The heritage of Napoleon Bonaparte

On 5 May 1821, the greatest French conqueror, fallen Emperor after the defeat at Waterloo, passed away while in exile in Saint Helena. Today, 200 years later, we can only observe to what extent he has left a mark on the history of Paris, of France, and of Europe. The stamp of his legacy is without doubt most visible in architecture, the arts, and culture.

Fascinated by Imperial Rome, which he dreamed of reviving, he began constructing monuments with the aim of making Paris the showcase of the Empire; a city whose splendour and order (public and architectural) would be admired by the whole world. 

Napoleon’s extravagant projects

In his proclamation to his solders the day after the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon is said to have declared “I will take you back to France. You will only return to your homes under triumphal arches.” His promise was upheld a year later when he ordered the construction of two Arcs de Triomphe. The first, erected in Place de l’Etoile, sits majestically at the top of the Champs Elysées in Paris. It is one of the symbols of the French capital. It embodies all the luxury associated with the City of Lights. The second is more modest in size and located in front of the Louvre, extending the path between the Palace (now a museum), and the most beautiful avenue in the world.

In 1810, to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon also had the Vendôme Column built, which is topped with a statue representing him dressed a Roman Emperor. It was inspired by Trajan’s Column in Trajan’s Forum in Rome.

We are also indebted to Napoleon for the monumental Église de la Madeleine. A perfect example of the era’s neoclassic architectural style, it sits facing the Place de la Concorde. It was modelled on the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, vestige of the Roman Empire in Nîmes. His plan was to make it a temple in honour of the Grande Armée. The Bourbon Palace, on the other side on the Seine, was also transformed under the Empire to accommodate a 12-column facade, parallel to the Madeleine. 

A little further upstream along the Seine, he also had the famous rue de Rivoli built, with the arched buildings that can still be admired today.

In order to provide Parisians with drinking water, the Emperor commanded the construction of the Ourcq, Saint-Martin and Saint-Denis canals. He also took the decision to build three new bridges: the Pont des Arts, Pont d’Austerlitz, and Pont d’Iéna. The latter two are references to his victories of 1805 and 1806.

Urban planning 

Napoleon’s influence remains visible throughout Paris. Some of the capital’s most prestigious avenues have kept the names of the Emperor’s battles (Iéna, Wagram, Austerlitz, etc.) as well as the Boulevards des Maréchaux (Boulevards of the Marshall) that encircle the city.
It is thus very intriguing to note that there are no squares, roads or avenues that bear the name of the man set on immortalising his reign. The only exception is the rue Bonaparte in the sixth arrondissement. We also owe thanks to Napoleon for the numbering of the buildings in the streets. 

Beyond the capital

The Emperor didn’t hesitate to leave his mark on architecture outside of Paris. The famous Arco della Pace in Milan was ordered to be built by Napoleon to commemorate his victories just after invading Italy in 1800. In Bordeaux, he issued a decree listing all the works he deemed necessary in this city that he found to be lying in decay. He therefore had the historic Pont de Pierre built, which crosses the river Garonne. The Column of the Grand Armée was constructed in Boulogne-sur-Mer. And we mustn’t forget the major transformation of the Place Bellecour in Lyon or the construction of the Fort Napoléon in Seyne-sur-Mer.

A new style emerges

Also part of Napoleon’s legacy is the unique Empire style. Created by Percier and Fontaine, the style bears the traces of the Emperor’s personal history and the exaltation of his grandeur and glory. 

The main references of its composition have origins in Roman and Greek antiquity; it was a new renaissance. He also included his passion for Egypt in it. 

Thanks to the expansion of the Empire across Europe, the style quickly spread. The predominant characteristics are warrior motifs inspired by battles, laurel wreaths and legendary creatures like nymphs. The supremacy of the Emperor is also reflected by symbolic animals like lions, elephants and bees, which he chose as symbols, as well as by laurel wreaths and palms. The style equally made its mark on fine arts, furnishings and decorative arts.

Two hundred years after his death, Napoleon’s legacy lives on in the streets of Paris and Milan. After Louis XIV, he was one of the most incredible luxury architects in France. It was he, therefore, who definitively established the City of Lights as a global capital.

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