Napoleon's Bicentenary Year: turning the page and moving on

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Napoleon
    French general and emperor (1769-1821)

On the occasion of the bicentenary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, RFI's foreign languages editorial staff undertook a project that aimed to shed light on little-known aspects of Napoleon’s acts and actions, the impact of which are still visible today inside and outside of France.

What was produced and written was carried in a number of reports and multimedia presentations that looked at the legacy of Napoleon, known as the "Emperor of the French”, in Brazil, Belgium, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Romania, as well as in France.

At the end of December 2021, the 'Year of Napoleon' came to an end, and after all the audio, photo, and video reports produced by RFI, along with over 100 new books published in France on his legacy, we are wrapping it up with words.

'Alive, the world passed him by, dead it belongs to him’

If you were to summarise his life you might recall the words of the French writer and contemporary of Napoleon, François-René de Chateaubriand, when he wrote of Napoleon, “Alive, the world passed him by, dead it belongs to him."

There have been many more words written about him since then. In fact, since Napoleon’s death in 1821, according to the French historian Jean Tulard, the equivalent of one book every day has been written and published about the man somewhere in the world.

That figure, however, could be greatly underestimated, according to Chantal Prévot, librarian at the Fondation Napoléon. He says that by combining all the databases of the world's largest libraries, the real figure is more likely to be between 1.8 or even two works published about the man ever day since his death.

Add to this the audiovisual content derived from Napoleon's death and that figure rises to more than three publications per day, which represents nearly 220,000 works.

Keep in mind that this only includes works that feature the words "Napoleon" or "Bonaparte" in the title, or a combination of the two.

To put this in perspective, it is worth noting that even at a rapid reading rate of two pages per minute, and with a lower average of two hundred pages per work, it would take a century of continuous effort to read it all.

Napoleonic studies

With the bicentenary of his death last year and contrary to appearances, there has been no rush to add to the vast number of publications already available. The books that were published this year would have been published anyway, bicentennial or no.

In the field of Napoleonic studies, publications are regular, and the number of productions remain stable. However, there has been a boom in the number of print runs with, it seems, a greater number of books printed than in previous years, thanks to the success of book like Thierry Lentz's Pour Napoléon (Perrin), which, to date, has already sold almost 20,000 copies - a record for this type of work, or Napoleon à Sainte-Hélène (Napoleon on Saint-Hélène) by Pierre Branda for the Perrin publishing house.

All this was widely covered in the media. This coverage has to a certain extent been marked by debate over the commemorations of Napoleon's death, a debate, it should be noted, that was shot-lived. In this respect, it should also be noted that there was no major anti-Napoleon work produced.

Another aspect of this bicentennial is that it has given rise to an unprecedented profusion of publications around the numerous exhibitions that opened over the year along with their catalogs. From Napoléon n’est plus (Napoleon is No More) in the Musée de l'Armée in Paris (nearly 45,000 visitors despite the health crisis) to the monumental Napoléon at the at La Villette, as well as Palais pour l’Empereur (Palace for the Emperor) at the Château de Fontainebleau (which also houses one of the most beautiful libraries of Napoleon anywhere, and which was renovated for the occasion), or the exhibition Napoleon and Literature at the Musée Masséna in Nice, which explores his place in literature.

Napoleon and the press

Much of the excitement around the bicentenary was most clearly visible in a place that Napoleon himself “feared more than 100,000 bayonets”, notably newspapers, and the media as a whole.

Napoleon was so concerned about the press, in fact, that he put it under police surveillance. Even now, the press of yesterday and today is still fascinated by Napoleon.

Evidence of this is clear from the editorial explosion that the bicentenary of his death has provoked and the fact that much of the polemic around some of the more controversial issues that have overshadowed it - the role of slaver women, soldiers, and civilians – has largely dissipated.

In this respect the colossal number of newspapers that have widely covered the events over the past year is telling. Among the major titles that participated are those like Le Point which, since December 2020, has published a large number of special issues on the subject as has Le Figaro, Le Monde, and Paris Match.

Elsewhere, the daily press across France also carried numerous pieces on this local and national legacy, giving the bicentenary a local context that offered insights into Napoleon as a national figure.

Finally, there were the specialized academic publications, which also published a great number of titles intended for the general public.

The kinds of books were also telling. There were dictionaries that could not be read in a single sitting, graphic novels, comic books and shorter books and articles as well.

Posthumous homage

This profusion of books, special issues, and articles that have accumulated since Napoleon's death is a posthumous homage to the man who was an avid reader as well as a highly informed censor, at the head of an "empire" of 70,000 books spread over several libraries.

Napoleon organized his libraries himself, from the creation of the collections to the classification of the works. He is known to have regretted very much that his last library, that of Saint Helena, could only hold 5,000 books.

Napoleon devoured all kinds of books: history, geography, philosophy, poetry, theatre, and literature. He read everything, except - and this is to be emphasized - religious works, a testament to the fact that he was a child of the French Revolution as well as a child of the Enlightenment.

This passion for reading and for libraries was amplified by his isolation on Saint Helena, where reading was his favorite pastime. His library was the last stronghold, until his death on 5th May,1821.

Closing Napoleon's year through the prism of the press and literature is, for the foreign language editors of RFI, an ideal way to open the chapter of the coming year, that of the quadricentenary of the birth of another Frenchman known throughout the world: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting