on April 30, 2008
When I was younger, my father had a picture of Napoleon in a gold frame at the end of our hallway. You know the one. The dashing Emperor in ribbon-bedecked uniform is on a rearing horse, his face a visage of confidence, his finger pointing in the air as if rallying his soldiers around him.... This was a man in the midst of his glory, the leader who has reached such heights in history that he has grown partially into a mythical figure, a hero still in France. The fact that Napoleon also tried to dominate the rest of Europe is forgiven by those who admire him because he was a man of military genius who transformed European armies into meritocracies---who introduced the Napoleonic code to the world---even though he didn't seem to have much of a problem with nepotism when appointing new leaders to head countries.At the absolute least, any study of this person who was most certainly an ego-maniac is fascinating. I mean, here is this guy who rose from real obscurity to lead an era.... the Napoleonic Age.So, of course, I wanted to go to his tomb in Paris. As we approached the glittering gold dome first erected by Louis XIV---another ego-maniac who transformed himself into the Sun king---I thought Bonaparte really had acheived the status of legend.. Covered by the Paris Museum Pass for adults, admission for under 18s is always free. We walked inside and picked up an audio tour that helped us pinpoint things of interest inside the building. For instance, there were the initials of the Sun King around the building as well as the tombs of some of Napoleon's most admired generals and brothers. Yet, we had come to see where the Emperor himself was resting. On the bottom floor in the rotunda is a gigantic tomb made of a special, reddish stone where Napoleon's bones are preserved inside several different coffins. On the floor around this tomb, we could see the names of the leader's greatest victories on the fields of battle etched onto the floor. In addition, on the walls were many marble reliefs. If you followed the circle, you would see in the center of each motiff an idealized carving of Napoleon reveling in some of his greatest civil accomplishments. Here, I kept thinking.... Man. That Bonaparte must have done a lot of sit-ups. Shown as a Roman Emperor who seemed to not want to wear a lot of extra clothes, the Emperor's body was... well... perfect as carved in marble. Still, there is only so much one can do at a gravesite---even the grandest of the grand kind---so we left Napoleon behind us to visit the excellent Musee de l'Armee housed in the attached building. Of course, Napoleon's life is chronicled, but we bypassed this wing and went directly to WWI and WWII, more modern history. Our son wanted to find references to the battles in which two of his great grandfathers had served to defeat the Axis powers. We took our time trying to acheive this personal mission because many of the historical exhibits for this period were written in both French and English... and it was all interesting. Some of the films even had English subtitles. Finally, we spotted exhibits on the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and a model of the American aircraft carrier, the Enterprise.... all connected to our family. While proud of my country's efforts to defend liberty around the world--and the part many of our grandfathers played in this aim--I couldn't help but hope that my son who was intently reading posted explanations on the walls of the museum would never have the occassion to follow future generals into battle... to experience the worst of humankind while fighting for its perservation. Anyone interested in military history will find this museum well worth the time. The heavy doors slammed shut behind us as we left the building and walked back out into the warm sun.
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