Monday, February 23, 2009

Go Napoleon

Ah, Gentle Reader, the history of Napoleon Bonaparte, otherwise known as "the little corporal", the Emperor of the French, and "Boney", is as long and complex as it is often hilarious. Where to begin?

Why not with one of the most famous picture of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David? This particular painting includes portraits of every official present at the ceremony, from the Pope (who was originally painted with his hands in his lap, before Napoleon said that the Pope had to be doing something, at which point David re-painted the Pope with a hand extended, as if in a blessing) to Napoleon's mother (who did not actually bother to show up to the coronation at all).

The creation of this particular painting was long and extremely complicated. At the cornonation itself, David got an impared sightline (it was impossible not to; Notre Dame was not built so that artists could capture every detail of a coronation) and challeged someone with a supposedly better view of the proceedings to a duel. Then came Napoleon's spiteful and self-absorbed sisters, who hated Josephine and refused to carry her train. Napoleon then informed them that, if they didn't carry Josephine's train in the procession, they would not be part of the procession and their resentment faded to trying to trip Josephine during the ceremony (Josephine didn't). Then the Pope discovered that Napoleon and Josephine had been married in a town hall, under the laws of the Directory and refused to continue with the ceremony until they were married by a priest. It was a long, frustrating process, and the creation of the painting itself was no better.
Napoleon was probably the best propagandist of his era and knew the power of the image and so everything had to be perfect. This meant that David got a lot of surprise visits from the Emperor, who offered general critiques and insisted David repaint his canvas. The final result is above; Napoleon, who has the power to decide and commands centerstage, is crowning Josephine to show that he controls the government and the succession (of which Josephine is now a part) and also frees Napoleon to wear a laurel wreath a la Caesar.
Unfortunately, Josephine was barren and so got kicked out of the succession via a divorce. Ironically, the only other Bonaparte to regain control of France was Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew and (due to a slightly bewildering marriage between Napoleon's brother Louis and Josephine's daughter from her first marriage, Hortense), Josephine's direct descendant, and not Napoleon's.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Uncorking Old Sherry

It has been far too long since the Amateur Historian has paid homage to the man whose name graces the title of this blog. This particular print, drawn on March 10, 1805, is not only a witty satire against Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a playwright (he wrote the charming and wickedly witty School for Scandal of which there are very few adaptations and, alas, fewer decent ones), owner of the Drury Lane Theatre and Whig politician, but also another installment of Funny Things That Happened to Pitt the Younger.

In 1805, Pitt the Younger was in the first year of his second term as Prime Minister, after having retired for two years due to ill-health and the king's knee-jerk reactionism to Catholic Emancipation and Napoleon was gleefully conquering the Continent. He was brought back because the previous Prime Minister, Addington (in the print lying spilled on the floor; he's labeled 'medicinal wine' because he was the son of a doctor) was deeply unpopular for his incompetence in trying to get Napoleon to agree to an armistice and then sticking to it. Pitt therefore introduced a bill to change the recruiting policy for the Army, causing Sheridan to get up and gave a long and rambling speech about nothing in particular.

This very well might be one of the Amateur Historian's favorite Pitt the Younger moments, as Pitt responded by criticizing Sheridan's use of rhetoric, complimenting Sheridan on 'his extraordinary powers of imagination and of fancy' and then comparing Sheridan's oratory to 'a bottle just uncorked [which] bursts all at once into an explosion of froth and air. All that his own fancy can suggest or that he has collected from others; all that he can utter in the ebullition of the moment; all that he has slept on and studied are combined and produced for our entertainment...and out it comes altogether, whether or not it has any, even the smallest relation to the subject in debate.'

This print, of which Sheridan himself bought six copies, has Pitt, still thin from ill-health "Uncorking Old Sherry", i.e. quite literally taking the cork out of a bottle with Sheridan's face in it. The bottle spews forth invective, stolen jests, lame puns, dramatic ravings, egotism, damned fibs, groans of disappointment and the like. Behind Sheridan are all the other members of the Whig party, capped with a bonnet rogue and labeled based on their political opinions or their place of origin. For a better copy of the print and to read Pitt the Younger's scathingly witty comparison of Sheridan to an uncorked bottle (written under the print itself) click here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Like Father, Like Son

In 18th century France, most sons took up their fathers' trades.

