Emperor Napoleon Reigns Supreme In Tennessee
The City of Memphis hosts a knockout exhibition of treasures and artifacts from the vanquished French Empire
MEMPHIS, TENN. — MEMPHIS is not only the home of the King of rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley, but until the end of September, this Mississippi River city plays host to a different monarch: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Simply titled "Napoleon," the comprehensive exhibit of more than 175 objects from public and private collections around the world is being showcased in the Cook Convention Center, a massive hall customarily used for trade shows.
Under an agreement with the French national museum system, this mega-exhibit - insured for $50 million and produced at a cost of $9.1 million - is a non-traveling, one-time-only show.
With this exhibition, curator Bernard Chevallier hopes to rescue Napoleon (who lived from 1769-1821) from obscurity. "Even school children in France don't know that Marie-Louise was the mother of the King of Rome," Chevallier says of the second wife Napoleon married in order to produce an heir.
While "real historians know the two faces of Napoleon," he continues, "most of the public, whether here in America or in France, doesn't."
Chevallier is the director general at Chateau de Malmaison, Napoleon and his first wife Josephine's 17th-century country retreat, eight miles outside of Paris.
The city of Memphis, Tenn., gave $200,000 to restore one room at Malmaison - the Council Chamber - in exchange for the opportunity to exhibit its furnishings. It was a welcome contribution in the face of the daunting restoration required at the estate.
Wars, multiple owners, and haphazard attempts at restoration have depleted some of Malmaison's original furnishings. In some rooms walls are covered with as many as eight layers of paint.
According to Chevallier, 25 rooms are in need of an estimated $5 million restoration - or rather, 24 rooms, thanks to Memphis.
"What would take us six or seven years to restore, we were able to do in six months," he said of the room's refurbishing, which included new upholstery, silk fringes, gilded chairs, and gold-trimmed ribbons.
"Napoleon" follows in the footsteps of other blockbuster exhibits designed by the city government in Memphis to promote cultural tourism, called "Wonders: the Memphis International Cultural Series." The city realized it was on to something when it debuted "Ramses II" in 1987, an exhibit that emphasized the connection between this modern metropolis and its namesake, the ancient Egyptian town of Memphis, now renamed Cairo.
The city gave $1.1 million to the Egyptian government to help restore its Ramses artifacts. "Ramses II" drew 675,000 visitors, and generated $80 million in revenue, according to Jack Kyle, Wonders spokesman.
A second personality-based exhibit focused on Catherine the Great of Russia, which was bolstered by a $300,000 donation to the Hermitage museum in Moscow. That exhibition brought in an estimated $85 million into Memphis, Kyle says. Wonders has also featured the Ottoman sultans and the Etruscans.
The Napoleon exhibit begins with a 10-minute introductory film produced by the National Geographic Society. From there, visitors ascend to the mezzanine where cassette-recorder guides tailored to either adults or children are distributed.
Louis Pounders of Nathans, Evans, Pounders & Taylor, a local architecture and interior-design firm, transformed the convention hall, beginning with a pastel-colored corridor that echoes Malmaison's grand foyer. In this room are marble busts of Napoleon's family, anchored by the handsome bust of Napoleon as First Consul carved by court sculptor Antonio Canova.
The exhibition rooms unfold in a chronological fashion. The first three galleries are done in a simple Classic Revival style with subtle wall colors that, alternately, show off Napoleon's walnut cradle from the island of Corsica; the silk, silver, copper and papier-mache wedding basket Napoleon gave to Josephine; and various pieces of the Empire's crown jewels, including Josephine's 1,040-diamond (260 carats) diadem.
There is also the well-known Jacques-Louis David portrait of Napoleon on horseback crossing the St. Bernard Pass in the Alps as he retraced Hannibal's route. (Napoleon actually made the crossing on a mule and refused to pose for the portrait; the painter's son was his stand-in.)
The Coronation or Empire Room provides a color contrast, resplendent in red, and boasts Napoleon's throne from the Legislative Assembly; as well as Josephine's armchair from the Tribune of the Legislative Assembly; and a gilt-wood candelabra displayed for the first time since the fall of the empire in 1815.
The recreated Council Chamber is outfitted with 15 restored chairs and stools designed by Jacob-Freres; doors painted after sketches by Percier representing the great warrior peoples of antiquity; a clock designed as Minerva in patinated and gilded bronze; and sets of Empire candelabra, candlesticks, and andirons.
It was in the Council Chamber that Spain returned Louisiana to France and where subsequent negotiations between Napoleon and James Monroe, President Thomas Jefferson's emissary to France, ultimately lead to the Louisiana Purchase. The display also features the original French and American documents of the purchase, along with a portrait of Jefferson that hangs in Malmaison.
For military buffs, there are numerous battle paintings, beginning with Napoleon's Pyramid Campaign in Egypt to the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. In a gallery that recalls the opulent Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, military outfits worn by Napoleon and his men are on display. In another gallery is Napoleon's campaign tent, along with his famous folding bed, and his carriage from the notorious Russian Campaign of 1812.
Other artifacts include an original copy of the Napoleonic Code book, the model of government reform that aimed to give equal legal rights to all in the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution. There also is the medallion Napoleon bestowed on Marechal Berthier as one of the early recipients of the Order of the Legion of Honor, created by Napoleon to reward military bravery, as well as civilian merit.
In another gallery is filled with yards of silk tapestry woven in Lyon, France for Marie-Louise, which was never used. The final two galleries chronicle Napoleon's decline and final exile in a modest house called Longwood on the island of St. Helena off the African coast. Also worth seeing at the convention center, though not under the Wonders' banner, is a diorama of the Battle of Waterloo.
An estimated 750,000 visitors are expected to view "Napoleon," which opened April 22. One month after opening, 100,000 adults and school children had already passed through the gates.
Et apres Napoleon? The Wonders staff is already working on the Imperial Tombs of China from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. as the blockbuster exhibit for 1995.
* `Napoleon' ends Sept. 22.