The Celebration of the Baptism of the Roi de Rome

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Although initially set for 2 June, 1811 (Whitsunday), the Roi de Rome‘s baptism was pushed back a week, to 9 June (Trinity Sunday), as some complicated religious wrangling took place in the French capital. Since the Pope’s confinement in Savona since 1809, Napoleon’s relations with the Catholic church had worsened considerably. Of particular concern for the emperor was the issue of canonical institution (the conferral of the right to exercise the functions as a bishop), the power for which lay solely in the hands of the Pope. With a number of bishoprics empty and the Pope, having excommunicated Napoleon, refusing to institute Napoleon’s nominations, Napoleon needed the affair resolved. A national council was set for 9 June in order to discuss transferring the power of canonical institution from the Pope to the Metropolitan Archbishop, and the removal of Pius’ temporal rule. Failure to resolve these issues would result in the collapse of the Concordat. It was these matters of utmost religious importance that came to dominate discussion; by the middle of May, the baptism had been postponed to 9 June “for reasons of slight importance” (Cambacérès’ memoirs offer no further explanation), with the knock-on effect being that the baptism and the council were now set for the same day. Napoleon, hoping to make a virtue out of a necessity, delighted at the idea of both events taking place on the same day, but the bishops concerned (in the words of the French historian Adolphe Thiers) “claimed that the majority of them were too old to cope with the fatigue of attending two such ceremonies in a single day”. It is hard to say whether this was a sincere complaint, or whether they were intent on doing their utmost to avoid attending a baptism ceremony that would unite the State and the Church in venerating Napoleon (cast out from their church) and his son. Whatever the motives, Napoleon accepted their argument, and the council was itself moved to 17 June.

Nor was it merely the Catholic church taking part in the celebrations. The Moniteur newspaper of Sunday 9 June reported that the Evangelical Lutheran temple in rue des Billettes in Paris would celebrate the baptism of the Roi de Rome by the singing of a Te Deum and public prayers. The Israelite Consistory of the Paris circumscription had decreed that prayers would be sung in the temple in rue Sainte-Avoie, Paris. The Monday 10 June issue of the Moniteur reported on the celebrations of the day before.

As for the grand ceremony itself, it took place in the early evening of Sunday 9 June. The roads had been secured by the Imperial guard and troops from the garrison of Paris at 2pm. A canon blast at 5h30pm announced the departure of the imperial couple from the Tuileries Palace. The crowds saluted their passing with cries of ‘Vive le Roi de Rome’. All the institutional invitees (Senate, Council of State, Corps législatif, Cour de Cassation, Cour des Comptes, Cour de l’Université, the Paris Corps municipal, the mayors and députés for the 49 bonnes villes invited by the Hôtel de Ville) had been accompanied to Notre-Dame by a military escort; they were all in place by 5h30pm when the clergy entered the cathedral in procession. The imperial cortege entered the building shortly after 7pm, the emperor and empress being escorted to their kneelers in the chancel under individual canopies borne by cathedral canons. After a short ceremony, during which Cardinal Fesch sang the Veni creator, the emperor, the empress, the king of Rome and his governess and the rest of the imperial entourage approached the chancel screen for the Catechumens’ ceremony. They then entered the choir for the baptism proper, after which the empress stood up and held the child as the chief herald, Monsieur Duverdier, cried thrice “Vive le Roi de Rome”, a cry taken up by the congregation for a long period. The Emperor then took the child and lifted him up, visibly deeply moved. The musicians of the imperial chapel, conducted by Lesueur, then performed the Vivat (‘Long live the emperor’).

The baby was then taken back to the Tuileries whilst choir then sang the Te Deum, followed by the Domine salvum (‘God save the emperor’). After this, the imperial couple repaired by carriage to the Hôtel de Ville for the civic celebrations, which began at 8pm. These included four official receptions, a banquet, a concert (a performance of Méhul’s Chant d’Ossian (libretto by Arnault), with the famous bass, Monsieur Lays, in the title role). Particularly appreciated was the semi-chorus (placed high up) of Heroic Shades. Napoleon then repaired to the throne room to receive a circle of invitees. He then was taken to view a representation of the Tiber made with trained water channels that provided agreeable freshness. The imperial couple left at 11h30pm, at which point a ball then began in the Throne room. This lasted until dawn, with the interval of a supper at 1am.

On the same day, far from the imperial inner circle, there were ‘mariages de rosières’ (young pauper girls given dowries and married to military men), amusements of all sorts including tightrope walkers, acrobats, strongmen, etc. At 3pm began the carousels and a cavalry tournament which included sword and lance jousts. There were also musical groups playing dance music along the environs of the Champs-Elysées up until the grand allegorical firework display in the Place de la Concorde, which ended with the ascent of a balloon which flew away. There were illuminations of public buildings, some notably having allegorical transparents projected upon them, and since all traffic had been strictly banned from the city centre, the whole was enjoyed by “the immense population of the city” up to 1am.

This article forms part of our close-up on: the birth of the Roi de Rome.

P.H. 31/05/2011

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