This was also true of executioners. The Sanson family played a central role in the lives (and deaths) of most of the main figures of the French Revolution. They had been the state executioners since 1688, when Louis XIV appointed Charles Sanson to be the royal executioner. Charles-Henri Sanson, here holding the head of Louis XVI, was the main executioner during the French Revolution and was extremely private. Little is known of his personal life, though his manner was professional and apparently efficient.

Oddly, though the state prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville was sent to the guillotine during the Thermidorian reaction (i.e. the conservative reaction to the Terror), the Sansons were perfectly safe and, in fact, stayed the offical executioners of France well into the 19th century.

The last Sanson to serve as state executioner was dismissed in 1847, after he pawned the state guillotine to pay a debt.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oh those idealistic authors....

Percy Blysse Shelley was not the only author was a rather too-idealistic view of how his work would be received.

Olympe de Gouges was a prolific pamphleteer, playwright and novelist during the French Revolution, who took an unusually proactive role within French society. She was widowed at 18 and, with her husband's fortune, began publishing her work. In order to get her opinions heard in public (since women could not mount the tribunal and give speeches in the National Assembly except in extraordinarily rare cases), she published her own pamphlets and posted them on walls, houses, lamp posts, trees, buildings... during the French Revolution, one of the most effective methods of disseminating information was to post pamphlets on every available stationary surface.

However, Olympe de Gouges decided to post hundreds of copies of her pamphlet "Three governments' battle to the death", in which monarchy, federalism and republicanism duke it out for the Grand Prize of France and de Gouges takes care to point out the good points of each government, including the monarchy. She chose to do this in the middle of a civil war between monarchists and republicans, in Paris, no less, the seat of the republican government.

Olympe de Gouges expected to open debate and to insert her opinion into governmental procedures, as had happened when she published a pamphlet offering to act as Louis XVI's trial lawyer.

She got arrested instead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Literary PSA

On the subject of Lord Byron, the Amateur Historian would like to make a general statement on the Byronic hero for the edification of her gentle readers:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Breakfast with Lord Byron

Ah, Gentle Readers, today is a special day! For those virtuous few who rise early may dine with Lord Byron... after he shoos away his company from last evening and takes out his hair curlers of course.

Your meal will consist of tea with a raw egg stirred in, if Lord Byron is feeling partiuclarly hungry, or watered vinegar if not.

You will probably be feeding Byron's manorexia and vanity more than anything else, but you will be the envy of all of London and a jealous Lady Caroline Lamb (possibly Byron's most famous lover, if one does not count the questionable liasons between Byron and his half-sister, Augusta Leigh) will most likely faint on your doorstep and hate you forever.

More Fun Times With Blake

Mention has been made of the ecentricities of William Blake, who also took advice from his dead brother, saw angels in a tree outside his home and once saw God outside his window.

A patron came by Blake's home one day to buy a book. Not finding Blake indoors, the patron went around back and found Blake and his wife, sitting completely naked in their garden, reading Milton's Paradise Lost.

"Come join us!" quoth Blake. "We are Adam and Eve."

No record is left of the patron's participation in this Edenic scene, or if said patron ever got his book.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oh that Crazy Blake!

The Amateur Historian would like to apologize for the lack of updates and blames the demands of a college education. Speaking of education, here are a few Historical Tidbits about a man who recieved very little formal education, the Romantic poet, William Blake.

Blake was an odd character, whom all the other Romantic Poets found bewildering, and whom Wordsworth and Coleridge called "crazy Blake". Coleridge, reviewing Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, found fault with Blake's hand-drawn illustrations, in particular with the "I don't know whatness of the countenance, as if the mouth had been formed by the habit of placing the tongue, not contemptuously, but stupidly, between the lower gums and the lower jaw." Coleridge also diapproved of "the mood of the mind", i.e. the supposed sanity of the poet. Robert Hunt, a critic of the time, was highly upset that "the ebullitions of a distempered brain [were] mistaken for the sallies of genius... [in the] admirers of William Blake, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of the Examiner, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate."

The Amateur Historian personally thinks that the best line from Hunt's review is as follows:

"The praises which these gentlemen bestowed last year on this unfortunate man's illustrations... have, in feeding his vanity, stimulated him to publish his madnesss more largely."

The fact that Blake amped up the crazy in order to get people who annoyed him to leave him alone probably did not help this impression.