The imperial carriage

(To Paolo Palumbo)

This year, on May 5, the gentle verses of the Manzoni ode will resound in various places in Italy to commemorate the death of a character who, even today, arouses mixed feelings: Napoleon Bonaparte. Our country, thanks to the formation of a National Committee for the celebrations of the bicentenary, has rediscovered this part of history which had a fundamental significance for the birth of a united Italy.

Celebrate it yes, celebrate it no? A question that involved (in primis) the French historians who, far from forgiving everything to their illustrious ancestor, have placed him at the center of a debate in full "politically correct" style which certainly does not restore justice to the value of history. There have been many disputes against Napoleon: starting from misogyny, up to the fact that it was he who reintroduced slavery. This - all true for heaven's sake, with some doubts for women perhaps - risks bringing us rights towards a recurring error, caused by a total lack of historical perspective, but above all of historical knowledge. Indeed, how is it possible to judge the past using the parameters of the present? This is done only in one case: that is, when the judge does not have the necessary skills to understand the past and therefore is obliged to rely on the present. The result is therefore a distorted, prejudicial and certainly incorrect view of the events. But be careful: in the same way it would be a grave mistake to choose to praise, glorify and accept everything that comes from an era - such as the Napoleonic one - which claimed victims all over Europe to satisfy the personal ambitions of a single ruler.

The only thing we can unanimously agree on is that Napoleon, an energetic man just five feet tall, crossed his century leaving a mark, still recognizable today in the politics of a Europe that he himself would have dreamed of united, but under the its total control.

As we said, the Committee for the celebrations of the bicentenary, admirably led by the number one of the studies on the subject, prof. Luigi Mascilli Migliorini, brought together all the "Napoleonic" under a single flag in order to retrace - with a critical sense and impartiality - the most salient stages of Napoleon's life until his death in the remote and humid island of Sant'Elena.

In this colorful corollary of events and with an eye always turned to the numbers of the pandemic, the Reggia di Venaria, leader of the Savoy Royal Residences, has chosen to remember (not celebrate) the historical figure of a leader who, despite the conflicting relationship with Piedmont and its reigning house, has delivered to Italy a unitary idea that only the Savoy family were able to carry out after years of conflicts and daring political maneuvers.

From Marengo to the Reggia di Venaria

What we are about to tell is an exciting story that - mind you - has yet to find a happy ending since the object we are going to talk about is at the center of an investigation that involves the Conservation and Restoration Center of Venaria, the Study Center of the Reggia di Venaria and the French state association Napoléonien souvenirs (delegation of Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta).

On May 5, 2021, in the immense Great Juvarriana Stable of the Reggia, the imperial carriage "called" of Napoleon will triumphantly enter.

Why only "said" and not "of" Napoleon? In 1805, having recently worn the imperial crown in the sumptuous cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Napoleon went to Italy where, for some years now, French ideas spread “with the tip of a bayonet” were changing the face of a still divided nation. The 1805 trip, however, would have been very different from those of 1797 or 1800: the emperor, in fact, was going to Milan to wear the "Iron Crown" on his head which would have sanctioned his sovereignty over the beating heart of the Italian peninsula. . Of course, the central and southern regions remained far from his control, but it was only a matter of time. Once in Piedmont, the French emperor went to Marengo to attend a parade in memory of the battle of June 14, 1800: that fateful day when his friend Desaix saved him from a probable defeat. It was during those days that the legend of the “abandoned” carriage was born: a sumptuous car, built in 1805 by the Parisian craftsman Jean-Ernest-Getting, Napoleon's coachbuilder. According to some, one of the cars of the imperial convoy broke down and had to be abandoned in Marengo. Obviously there are no documents supporting this theory, nevertheless there are more plausible traces on the history of the carriage leading to the end of the Napoleonic era. In all likelihood the imperial car arrived in Milan and remained there at least until 1816, when it reappeared in the hands of the Empress Maria Luigia, the Emperor's Habsburg wife, who brought it to Parma the year she became Duchess of Parma. Piacenza and Guastalla.

From the day the French emperor was crowned king of Italy, the Napoleonic parable was in continuous rise, but once it reached its peak, Napoleon himself fell victim to the art in which he excelled: war. The campaign in Spain in 1808 and the disastrous retreat of Russia in 1812 wore down the myth of French invincibility and, within a few years, Napoleon found himself a prisoner and exiled to Saint Helena, with no possibility of redemption. After years of painful imprisonment, relegated to the windy and damp Longwood, on May 5, 1821 Napoleon took his last breath, burying with him the lights and shadows of his amazing adventure.

