Over the months and weeks preceding the 5 May we observed that coverage of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death in much of the world’s media focussed primarily on the polemic playing out here in France around whether it was even appropriate (in the light of various controversies) to commemorate the Bicentenary and more specifically speculation on whether the President of the Republic himself would partake in some sort of ceremony to mark the event. And indeed, it was Emmanuel Macron’s decision to embrace the commemorations (the details of which were only made public a couple of days before) that took the limelight in mainstream world coverage of the bicentenary events. These articles, many of which quoted verbatim whole sections of the Presidential speech made at the Institut on the afternoon of 5 May, were illustrated by skilfully choreographed shots of the socially-distanced and masked Macron and his wife Brigitte, dwarfed by Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides at the precise moment of the Emperor’s death. There was also much hypothesizing on a possible political strategy at play, given that presidential elections are coming up in France next year.
Beyond the politics, the 5 May anniversary was an opportunity for some international media to show an interest in Napoleonic history and to look at Napoleon’s legacy both in France and beyond. Many of these often-critical appraisals had a particular country-specific focus. Arab Weekly and several South American media picked up on the AFP piece on Napoleon’s “controversial legacy” in Egypt. El Nacional discussed the policy that Napoleon Bonaparte pursued in Catalonia. The Peruvian El Comercio asked whether a Latin-American expedition had really attempted to rescue Napoleon from his prison on St Helena. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign, a large proportion of articles and TV reports focussed on the unfortunate stain on Bonaparte’s copy-book, namely, his re-introduction of slavery. Haaretz on the other hand elaborated on Napoleon’s “liberation” of the Jews (including an interview with our director Thierry Lentz). The Spectator looked at the achievements of the man that even earned himself the admiration of descendants of his former enemies (Winston Churchill…), and several media in Russia pointed out that Napoleon once the invader is now revered, at least by some, as an icon. In Italy, where Napoleon’s legacy is still very present, dozens of press articles relayed the numerous commemorative events taking place in Napoleon’s former kingdom, many of which took place online, talks, debates, TV documentaries, exhibitions, even a marathon of readings of Manzoni’s Il cinque Maggio, but also a mock “trial” organised 200 years posthumously by the University of Insubria (Varese).
And, unsurprisingly, the bicentenary was also accompanied by a flurry of auctions around the world offering the chance to bid on Napoleonic memorabilia of all kinds, from jewels to paintings, from socks to pieces of blood-stained sheet, even a bottle of 1821 Groot Constantia that Napoleon might even have been served had he not shuffled off this mortal coil as those very grapes were still sunning themselves on the vine…
Yes, Napoleon still sells newspapers and much more. But it’s not just the controversies alone and the treasures that matter. We were also delighted to learn that the study of Napoleonic history is still alive and well all around the world, indeed the press relayed a number of special educational initiatives for students on this occasion. One of these resonates in particular: an online classroom event linking for the very first time via a “virtual bridge” schools at the three islands of Napoleon’s life – Corsica, Elba and St Helena – including interventions by eminent scholars. “Behind this event there is a lot of teaching and research”, said headmaster Enzo Giorgio Fazio at the Foresi High school for Humanities in Portoferraio (Elba, Italy): “we try to bring the children closer to history by making them enter into history […] making the thread that connects us in the name of Napoleon into something tangible”.
So far this year, hundreds of articles have been written about the Bicentenary and they are still coming, (I confess I still haven’t had time to open many of my google alerts!). They are proof that Napoleon and his legacy still arouse debate and indeed they put into question the significance that historical events in general can have for us today.
“Napoleon is everywhere and no one can judge him even 200 years later” wrote one Italian history teacher in her 5-May blogpost, after giving a class on Napoleon’s political history. Indeed, she gave the last word to one of her young students who, when asked how he felt the lesson had gone, wittily replied “ai posteri l’ardua sentenza” [quoting a famous line from Manzoni’s poem which has since entered common parlance: “posterity will have to make that difficult assessment”]. So yes, let’s wait and see. The 5 May 2021 was not the end of the debate, far from it, the Bicentenary year is just starting to reach cruising speed, especially now that exhibitions and museums are beginning to open once more. There’s still much to learn, and to write about, for many generations to come!
Rebecca Young is web editor for napoleon.org/en.
A few links mentioned in the text
• Split vision marks Mideast perception of Napoleon’s legacy | | AW (thearabweekly.com)
• ¿Intentó una expedición latinoamericana liberar a Napoleón Bonaparte de su prisión en la Isla Santa Elena?
• «Fu vera gloria?». L’Insubria “processa” Napoleone. A 200 anni esatti dal 5 maggio
• Grand Constance 1821 on auction
• Napoleone, le tre isole della sua vita unite per celebrarlo: l’evento organizzato dalle scuole dell’Elba, di Sant’Elena e della Corsica
• 5 maggio, altro che ‘ei fu’: Napoleone è ovunque e nessuno lo può giudicare. Nemmeno 200 anni dopo – Il Fatto Quotidiano