine legal minds to do the detail work, but he was an active participant in the meetings and discussions that formed the new laws.
The resulting Code Napoleon was the first of its kind in European history, and was a truly remarkable achievement. It alone marks the era where Napoleon did his best to concretize the ideals of the French Revolution. The Code’s precepts aren’t what we would think of as revolutionary. They are about codifying a fair law for dealing with property, contracts, civil arrangements, and the like. Their goal was to ensure fair, open and enforceable dealings between the citizens of France and to immunize them against the vagaries of judges, secret laws, and arbitrary rulings. The law was to be written and accessible to everyone, and everyone would stand equal before it.
Legal historians agree that the Code was a signal moment in legal history. Napoleon thought so too, and he insisted that all his sibling kings and queens enforce it in their satellite kingdoms. It never took root anywhere as well as it did in France, although it went on to have an important role in shaping the legal systems of other Francophone places, like Louisiana and Quebec. While better and fairer legal codes have come in its wake, the Code Napoleon served as a model for much of what followed.
Napoleon had bigger plans for Paris and France and the world. It’s interesting to note that the really fruitful period for his building projects was quite short. Most of them started around 1806, after the victory at Austerlitz that secured his popularity and power as Emperor. By 1812, when Spain and then Russia had crippled his government, there was little money or will to begin new projects. Even some that were underway, like the Arc de Triomphe or the creation of more broad boulevards like the Rue de Rivoli, went unfinished until years or decades later.
It’s fun to imagine a Paris that includes the giant elephant fountain the Napoleon had planned for the Place de la Bastille, a plaster version of which survived until 1846. In 1810 he began preparations to construct a giant palace for his son, the King of Rome. It was to rival Versailles in scope and was modeled on the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla, with multiple terraces and levels across the river from the Champ-de-Mars. The far end of the Champ-de-Mars was and remains today the site of the Ecole Militaire, the nation’s premier military academy. Napoleon intended to expand the military school with additional buildings - one for the cavalry and one for the infantry. There would also be a military hospital and a new home for the national archives. A brand new University building was to go in along the river between the Champ-de-Mars and Les Invalides.The disaster in Russia put a stop to its nascent construction.
Had Napoleon’s regime survived another decade or even two, Paris today would without a doubt be missing its most famous landmark. The Eiffel Tower now dominates the western end of the Champ-de-Mars as well as the world’s image of Paris. There would have been no wide open field on which to build such a tower on the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. If Napoleon’s classical tastes continued to direct the city’s building program, we would likely have seen many more imitation Roman structures. Two centuries later, and Paris might look more like Rome than Rome does.