Liberation, Occupation—Inspiration Bonaparte? Literary and Artistic Responses to Napoleon

Liberation, Occupation—Inspiration Bonaparte? Literary and Artistic Responses to Napoleon

California State University Long Beach

14-15 November 2014

Devon Cox, PhD candidate on the ‘French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era’ project at University of Warwick recently attended a conference on artistic and literary responses to Napoleon Bonaparte hosted by the Department of Romance, German, and Russian Languages and Literatures at California State University Long Beach. Being a multi-cultural, multi-lingual department, the scope of papers and presentations was pan-European, leaning heavily towards German responses, particularly those of Schiller and Kleist, but incorporating an engaging mixture of British, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish responses as well.

The conference began with a series of readings of literary responses to Napoleon Bonaparte from writers across Europe. These included excerpts from Napoleon’s meeting with Goethe (1808), ‘German Catechism’ (1809), ‘War Songs of the Germans’ and performed scene from The Prince of Homburg [1809] by Heinrich von Kleist as well as:

  • Excerpt from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
  • “In the Desert” by Herman Melville (1876)
  • Excerpt from Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis by Ugo Foscolo (1802)
  • “Spanish Civil Catechism in Questions and Answers” (1808)
  • Excerpt from “Memoires of Friedrich von Hoven” by Friedrich von Hoven (1840)
  • “Napoleon” by Walter de la Mare (1906)
  • Excerpt from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
  • Excerpt from Ten Years of Exile by Madame de Stael (1804)
  • Excerpt from “Of Tombs” by Ugo Foscolo (1807)
  • “To Karl Theodor von Dalbert” by Friedrich Schiller (1804)
  • “Letter to Otto August Rühle von Lilienstern” by Heinrich von Kleist (1805)
  • “Ode to Buonaparte” by Lord Byron (1814)
  • Excerpt from Act II of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini (1899)

The conference illustrated the overwhelming diversity of responses to Napoleon in literature, drama, art and architecture across Europe and beyond.  These included responses during the Empire period and in the subsequent two centuries.

Day One focused on German responses to Napoleon at the outset of the nineteenth-century. Professor Jeffrey High (CSULB) presented on “Napoleonic (pre-)Occupations: Schiller’s Aesthetic Vision of Bonaparte and German Unification” followed by Laura Anna Maco’s (Università di Padova) paper on “Friedrich Hölderlin and The French Revolution, and Napoleon: Biographical Encounters and Literary Responses” exploring the work of writers in an anti-Napoleonic milieu.

A familiar theme in many of the papers was that of Napoleon’s central role in the development of nationalism and national identity in early nineteenth-century Europe. Noah Ziggy Gentele (Yale University) presented on “Ingres and the Perspectives of Bonapartism” in which he unpacked portrayals of Napoleon Bonaparte in the paintings of Ingres as a manifestation of visual propaganda in Napoleonic France.  Gentele’s paper tied in closely with that of Devon Cox (University of Warwick) who presented a paper on ‘History, Nationalism and the Napoleonic stage’ wherein he discussed the portrayals of historic figures on the Napoleonic stage in both Britain and France as mechanisms of propaganda and nationalism.

Day Two of the conference hosted an interesting battery of papers dealing with post-Revolutionary interpretations of the French Emperor. These papers included Professor Clorinda Donato (CSULB) presented on a fascinating paper on fame and the intellectual role of women in Napoleonic France with her paper “Fame, Writing, Creative and Political Foils: Madame de Staël and Napoleon Bonaparte” and Wolf Kittler (UC Santa Barbara) “Napoleon’s Take on Partisan Warfare: An Analysis of His Letters” presenting responses from Napoleon’s legions in the French islands of the Caribbean.

These were followed by a mixture of artistic responses to Napoleon’s Italian rule manifest in Italian art and architecture with Pasquale Palmiere (Università di Napoli) presenting “The Cult of Saints in Italy during the Napoleonic Age” and Richard Wittman (UC Santa Barbara) presenting “Napoleon, Roman Architecture, and the Catholic Church’s Place in the World”.

The afternoon of Day Two took a distinctly literary turn with posthumous responses to Napoleon Bonaparte with Joannes Endres (CSULB) “Friedrich Schlegel and the Musée Napoleon”, Alana K. Eldrige (University of Nebraska, Lincoln) “Under Napoleon’s Shadow: Balzac’s Young Hero and the Post-revolutionary Lens of La Comédie humaine”, Harold Schefski (CSULB) “Napoleon as Villain in Tolstoy’s War and Peace”, Priscilla Sanchez (CSULB) “Identity Theft: Bonapartism in Maupassant’s Boule de suif” and Enrico Vettore (CSULB) “Acquainted with the Emperor: Napoleon Bonaparte in Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Work”

The questions and concerns raised from this conference have illustrated a staggering amount of research being done in the field of Napoleonic art and literature. It also revealed a host of work yet to be done and I look forward to future conferences on the subject.

Devon Cox


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