Louis Napoleone di Buonaparte (1769-1821) was born in Ajaccio in to a family of Corsican nobility and was the most famous Frenchman in history .
As a child, he spent his leisure time studying military history and strategy. He studied in France at the Brienne military school, then in Paris. Bonaparte was part of the Revolutionary movement, notably in Corsica where he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Ajaccio national guard in 1792. The following year, 1793, he moved with his family to France, where his rise began.
In 1796, Bonaparte married Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, the widow of General de Beauharnais, guillotined during the Revolution. He was at that time a very young general in charge of the armies in Italy, and in the same year won brilliant victories during the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. These made him a national hero.
Bonaparte took power, in a coup d’état, on 19th November, 1799, taking the title First Consul within a triumvirate which he established. Numerous military campaigns followed. Having broken through the Saint Bernard’s pass, Bonaparte won the Battle of Marengo (northern Italy) in 1800. Napoleonic iconography was forged in this victorious succession of military campaigns. This “martial”, then Imperial, period would inspire a new style and set new rules. The influence of Josephine can be seen in the art of gardens, decorative arts and fashion, while Bonaparte understood, mainly through painting, the importance of controlling his image and the symbols of power.
In 1899, Napoleon Bonaparte acquired the Château de la Malmaison, a grand 17th-century mansion. Josephine kept it after their divorce, in 1810. Malmaison was the stage for a new style, particularly through the decoration of the château and the embellishment of its gardens. Under Josephine’s influence, the English-style park was designed by Percier and Fontaine. Almost 250 varieties of roses were grown there, alongside plant species which she introduced to Europe for the first time and which aroused the admiration of other courts.
Bonaparte over Europe
Bonaparte, made a Consul for life in 1802, reformed the country and its administration. He placed a prefect at the head of each department, reorganized the justice system, created an Imperial university and put the state in charge of public education. He founded the Bank of France in 1803 and created a new franc, the “Germinal franc”. Bonaparte also drew up the Civil Code of 1804 (equality before the law, abolition of privileges, etc.). In the same year, he became Emperor of the French under the name Napoleon I.
After divorcing Josephine de Beauharnais, who could not provide him with an heir, in 1810 Napoleon I married Marie-Louise of Austria, daughter of the Emperor Francis I of Austria and niece of Marie-Antoinette.
The Empire style which developed in France in this period was part of the Neoclassical trend in Europe, which began in around 1760-1770. The architects Percier and Fontaine influenced architecture and decorative arts. Palmettes, finials, roses, Arabesques and Classical bestiary (eagles, swans, lions, griffons, sphinx, etc.) were used ubiquitously in Neoclassical, “return from Egypt”, and finally “Empire”, decoration. In furniture, dark, exotic and precious woods (notably mahogany) were combined with gilded bronze.
The end of glory
In 1812 and 1813, Napoleon I suffered numerous devastating defeats, in Spain against the Duke of Wellington and in Russia where the famous Battle of Berezina marked the failure of the Russian campaign and heralded the “retreat”. The myth of invincibility crumbled, soldiers died in their thousands and France lost its taste for war.
The Senate announced the deposition of Napoleon I in 1814. Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI then ascended to the throne, thereby beginning the period of “restoration”. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.
On 1st March 1815, he landed at Golfe-Juan, made his way to Paris and reclaimed power. But following his defeat at Waterloo on 18th June, 1815, against the English, he was deported to the island of Saint Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821 without ever seeing France again.
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