Napoleon Bonaparte fundamentally changed the political geography of Europe, radically and lastingly transforming the continent’s civic landscape within a very short timespan. 2019 marked the anniversary of his birthday: 250 years have gone by since the birth of the French general, politician and emperor. Like Alexander von Humboldt, who revolutionised people’s view of nature and developed modern, interdisciplinary scientific perspectives, Napoleon, too, significantly contributed to shaping our modern world.
“Napoleon’s personality and farsightedness are still fascinating. In his Code Civil (back then called Code Napoléon), the equality of all people as declared during the French Revolution was codified – at least for the men – and neither the aristocracy nor the clergy were favoured merely due to their social status any longer,” explained Cornelie Holzach, the director of Pforzheim’s Jewelry Museum.
In 2019, the Jewelry Museum featured two future-oriented personalities. After the “Unconfined horizons – Treasures Retracing Humboldt’s Travel Routes” exhibition about Humboldt, the show entitled “A Newly Ordered World – Treasures from the Napoleonic Era” spotlighted Napoleon’s influence, as well as the jewelry and fashion of his era, which were undergoing major changes.
The 150 exhibits included pieces created by Nitot, Napoleon’s court jewelr, numerous pictures illustrating how Napoleon presented himself and had himself depicted, as well as documents and both utilitarian and luxury items that provided visitors with an impression of his epoch.
Like Alexander von Humboldt, who revolutionised people’s view of nature and developed modern, interdisciplinary scientific perspectives, Napoleon, too, significantly contributed to shaping our modern world.
Jewelry created in Napoleon’s era
The jewelry of Napoleon’s era was very different from that created before the French Revolution. It was more unobtrusive, but no less precious and all the more valuable. Its formal idiom was reminiscent of the Biedermeier style: delicate and, unlike the pompous Baroque jewelry, sleekly simple and finely crafted, gilded and oftentimes embellished with intaglios and laurel leaves.
Diadems and representative necklaces created some years ago were on show, as well as a golden dinner service and belt reminiscent of the time enhanced with malachite and intaglios fastened at the wearer’s back with silk bands, gathering the fashionable and gently flowing fabric below the bosom.
“The garments worn during the Ancien Régime, comprising breeches and wigs, corsets and crinoline dresses, were entirely unfashionable and no longer wearable after the political change. The beginning of the Directory in 1795 brought about the development of a distinctive, antiquity-driven Parisian fashion.
“Women were now wearing short-sleeved dresses with a high waistline, whose cuts and designs required new types of jewelry. Napoleon was an aficionado of cameos and intaglios in the classical antique style, which in addition to symbolising his imperial aspirations, highlighted the gemstones’ multi-layered structure to perfection,” said co-curator Martina Eberspächer.
Fabrics were often enhanced with a bee motif that, in a sense, was symbolic of turning away from the royalist lily. Another facet is Berlin Iron Jewelry. During the period of the Napoleonic Wars of Liberation from 1813 to 1815, ladies were asked to donate their precious metal jewelry and exchange it for iron jewelry. In line with the motto “I gave gold for iron,” they regarded themselves as patriots of sorts.
“These interrelationships between the arts and crafts and politics can be appositely spotlighted by this exhibition. That’s what I find particularly exciting about it,” said Martina Eberspächer. “We presented an overview of the Napoleonic era, which brought about fundamental societal changes within a relatively short period of 15 years. During these highly dramatic years, it also inspired the creation of superbly crafted objects. In Baden-Württemberg, particularly, whose precursor states were being contoured back then, the Napoleonic era had far-reaching consequences.”
A Newly Ordered World: Treasures from the Napoleonic Era spotlighted Napoleon’s many influences, as well as the jewelry and fashion of his era, which were both undergoing major changes.
The life and achievements of the French emperor
Born in the Corsican capital, Ajaccio in 1769, Napoleon Buonaparte was a descendant of an Italian family of minor nobility and had seven siblings. Thanks to a scholarship for impoverished students of noble lineage, he was able to attend a military school, where his strategic skills and his will to power soon led to his meteoric rise.
Napoleon knew how to translate his successes on the battlefields into political power and, by marrying Joséphine Beauharnais, a noblewoman who had close links with Parisian high society, he also climbed the social ladder. In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the revolutionary government and became First Consul. In 1804, he published the Code Civil as the first code of civil law in France, which was soon adopted by other states as well, thus translating the Revolution’s central notion of liberty into a legal form that is still valid today. In the same year, he appointed himself emperor and started his wars of expansion.
In 1809, he divorced Joséphine because their marriage remained childless and married the Austrian emperor’s daughter Marie Louise with whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon II. In 1812, his Russian Campaign ended in disaster, and a year later he lost the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig.
Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba, but he suffered a crushing defeat at Waterloo and was banished to the British island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote: “Napoleon is not made of the wood used to carve kings – he is made of the marble used to make gods.”