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Although I often write about crowns, I have barely ever seen one. I live in a republic and, sadly, I rarely go overseas where monarchs (and their headdresses) are located. Today’s crown however is an exception. I have seen it often at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The crown was created as a wedding gift from Napoleon to his second wife Maria Ludovica Leopoldina Franziska Therese Josepha Lucia von Habsburg-Lothringen (aka Marie Louise), Empress of the French from 1810 to 1814. Napoleon divorced his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais for failing to provide a son and he then married Marie Louise, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I of Austria in order to provide both legitimacy for his royal dynasty and an heir. Concerning his second wife Napoleon is said to have remarked that he “had married a womb.”
Whatever his feelings, the crown Napoleon gave his second Empress is certainly lovely. The crown itself is made of silver and encrusted with 950 diamonds. It originally had 79 large emeralds but these were replaced with Persian turquoise cabochons when the crown was purchased from from Archduchess Alice Elisabeth and her son Archduke Karl Stefan in the early 1950s by Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers. To quote allaboutgemstones.com:
The original emeralds were re-set by Van Cleef & Arpels into contemporary jewelry and marketed with the slogan, “An emerald for you from the historic Napoleonic tiara.” The Marie-Louise tiara is now located at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.
Although undoubtedly the original emeralds were lovely, I have always liked the distinctive look of the turquoise set among the diamonds. Many 19th century crowns were made of the most precious gems, but no others have the unique silver and sky blue color scheme which resulted from the crown’s strange history.
The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history. Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general). Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil. Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse? Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro? Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future. But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past. The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules). Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics. The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.
On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars. As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity. The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit]. The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing. The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory. The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday. The event was very popular with the public and the press.
There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798. The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason. Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports. However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games. As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy. The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe. As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.
The aggressive drive and single minded focus which bees and wasps bring to creating and defending their hives have long drawn the attention of warriors, rulers, and merchants. There is a long history of bees as heraldic logos, military insignia, and as corporate logos and or mascots. Additionally, bees and hornets are surprisingly popular in the world of sports. Here is a miniature gallery of bees used as insignias or as mascots throughout the ages.
The Barberini were a bloodthirsty Italian aristocratic house from Florence.
The Barberini reached the apex of their power in the 17th century when Maffeo Barberini ascended to the throne of Saint Peter as Urban VIII (who was noted for melting down classic bronzes and having the birds in the Vatican garden poisoned).
Napoleon was also a fan of industrious bees. Closely looking at his coat of arms reveals that the red cloak framing the eagle shield is embroidered with bees. Not only do the bees represent hard work, ferocity, and fecundity, they are meant to allude to the golden bees/cicadas found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I, who founded the French throne in 457.
Bees and hornets are also favored by more contemporary soldiers.
My personal favorite of all bee-themed logos is the Seabees logo which was designed in the war year of 1942 and has remained unchanged since then. The Seabees are the Naval Construction forces, who were (and are) expected to build critical military infrastructure like airstrips and docks even under fire. Their motto is “Construimus, Batuimus“ (“We build, We fight!”) and the pugnacious bee on their logo reflects this with his machine gun, wrench, and hammer.
In the US Air Force one of the prominent all-weather, multi-role fighter jets is the F/A-18 Hornet and a number of badges represent the fighting elan of the men and women who fly and service them (like this badge showing a hornet beating up a tomcat).
Beyond the manor and the battlefield, there are numerous corporate bees and hornets.
The New Orleans hornets are a professional basketball team. The fierce hornet has been elided with the city’s trademark fleur de lis.
The honey nut cheerio bee has been hard-selling honey flavored oat cereal for General Mills for long years. Here the bee is pictured wobbling in space time as he annoys a professional wrestler.
The Green hornet is a comic book hero who dresses up like a stinging insect and makes his Asian manservant fight crime.
The Bumble Bee man is a long-suffering Mexican-American TV star in the cartoon world of the Simpsons. The Bee man finally brings us to real world bee costumes which I think largely speak for themselves.
I have written about the ancient Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. Europe’s other truly ancient crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which doubles as a reliquary containing a nail reputedly used to crucify Jesus. Myth relates that the nail was originally the property of Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. It is said that the sacred nail was later given to Princess Theodelinda of the Lombards in some unfathomable act of Byzantine diplomacy and she then incorporated it into her crown (which was given to her by Pope Gregory the Great in recognition for converting the Lombards to Christianity).
Although the actual age and make of the Iron Crown are unknown and shrouded in myth, laboratory tests performed on bits of wax and caustic from the crown seem to indicate it was made in the middle of the 8th century AD. It is constructed of six segments of gold and enamel hinged together. In addition to its famous band of iron, it is decorated with 22 jewels set inside relief forms of flowers and crosses. The crown is small and may be missing segments (or may have actually been intended for some other use).
It seems the Iron Crown was a sort of afterthought to the Holy Roman Emperors who traditionally traveled to Rome for their imperial coronations. On the way back to Central Europe they would stop in Lombardy to be crowned as Kings of Italy. Napoleon followed this tradition and placed the crown on his own head in 1805 in Milan. He even went so far as to proclaim the ancient ceremonial (grabby) words of coronation which go with the throne of Lombardy, “Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche. (God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it.)” Admittedly he said the phrase in French.
Whoever wears the crown is King of Italy (albeit not always a united Italy), but it has not been claimed since 1838 when Emperor Ferdinand I proclaimed himself King of Lombardy and Venetia . It can still be found in the cathedral of Monza near Milan where it has been for more than a millennium (except for the years when it was kept in Vienna among Ferdinand’s crown jewels).
The Iron Crown also has a rich literary tradition and appears in many stories and fables. My favorite allusion comes in Moby Dick when Ahab watches a sunset and fantasizes that he is wearing the Iron Crown of Lombardy as he contemplates his own madness.
Speaking of craziness, although I have no evidence, I know in my heart that Silvio Berlusconi has found a way to spend some time with the Crown of Lombardy and a mirror. If you think about the nature of the current Prime Minister of Italy (who is also Italy’s wealthiest private citizen and a Lombard from Milan) you will come to the same conclusion. The real question is whether he was wearing anything else when he put it on and how many other people were involved.
This is the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire. The story of the crown’s creation has been lost in myth but it was most likely constructed by a jewelsmith somewhere in Western Germany during the late 10th century (probably during the reign of Otto I). The Imperial Crown, was kept in Nuremberg from 1424–1796. In 1796, Napoleon was marching on Nuremberg. The crown was moved first to Regensberg before Franz II, the last Holy Roman Emperor, had the crown “temporarily” removed to Vienna. After Napoleon’s crushing victory at the battle of Austerlitz, Franz dissolved the Holy Roman Empire (but held onto the crown, which became a historical relic). The crown was returned to Nuremberg by Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938. When American forces took Nuremberg, the U.S. graciously returned the crown to Austria (although it would probably look very nice in the Smithsonian). At present the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire is with the Austrian Crown Jewels which are kept under guard at the Hofburg in Vienna, “until there is again a Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation”.
The crown is constructed from eight plates of 22 carat gold (which is why the metal never tarnishes and glisters with an otherwordly buttery glow). It is ornamented with 144 precious stones—sapphires, emeralds, and amethysts en cabochon (faceting was unknown in the tenth century) as well as more than one hundred pearls. The twelve largest gemstones on the front represent the twelve apostles. There are four cloisonné enamel pictures executed in the Byzantine style which show scenes from the bible (three plates portray Old Testament kings and the fourth pictures Jesus with two angels). To quote a Czech website, the crown is indeed “a unique artistic masterpiece of the Romanesque era.”