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Friday, June 8, 2012

Napoleon: Revolution to Empire


The letter will be auctioned this weekend, and is expected to fetch up to 80,000 euros (£65,000; $100,000).

The emperor wrote it in March 1816 from exile on the island of Saint Helena.


He was determined to learn the language of his English captors, but the letter shows he had not quite the mastery he would have liked, says the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris.


The yellowed sheet of paper is one of three written from St Helena, where Napoleon lived in exile after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.


Just after arriving there, Napoleon started daily English lessons given by his aide, Emmanuel, the Comte de las Cases.


Boredom was a spur, as well as a desire to understand what was being communicated around him.


The ex-emperor was a keen student, and soon, when he could not sleep at night, he took to writing short letters to his teacher.


His prose is not always easy for modern English speakers to understand.


"Count Las Case. It is two o'clock after midnight, I have enow [enough] sleep, I go then finish the night into to cause with you," begins the letter.


Taking their cue from the Emperor, the National Gallery of Victoria's winter blockbuster exhibition covers an immense amount of territory. Commencing at the end of the reign of Louis XV, through the rule of Louis XVI, the revolution, the Reign of Terror, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire itself and ending in the exile to Saint Helena, it is an ambitious project.


Curators Ted Gott and Karine Huguenaud say one of their principal goals is to tell ''the incredible story of both Napoleon's and Josephine's fascination with Australia".


This is where the exhibition excels. Rare books from the Napoleon-inspired Baudin scientific expedition of 1800-04 are exhibited. There are maps charting Australia's coastline and sketches of the men and women of New Holland. Early drawings of the platypus are displayed; Napoleon was said to be fascinated by "[a] curious animal … the quadruped bird and lizard …"


Despite its many triumphs this is a very different exhibition to the one I expected. It is not so much a portrait of Napoleon's power as it is about the times he lived in and shaped. Largely missing are many well-worn monuments: Waterloo and Wellington get minimal attention; Trafalgar doesn't feature, nor does Admiral Nelson; Napoleon's fateful march on Moscow and his ignominious retreat aren't prominent; neither are the battles which bookended his ultimate years of supremacy, Austerlitz and Wagram.


Accordingly, the exhibition is not as visually sumptuous as you might have expected. But what it lacks in grandeur, it makes up for in the wonderful scholarship of the catalogue, the rare and fascinating books on display that show the extraordinary relationship between Napoleon, Josephine and Australia, together with the many rare exhibits secured by the NGV.


The highlight is Jacques-Louis David's iconic painting of Napoleon crossing the Saint-Bernard Pass. One writer characterised the scene as: ''violence [endowed] with a romantic grandeur … It is not only the wind that energizes the scene, crackling with electricity - it is glory itself, and glory is, in its turn, vanquished by the Conqueror's gaze."


David was no ordinary painter. During the revolution he voted for the execution of Louis XVI; a studio version of his wonderful Death of Marat shows David's solidarity with the revolution with a powerful and sympathetic portrayal of a republican hero stabbed to death by a royalist supporter.


Other highlights include furniture from Malmaison designed by Percier and Fontaine, original wallpapers of the Empire period, Bartolini's bronze of the emperor, a throne of Napoleon's made by the famous workshop of Jacob-Desmalter and personal treasures of the imperial family.


Look also for the beautiful watercolour of Napoleon's grave in St Helena and read Ted Gott's articles on how 19th century travellers to Australia who stopped in St Helena brought cuttings of willow and other plants and flowers to these shores.


The Musee de l'Emperi has lent a number of superb original uniforms, shakos (cylindrical military caps) and rifles; the curators have also secured a rare uniform worn by Napoleon in exile on St Helena. Even in defeat he dressed like an emperor.
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