The Frenzy of Renown
In the new atmosphere of democratic revolution, Napoleon represented himself as the archetypal Frenchman who would restore the national glory that the nominal conservers—the aristocracy and the royal family—had so derelictly allowed to decay. In the manner of most civil wars, the French Revolution had been essentially fought over which Frenchmen would be allowed to call themselves and their actions 'France.' By his own self-conception, which accorded so well with the desires of his audience, Napoleon defined his singularity as an ability to be the container for the aspirations of all. The steps in his career bear striking and publicly stressed analogies to the rise of the young Augustus. Courting factions otherwise totally at odds, forcing enemies to work together on state projects, he placed himself beyond faction and class. But unlike Augustus's appeal to the sanction of Julius Caesar, Napoleon invoked first 'France,' the national entity that was larger than any particular class or faction, and then the sanction of his own extraordinary success, his 'destiny,' his 'star.' As in America, the state itself, as a heightened image of its inhabitants and its history, would supersede any other justifications for power.
Like Augustus, Napoleon first appears as the child of the Revolution, then quickly becomes, in turn, the victorious general, the patriotic consul, and finally the supreme emperor. Along the way he developed the ability to highlight everything he did with both laudatory dispatches (whatever the truth of the situation) and paintings that celebrated his victories and solidified his image as the man of destiny France needed; the Roman past was to be realized and made perfect in the actions of the present. Art could be news, even though sometimes the revolutionary tide of events would move so quickly that paintings might sit half-finished in the studio, their previously patriotic subjects already made obsolete by the politics of a month later. Into such a whirlwind, where the honoring images of the past were constantly being reexamined for their applicability to the present, stepped Napoleon, the Corsican outsider, to whom French culture was something to be understood as a whole, then reorganized and reshaped. Nothing marks his visible career more than his self-conscious self-creation of himself as a figure of national and historical unity. Unlike the Americans, who asserted that they were beginning anew, and so were often ill at ease with the trappings of earlier power and authority, Napoleon, like Augustus, clearly put on his power with his authority. He was at once the man of destiny—melancholic, brooding, striving alone—and the man of classic order, ensuring the survival of all those institutions, the nation itself, at whose center he stood. Galvanizing those who saw him and those who knew only his reputation, Napoleon displayed a remarkable ability to claim constant significance for all his actions. Those with him, his injunctions and commands continually implied, were on the forward wave of time and history. The Revolution had begun the calendar again; he would give France a constant series of new beginnings, new victories, new expansions, in which there were no private moments, only moments in history. Everyone in France walked on the stage of history, the object of all eyes in Europe and therefore in the world. He would be the inspiration for a revolution in political and personal self-display, inspiring a whole nation to greatness. On his establishment as first consul and the appearance of coins featuring Napoleon in profile crowned with laurel wreaths, the analogy with Roman images of authority is complete, and the subsequent administrative centralization of France and reform of the legal system makes the Augustan analogy even more tangible.
With Napoleon, the great man becomes not only the realization of the past but its salvation and justification as well. Already as a young Revolutionary general, he had marched. over the St. Bernard Pass into Italy, explicitly following in the footsteps of Hannibal and Charlemagne, then surpassing them by conquering Rome. From these campaigns he sent back to Paris huge quantities of artistic treasures from the classical and Renaissance worlds—paintings, sculpture, manuscripts—exacted as tribute in peace settlements and designed for a new museum of art in the old royal palace of the Louvre. With the Consulate (1799-1804) the paraphernalia of Roman Republican titles and imagery liberally adorned a government over which Napoleon was nevertheless soon in sole charge, even while the images of Brutus and Washington, Alexander and Caesar, were honored in statues and paintings all over the royal precincts. It was like a material version of the translatio studii, by which Renaissance writers had celebrated the gradual movement of culture from Greece to Rome to France and England. The French Revolution had given the spark and Napoleon encouraged the assumption that French Republican virtue 'deserved' the tribute of the great art of the past because it was the prime inheritor of past greatness. As he wrote in 1796, 'All men of genius, all those who have attained distinction in the republic of letters, are French no matter in what country they may have been born.' Like Alexander's diffusion of Greek art and customs across Asia or Hitler's enormous art confiscations during World War Two, it was a convenient assumption of cultural centrality in order to buttress imperial military ambition. Already in 1794, French campaigns in the Rhineland had brought back to Paris the pillars from Charlemagne's chapel at Aix-la-Chapelle (that he himself had gathered from Trier, Ravenna, and Rome) along with the Roman sarcophagus that had been traditionally identified as Charlemagne's tomb. In David's 1801 painting of Napoleon on horseback crossing the Alps to begin the Italian campaign, engraved in the rocks under his horse, like the graffiti of past greatness, are the names Hannibal and Carolus Magnus.
In 18O4, as if to complete the supersession of the Past, Napoleon is crowned emperor, not at Rome but in Notre Dame de Paris, and not by the pope but by himself, thus resolving the ambiguity of Charlemagne's relation to the Church within his own Person, barely a thousand years later. Charlemagne, who probably spoke something more like German than like French and whose court resided in what was then and later considered Germany, nevertheless became a sanctioning figure for his French Empire. But the analogies between Napoleon and Augustus or between Napoleon and Charlemagne also carried with them something beyond the validation sought by previous great generals, founders of dynasties, or lawgivers. It was a more mystical sanction, akin to Augustan auctoritas, that accorded curiously with Napoleon's own position outside official French society as a Corsican and outside official European monarchs as a non-hereditary ruler. He ruled, such nuances emphasized, not so much by power and certainly not by genealogy as by his personal force and the mysterious authority it afforded him. He pressed the analogy with Charlemagne, and it would be pressed even further by his nephew Napoleon III, who sat on a throne with a place for the forearm of Charlemagne worked into its structure. But he also enthusiastically promoted the cult of Joan of Arc, the French soldier-saint whose efforts to unify her country against England could easily be seen as evidence of God's willingness to invest a previously unknown individual with the future of France. Girodet's 1802 painting, commissioned by Napoleon, which depicts the (fictional) Welsh bard Ossian welcoming Napoleon's officers into heaven, similarly captures the prophetic and visionary sanction that Napoleon also wanted. He was consul, soon to be emperor, but he also considered himself to be a seer.
It is unclear where Napoleon got the idea of making his Italian campaign a raid on the history of Italian art as well as a political and military defeat for Italy and the Papal States. It certainly is completely in accord with his later goal of both centralizing European culture in France (rather than Rome or Vienna) and centralizing French culture and history in himself. Voltaire had argued that the cultural grandeur ruled over by Louis XIV was in a direct line from Alexander, Augustus, and Leo X (the sixteenth-century Medici pope). Napoleon's Italian victories absorbed that literary sense of historical continuity and made it tangible through his accumulation of Italian artistic treasure. At twenty-nine, after sweeping through Italy, he went to Egypt, taking not only an army but also a whole scientific commission to measure, detail, and annotate the remnants of that ancient civilization so that, like Alexander and Caesar before him, he might assert his preeminence as the vanguard not merely of great military victories but of a newly powerful culture as well.