Napoleon and Paris at the Musée Carnavalet

The decisive transformation of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century took place under Napoleon III. But his uncle Napoleon, who held power over France and a broad swath of Europe several decades earlier, had his own notable role in the evolution of the city. In an exhibition now in its final days, the Musėe Carnavalet retraces the impact of Napoleon on the city of Paris.

Horace Vernet’s painting of the Battle of Paris in 1814

The story of Napoleon is something of a national epic, and though it took place in battlefields and palaces across the continent, Paris was the backdrop to many key scenes. The Musée Carnavalet’s exhibition, to a large degree, simply exploits the institution’s rich collection to track the Parisian scenes of Napoleon’s meteoric rise, illustrious reign, and dramatic fall.

So the exhibition abounds in view of triumphant returns from military campaigns, Napoleon’s coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral, the baptism of the future Napoleon II and the combat that took place in the city itself on the eve of the reign, in 1814.

When in Paris, the Emperor’s main residence was the Palais des Tuileries, a palace situated at the western end of the Louvre complex that fronted the Jardins des Tuileries. The exhibition contains a number of interesting views and artefacts of the palace, which was burnt down in 1871.

Napoleon as Consul, with a view of the Tuileries Palace

Upon gaining power, and wishing to quell any possible dissent in the rowdy capital, Napoleon imposed police controls on the press, theaters, and cafes. He put in place an organization by which Paris was under the dual authority of a Prefect and a Police Prefect, both appointed by the central government.

Thus began Paris’s special status that denied it any meaningful form of local democracy, which was sustained until 1977. Other aspects of the legacy continue to this day, such as the position of Police Prefect that Napoleon created, and that is still active.

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A view of the exhibition space

Napoleon did not have a comprehensive, modernizing vision for Paris as his nephew did, but he was nevertheless keen to make improvements to his capital city.

As the texts accompanying the exhibition point out, Napoleon gravitated to engineers rather than to architects. This, together with the dire state of Paris’s infrastructure at the time he took power, explains that much of Napoleon’s impact on the city was focused on the infrastructure priorities. He focused initially on very practical issues like bringing clean water to the city, preventing the flooding of the Seine and building bridges to allow Parisians to more easily travel from one bank to the other.

One large room of the exhibition is dedicated to these initiatives to improve Paris. It presents images of the canal de l’Ourcq built to bring bring water 80 miles from Picardie to Paris, of the Pont d’Iéna, and of the original Pont d’Austerlitz.

Pont d'Iéna

We also see buildings built or improved under the reign, such as the structure originally built for Paris’s wheat reserves, today’s Bourse du Commerce, the Lycee Henri IV and the Lycée Louis le Grand. There is oddly little iconography for other important buildings of Napoleon’s reign such as the église de La Madeleine, the National Assembly (Palais Bourbon) and the Bourse (Stock Exchange).

The Halle aux Blés, today the Bourse du Commerce

There is also ample material on the greatest truly urban project to have been initiated under Napoleon, the rue de Rivoli, the elegant arcaded street that runs along the Jardin des Tuileries. One of the most remarkable pieces of the exhibition is a detailed land use plan for the new street produced by the architects, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, in 1802.

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The final rooms are among the most noteworthy from an architectural and urban point of view. They contain a number of projects imagined during Napoleon’s reign that would never be carried out.

One of these is a project to finish the Louvre complex. This idea was of course implemented later, by Napoleon III, but the material presented shows interesting differences in composition and axiality between the original scheme devised under Napoleon and the design that would be carried out by Louis Visconti in the 1850s.

We also see plans for a series of institutional buildings along the Seine on the Quai d’Orsay. Of these, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was built, but it was burnt down in 1871, after having been handed over to serve as the headquarters of the Cour des Comptes. The site was used to build the Gare d’Orsay, which is today the Musée d’Orsay.

There are other curiosities, such as an impressive obelisk planned for the Pont Neuf and especially a large building for public baths planned for the center of the Pont Neuf, where the bridge crosses the tip of the Île de la Cité. The building was thoughtfully composed and would have been a major presence in Paris’s landscape.

This part of the exhibition also covers the two triumphal arches built in Paris to commemorate the victories of the Napoleonic armies.

The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was designed by Percier and Fontaine in 1806 to celebrate the 1805 campaign and the victory at Austerlitz. It was built within a few years without much difficulty.

The larger arc at the place de l’Étoile was another story altogether. Begun in 1810, it was only completed in 1836, many years after the end of Napoleon’s reign.

A review of troops in front of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

The single most remarkable piece of the exhibition relates to Napoleon’s grandest vision for Paris.

Napoleon had imagined an immense palace overlooking the Seine on the site currently occupied by the Palais du Trocadéro, across the river from the Eiffel Tower. He named the palace Palais du Roi de Rome, after the title he had given his son.

Plans were drawn up by Auguste Hibon for the palace, together with dependencies and grounds in a composition stretching from the École Militaire all the way to the Bois de Boulogne. One notes in particular the space forming a new connection between the place de l’Étoile and the new palace.

Palais de Rome

Despite limitations in terms of material and curatorial choices, the Musée Carnavalet provides us through this exhibition with an excellent opportunity to review the relationship of Napoleon with Paris and his projects for the capital.

Napoléon et Paris, Rêves d’une capitale, 8 August to 30 August 2015, Musée Carnavalet, 16 rue Francs-Bourgeois.

A catalogue has been published in accompaniment to the exhibition: Napoléon et Paris, editors: Thierry Sarmant, Florian Meunier, Charlotte Duvette et Philippe de Carbonnières, Paris-Musées, Paris, 2015.

There also exists a useful atlas of Napoleon’s Paris: Atlas de Paris au temps de Napoléon, Parigramme, Paris, 2014.