Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Napoleon: An Intimate Portrait

After a somewhat depressing NGO conference at the American Enterprise Institute, where the former general counsel of USAID reiterated that information about possible US money going to terrorists or terrorist supporters despite certification and regulation to the contrary is probably not available because it is classified, confidential, private, or still in the field rather than at headquarters (what ever happened to "transparency"?)--I had the good fortune to cross the street to see the National Geographic Society's exhibition Napoleon: An Intimate Portrait.

The French Cultural attache had recommended seeing the largest private collection of Napoleonic relics in the world, and it was just fascinating. All the good and bad sides of the French general were on display. Maps, pictures, and charts from his ill-fated Egyptian campaign--"it's just like Iraq" said a woman at the glass case. His camp bed, the sleeve of his coat, his hat, a lock of hair. Busts, portraits, Empire-style decorative arts, plates, cups, and furniture. Pictures of Austerlitz, Moscow, and Ulm. His generals, his wives, his annulment and divorce. His descendants and his wife's--the ruling families of Norway, Denmark and Sweden still in place today are descendants of Josephine. And of course the story of Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase for $15 million.

Napoleon modelled himself on Alexander the Great. And he was not shy of using force. He single-handedly saved the Directory in 1795, when Royalist mobs attacked the National Convention. Barras sent for Napoleon, who ordered his troops to fire point-blank on the crowd. Hundreds were killed or wounded, the streets were cleared--and the Revolution was saved, at least until it became an all Napoleon, all the time, French Empire...

Barras' briefcase was in a glass case, with a note explaining that he introduced Josephine (his former mistress) to Napoleon. How he was betrayed, imprisoned at Elba, returned for the "100 days" and then faced his Waterloo and exile on St. Helena--where he died miserably either from poison or stomach cancer.

Fascinating, and well worth a visit.