Saturday, August 11, 2012

Napoleon always lived like an emperor

The bedroom of one of Napoleon's restored villas
The bedroom of one of Napoleon's restored villas 
Napoleon's will to succeed even in exile and defeat has been revealed with the first full restoration of his two villas on the island of Elba.
The French despot was banished to the island, 12 miles off the Italian coast, in 1814 after abdicating following his defeat by Britain and her continental allies.
Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, said Napoleon's exile had hit the Corsican "as hard as one can, and in the most vulnerable place". He tried committing suicide but failed, while one witness described him as a "wild animal in a cell" in his first months on Elba.
However, his delusions of glory and grandeur were swiftly recreated. During his nine-month stay he declared himself emperor of the island and set about building roads, passing laws and redesigning his residences.
Now, a £1 million restoration project on his two villas has stripped back layers of paint to reveal astonishing frescoes hailing Napoleon's victories at the head of the French armies.
Although his private home was a humble two-storey affair, he hired the court painter at Turin, Vincenzo Antonio Revelli, for a lavish decoration of the interior. In one room, Napoleon could remember his victories in Egypt 13 years earlier amid paintings of sphinxes and hieroglyphics.
In his bedroom, he could stare at a ceiling entirely covered in his personal symbol of the bee, alternating with the cross of the legion d'honneur. A list of furniture found in archives showed that the room was bare, except for a bed and an enormous free-standing mirror.
Although Napoleon at that stage was too poor to afford drapes and tapestries, Revelli simply painted the walls to look as if they were covered in expensive material.
Ever the soldier, Napoleon brought with him a canvas camp bed, which he set up in the garden to sleep on, and plotted over maps at his desk. It is said he forced his young son, Napoleon II, to sleep on the camp bed to instil soldierly grit at an early age.
Dr Roberta Martinelli researched and oversaw the renovation work after discovering the inventory of all the furniture in the two villas during Napoleon's stay. "It was sitting in the archive at Portoferraio [Elba's capital] but no one had ever bothered to look at it," she said.
"When I first arrived, there was some distance between how the villas looked and how they would have looked in Napoleon's day," she said. "They were full of furniture and paintings from the century after, because they had been used as private houses."
The residences have only been public museums since 1938.
Dr Martinelli wants the buildings to be perfectly restored by 2014, in time for the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's arrival. She was the driving force behind a pact signed between Romano Prodi, Italy's prime minister, and Jacques Chirac, the departing French president, which will see several pieces of furniture return from France to Elba.
She has also discovered a trove of letters written by Napoleon while he was on the island at the French national archives in Paris. The letters reveal his desire to control the island, as well as his softer side; some nights he would wander through the candlelit garden and sing.
Locals are enthusiastic about the project, which will hopefully swell the number of tourists who visit Elba. At present, around 200,000 visitors arrive each year.
"Napoleon was fundamental to this island, he created everything here," said Clyde Schiavo, a guide at the museum. "We still refer to him as our emperor."
Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, slipping past the British fleet and landing in France.
However, after defeat at Waterloo he was exiled again, this time to St Helena in the south Atlantic, where he died.

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