Napoleon Becomes Emperor
On May 18, 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor, and made Josephine Empress. His coronation ceremony took place on December 2, 1804, in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, with incredible splendor and at considerable expense. Napoleon even paid for Pope Pius VII, who had signed the Concordat of Rome, to travel to France for the occasion, believing that his presence would imbue the event with a solemn, religious feeling. Pius agreed to come, hoping to win Napoleon's goodwill towards Rome and the Papal States. However, at the ceremony, Napoleon surprised everyone by not allowing the Pope to crown him. Instead, he placed the crown on his own head, and then crowned Josephine Empress. A few months later, on May 26, 1805, Napoleon crowned himself again– this time with the iron circlet that symbolized the rule over all of Italy.
Napoleon next moved to recreate an aristocracy, a long French tradition that had been eliminated by the Revolution. In 1808, Napoleon started granting titles of nobility to people who served him particularly well.
The royal court of the French Emperor became a public spectacle of pomp and elegance. Court protocol and rules of etiquette became very complex and regimented. Josephine reveled in her new role as Empress, and cultivated a famously impressive style. Yet Napoleon himself, even though he had intentionally made a spectacle of his court, found his new role somewhat uncomfortable and difficult. He preferred to work long hours in his study to escape from court life.
Napoleon now led a double life. On the one hand, he was a stately Emperor cloaked in ermine robes. On the other hand, he was an obsessive workaholic, often staying in his study for days on end writing letters and preparing various plans. Yet Napoleon understood well the importance of maintaining a splendid image: he commissioned all the leading French artists to create art that would depict a positive view of the Empire. Chief among these artists was Jacques-Louis David, whose paintings and portraits depicted Napoleon as intensely heroic.
After executing the Bourbon prince, Napoleon realized that he had no hope of ever getting the support of the Royalists. It was for this reason that he decided he had nothing to lose by dispensing altogether with the illusion of Republic he had maintained by way of the Consulate, and openly proclaimed himself Emperor, a title that reflected his true role. Napoleon invoked the tradition of Charlemagne's early 9th-century Frankish Empire by adopting that emperor's symbol, the spread-winged eagle.
Napoleon's dictatorial ambitions were illustrated by his self-coronation and resultant slighting of the Pope. Why did Napoleon want to invite the Pope if he was going to crown himself? He did so to heighten the importance of his action. By putting the imperial crown on his own head while the Pope stood by, Napoleon made a symbolic gesture stating that he would be subservient to no one on earth, and that Rome would never command him.
He further bolstered his power and reputation through his reinstitution of the aristocracy. Hoping to create loyal allies for his government and wanting to use titles as a reward for dedicated service to the regime, Napoleon renewed the traditional French pomp and court etiquette. Napoleon did not personally like the resulting formalities, but wanted to create a certain image that would reinforce his prestige and power, and earn him ever more respect. If such rules of protocol were not enforced, Napoleon feared, people would be "slapping me on the back whenever they saw me."
Napoleon thus worked hard to create an image of grandeur and heroism for his regime. He showered Josephine with expensive gifts, and he made all his brothers and sisters royalty of minor places throughout the regions under his control. He modeled his court on that of Louis XIV's (The "Sun King"). In art, Napoleon favored the Neoclassical, and French art incorporated styles from Greco-Roman and Egyptian influences. Under Napoleon, an "Empire Style" was created, primarily promoted by David's paintings. Even furniture was selected to reinforce the Napoleonic image. Stools used on the battlefield were crafted to look like Roman chairs. Napoleonic furniture and textiles constantly reiterated his symbols: the bee and the pineapple. Napoleon even commissioned customized silverware. Meanwhile, Josephine, like a 19th-century version of Imelda Marcos, possessed perhaps the largest assembly of jewels ever gathered in one place. When she died in 1814, the Bonapartes' favorite house, the Chateau de Malmoison, had 3 million francs' worth of jewelry in it.
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