Sporknotes: The Coronation of Napoleon

Two years ago, I tried to get a blog off the ground that would do what spark notes does: explain things you should probably know as a “cultured” human being in an understandable way. Except Sporknotes, my poor little brainchild, would be so much more! I had plans to sum up current events, movies, mythologies, languages, artworks, historical events — pretty much anything. It turns out that explaining everything in an entertaining way is really freakin’ hard. And time consuming. Especially, if you want your facts to be correct.

Though the blog is dearly departed, its memory lives on in my Documents folder. Here is a little gem I found today:

Napoleon was the Lady Gaga of the late 18th century: he was a household name and (literally) took cities by storm.  When he decided that he wanted to be crowned King of France (how he got to that point is a VERY funny story; remind me to tell you about it later), Napoleon treated his coronation like the opening concert of his international tour.  He reserved Notre Dame Cathedral (France’s equivalent of Madison Square Garden), pretty much dragged the Pope from Rome, and hired Jaques-Louis David to capture the moment in paint-form.

Jaques-Louis David could be called the Perez Hilton of Napoleon’s time: he publically exploited the doings of the rich and famous to those who couldn’t afford to see it for themselves. Plus, he spent two years in prison for associating himself with Robespierre, which clearly makes him a badass.  So anyway, Napoleon’s bad-assery radar was clearly working well because he invited David to paint a portrait of his coronation.  David showed up and took a ton of sketches-including ones of Napoleon triumphantly crowning himself (King of the Bad Asses, duh).  He also had some good ones of Pope Pius VII picking his nose in boredom since Napoleon had taken upon himself to carry out his only job (the crowning, the blessing, the hat-wearing).

The coronation took place in November 1804, and, if you know anything about French history, pissed a lot of people off.  If you DON’T know a lot about French history, let me put it this way: Napoleon’s own mother didn’t even want to come – she arrived in France three days after the event on purpose.  Sassy Mom.

When Napoleon took his first gander at “Napoleon’s Coronation” in 1808, David’s portrayal reflected some of the country’s anger.  The artist originally showed the Pope looking bored and uninvolved with his hands crossed in his lap (probably thinking about the pizza and wine he could have been enjoying in Roma).  Back in the day when most people couldn’t read, symbolism in art was what really portrayed HISTORY, so Napoleon demanded a change.  If you look carefully at the current picture, the Pope is shown in a super low chair blessing Napoleon who miraculously looks like an NBA all star (in real life he was total shrimp status at  5’7″).

Painting : Napoleon at Fontainbleau
As for Napoleon’s action in the painting, David had a difficult time deciding which part of the ceremony to commemorate.  At first, the painting showed Napoleon crowning himself with a laurel wreath, but that wasn’t exactly flattering for the emperor. So, in the tradition of Photoshoppers everywhere, David used his artistic license and switched things around to show the moment when Napoleon crowned his wife, Josephine.  In the space where Napoleon’s big head used to be, David put in an extra (imaginary) priest who looks a whole lot like Julius Caesar, implying that France was so the new Rome (fetch).

This wasn’t the only precomputer photoshopping that David did – he added Napoleon’s mother into the crowd of one hundred and fifty people, took about twenty years (and pounds!) off of Josephine’s appearance, and gave himself a better seat in the background (selfieee!).

The coronation ceremony was so extravagant that it was over five hours long. The first draft of the painting took a little over two years to complete, but wasn’t put on display until 1808 when Napoleon was satisfied with how tall and pretty he looked.

In 1837, the painting was put into the Chamber Sacre (the Chamber of Secrets … jk! “The Sacred Chamber”) in the delicious Palace of Versailles.  David started a replica of the painting from memory almost immediately after giving the original to Napoleon (cheeky), so in 1889 this copy was put in Versailles and the original was transferred to the Louvre, where it still lives and breathes at over 500 square feet.


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