Rome, Napoleon’s unfulfilled dream

Napoleon Bonaparte never got to visit Rome, but his fascination for the ancient world and particularly for the Roman Empire marked the propagandistic vision of his legacy in European history. Today, 200 years after his death, the Roman Forum commemorates the bicentennial with the exhibition “Napoleon and the Myth of Rome”, which traces the relationship between the French emperor and the Italian capital.

The exhibition is held precisely in the Markets of Trajan, a very appropriate location. During the years when it was annexed to the Napoleonic Empire, between 1809 and 1814, Rome became the second imperial city by the will of Napoleon himself, whose government ordered the excavation between 1811 and 1814 of the area around Trajan’s Column, an exceptional monument built in the early second century to commemorate Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. The Frenchman intended to take it to Paris but when he could not, he decided to take it as a model for the VendĂ´me column after the victory in the battle of Austerlitz (1805), which he crowned with a sculpture of himself.

Napoleon intended to take the Trajan Column to Paris, but in the end decided to draw inspiration from it for the VendĂ´me Column, a celebration of Napoleonic military campaigns.

“Napoleon uses Roman emperors to legitimize himself,” explains Simone Pastor, one of the curators of the exhibition, who recalls that he was inspired by Imperial Rome to celebrate the greatness of his empire and used a propagandistic language intended to tell his followers that he was the heir to the great Roman heroes of the past.

The exhibition includes the large bronze by Lorenzo Bartolini showing Napoleon with the laurel wreath, or a marble portrait of Augustus from the Capitoline Museums that recalls the great admiration he had for the first Roman emperor. His esteem for Julius Caesar, Trajan – who was born in Baetica and was therefore a provincial like him, from Corsica – or Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was also remarkable.

Bonaparte’s interest in ancient history influenced him from his youth.

Interest in ancient history influenced Bonaparte from his youth as a student at the Ecole Militaire de Brienne, but Napoleon never fulfilled his desire to visit the Italian capital – a trip for which Rome had been preparing for years – even though he was crowned king of Rome in the Duomo of Milan in 1805. Among the pieces on display is the original l original Napoleon in his coronation habit, by François GĂ©rard.

However, Napoleon was very interested in changing the urban planning of Rome and asked the architect Giuseppe Valadier to imagine a solution worthy of the Roman wonders. The architect did so, as the plans of the time show, with a project for a square in the Markets of Trajan that was halted, as often happens in Rome, when it ran into history: there they found the ruins of the Basilica Ulpia.

Two marble busts portraying Napoleon, the first one by Giovan Battista Comolli

The emperor also intended to accompany the ancient stones – which he wanted to take to Paris – with greenery and gardens. Famous is the question he once asked Antonio Canova: “Why don’t you plant trees in Rome?”. “Because we prefer to plant obelisks,” replied the sculptor, whose works are also among the pieces now on display in the Roman Forum. Thanks to the efforts of the neoclassical artist many of the ruins that Bonaparte took to Paris were returned to their original site.

The show, now closed to the public because of health restrictions in the Lazio region, is scheduled to run until May 30. “There has never been an exhibition like this about Napoleon, a contextualized show that also speaks of the history of Rome. He was a very important character for this city,” Pastor emphasizes.

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