On May 5 the man died, but the myth was born: his death was, in fact, the beginning of an emotional rebirth in the memory of those who had admired, served and supported him. Words, memories, objects, symbols and anything else that reminded the emperor, became the object of a pagan cult that continues today.

The authorities of the Restoration, in particular the Austrians, tried in every way to clean Europe from Bonapartism, however the operation obtained only partial results. In an Italy dominated for the umpteenth time by foreign hands, the reminiscence of Napoleon continued to penetrate the hearts of many Italians, including the pharmacist Antonio Delavo. This wealthy Alexandrian, right in Marengo, wanted to set up a museum dedicated to the battle: a choice of courage in the Piedmont of Carlo Alberto. Among the various objects collected to fill the museum rooms, Delavo once again managed to get his hands on the carriage that had now fallen into oblivion, buying it from the Austrian authorities. At this point - according to the reconstruction made by Andrea Merlotti, director of the Study Center of the Reggia di Venaria - the carriage was the subject of a first intervention or, if you like, of a historical forcing that would lead it back to Napoleon: “The imperial coat of arms placed on that of Maria Luigia to 're-Napoleonize' the sedan probably dates back to this period. This remained in Marengo for a century, becoming one of the main attractions of the Museum. Already in 1854 it was reproduced with admiration in the volume Marengo et ses monumens, published in a Paris where the Bonapartes had now returned to the throne ".

After various changes of ownership that concerned the museum of villa Delavo, the carriage was left unattended in Marengo, becoming a destination for onlookers and vandals who engraved their name on various wooden parts. "With the closure of the Marengo museum" - continues in the story Merlotti - “The Napoleonic sedan passed into the possession of the Novi Ligure antiquarian Edilio Cavanna. The latter - said "la Stampa" of 1 July 1950 - took her to a large room, among country tools and other out of order vehicles ", where those who wanted could" visit the relic giving a small tip ".

In 1955, before the car really ended up crumbling due to neglect and time, Gustavo Adolfo Rol, one of the most curious and in sight of Turin well, decided to buy it as he too was an admirer and collector of Napoleonic memorabilia. Gustavo Rol hoped to see the carriage worthily exhibited in some Turin museum, however he did not succeed and the only way forward seemed to be to return it to France. Only thanks to the intervention of Noemi Gabrielli (1901 - 1979) then Superintendent of the Galleries for Piedmont, Napoleon's carriage passed to the Mauritian Order and finally to the hunting lodge of Stupinigi, a place where he will return after a long exposure in the stables of the Royal Palace. of Venaria.

Andrea Merlotti and Silvia Ghisotti, chief curator of the Royal Palace, have enriched the existing visit path of the Royal Palace of Venaria, also assisted by Napoléonien souvenirs (Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta delegation), the first French association in the world for the protection and preservation of the memory of the First and Second Napoleonic Empire. A small space with a few works in which Andrea Merlotti wanted to tell some fundamental passages in Napoleon's career, but above all he highlighted the close link between the French emperor and Piedmontese history. Valuable pieces of great symbolic value are exhibited: from the famous Relation de la Bataille de Marengo, from the sword of Napoleon to the evocative imperial eagles of the Veliti given by General Teodoro Lechi to King Carlo Alberto.

The role of Napoléonien souvenirs

The most important French association that deals with the Napoleonic memory is certainly Napoléonien souvenirs. Founded on December 27, 1937, in 1982 it obtained recognition from the French state as an association of public utility and leader of any initiative concerning the conservation and protection of the memory of the First and Second Empire.

Its offices are present all over the world, however Italy plays a very particular role since, thanks to the tireless coordination work of Alessandro Guadagni and all the Italian regional delegates, the initiatives have grown both in quantity and quality. .

In the National Committee for the bicentenary celebrations, chaired by Luigi Mascilli Migliorini and Marina Rosa, the Napoléonien souvenirs plays a role of the first order, being present with its members in various initiatives. On the carriage, the delegation of SN Piemonte and Valle d'Aosta, chaired by Mario Dagasso and the writer, gave an important scientific contribution, but not only. There are several private collectors - SN members - who have gladly lent some pieces of their collections to tell the story of Napoleon in Piedmont. SN is also playing an important role in the rebirth of the Marengo Museum, one of the most important "Napoleonic" museums in Piedmont which, on the occasion of this bicentenary, has decided to "redo its makeup" by offering the public new cultural initiatives.

Photo: author