Napoleon’s celebrity

Recent media reports indicate interest in establishing a Napoleon-focused theme park near Paris. Here, this sounds bizarre. But Napoleon is still a celebrity in Europe, not just in France but in the states which fought against him. The Münchner Stadtmuseum’s display on local history included a death mask of Napoleon, for example, and he featured in two of the ten artefacts chosen for a ‘highlights’ exhibition at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery last year.

The items (a contemporary diary and a later painting) referred to Napoleon’s sojourn in Plymouth Harbour in 1815. Following his surrender, he and an entourage were brought to England on the Bellerophon and kept at a safe distance off-shore while decisions were made on what to do with him. Undaunted, row-boats full of people crowded around the Bellerophon to get a glimpse of him – not out of a sense of schadenfreude, or the desire to harm or humiliate a recently terrible foe: he  was popularly celebrated as Napoleon, not as a vanquished opponent. The response of the Cary family is indicative – despite having relatives in the English navy, and having hosted naval officers at their home at Torre Abbey, they sent fresh fruit from their garden as a present for him.

The death mask looked unfinished, sticky around some of the eyelashes, unsatisfying around the chin. Some kind of authenticity was claimed in the accompanying label. (Not only is there the question of which level of ‘descendant’ a Napoleon mask may be – whether it’s a copy of a copy, or a copy of a copy of etc – but whether it really is Napoleon.)