Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Homage to Napoleon, Part I

Soundtrack to post: World Hold On by Bob Sinclar on Grooveshark

Despite its small size, France was, for hundreds of years (and arguably thousands), the most successful European military power, a fact not at all forgotten by the French.  Through its military strength, the colonial empire of France dominated 1/10 of the entire world at its height, and was the second-largest  behind only the British Empire.  Pivotal to France's history of world domination are the deeds of a 5'7" man with incredible vision, ambition and military brilliance, Napoleon.

In preparation for fully appreciating the history of France, I read several biographies of Napoleon.  What a man. 

Napoleon Bonaparte
Young Napoleon

His reformation of the French civil code [the Napoleonic Code] from its oppressive feudal paradigm to reflect the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, influenced the entire modern world as it was integral to the creation of all the modern civil law jurisdictions including our own. [Towards the end of his life, Napoleon was convinced that he would be remembered in the annals of history for his Civil Code rather than his military victories.]  His domination of the rest of Europe with an army a fraction of the size of other countries through what are now known as the Napoleonic Wars was sheer strategic genius; he is acknowledged as one of the greatest military commanders in history and his military campaigns are still studied at military institutions around the world.  And he was a lover.  He fell madly, deeply, truly in love with Josephine de Beauharnais and wrote her numerous steamy, erotic letters which even leave me blushing.

I fully have a crush on him.

Napoleon is deservedly fascinating and quite a number of biographies have been written.  For a relatively quick and easy read on Napoleon's life in general, I recommend Frank McLynn's biography that can be found here.

Okay, so I won't give a summary of his life, there's many really good ones floating out there on-line.  But for me, one of the times I truly got the breadth of his...shall we say...healthy estimation of his own magnificence, was when I visited the Arc de Triomphe.  The Arc was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon (yes, this is after the revolutionary declared France an imperial power and crowned himself Emperor...the cojones on this man are incredible)...after his victory at the battle of Austerlitz at the peak of his career.

Napoleon Alps Charlemagne Hannibal
A highly Romanticized rendering of Napoleon's crossing of the Alps, on his way to surprise the Austrian troops.  Notice the illustrious names at the bottom of the painting?  Hannibal and Charlemagne.
Napoleon ordered those names inscribed in the painting as they were also great generals who famously led troops across the Austrian Alps.  And so the mythology begins.

Napoleon died in British-imposed exile on the island of St. Helena.  Louis Phillippe I obtained his remains from the British and a state funeral was held with his ashes fittingly passing underneath the Arc de Triomphe, as memorialized above.  
The Arc de Triomphe has become a symbol of patriotism and victory.  For example, the Nazis marched through it in 1940 when they occupied the country.  Later, the French and Allies marched right back through after the liberation.  Both the Germans and the French/Americans respected the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier [see below] and marched around it.

As with most monuments overwhelming in size, the full force of its glory is impossible to appreciate via photos. I never dreamed that I would be as touched by it until it slowly and majestically entered my vision as I walked up Avenue Champs Elysees from the Place de la Concorde.  By the time I got to the roundabout that surrounds it and saw the view down below, I was blown away.  Do you see the outline of La Defense (a major business district) at the far other side? 

Arc de Triomphe; La Defense

It is stunning, ravishingly beautiful from every angle. Try walking around the entire roundabout to see all its features and unique sculptures from every side.

To see it up close and to climb the Arc for the hands down best view of the city, you have to go through an underground tunnel from across the street from the Arc and come up to the bottom of the structure.  You come up, and the details of the Arc are awe-inspiring.  

Names of French generals from the First Empire with those who died in battle underlined.  
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; Arc de Triomphe; Jacqueline Kennedy, President Kennedy's grave eternal flame
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I with its eternal flame.  After President Kennedy's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis remembered visiting this memorial with him and arranged for a similar eternal flame to be placed next to President Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  

Next to the sculpture La Resistance de 1814.  

Next, getting to the top of the Arc.  You see those huge heels I am wearing in the picture?  Incredibly bad idea.  

There is no elevator and everyone has to go single-file up this tiny cramped stairway (meaning once you start, there is no turning back).  There are approximately a million steep steps and the passageway has no ventilation.  The day was extremely cool, yet everyone, including myself, emerged up top sweating, kneading our burning thighs and cursing the day we aspired to climb the Arc de T.  My date was convinced he would have to carry me halfway through the climb but was amazed by my ability to scale those stairs (his back heaved a huge sigh of relief)...he severely underestimated my ability to do everything in heels.  Amateur! 

A victory picture of me sitting pretty after trundling up a 164 feet structure in 4-inch heels.  

Positionally, the Arc is in the center of major "grand" boulevards that radiate outwards from it - so this is the view all the way around. 

And I couldn't resist these Monet skies...

We were going to stay until it was dark so we could see the lights at the Eiffel Tower...but something more important came up.  Namely, I was hungry.  And I went all the way down a million and one narrow steps in those darn heels.  No changing into ballet flats for this gal.  If my hero could sally forth on the steppes of Russia in the dead of winter, far be it for me to complain about my heels after enjoying this amazing work of art and patriotism.  Thank you Napoleon Bonaparte for building this breathtaking monument.   

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