Sunday, February 26, 2006

Napoleon's Grande Tomb

He's in there somewhere

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the 15th of August 1769 at Ajaccio on Corsica - which had only just been sold to France by the Italian state of Genoa. So by one of those odd quirks of fate, technically he wasn't really French. But by the time he died in 1821 he had become a national icon - despite being twice sent into exile over half a million people lined the route of his Parisian funeral in 1840. The state had to find a fitting resting place for the great man, even if he had 'never fully mastered French and his spelling left a lot to be desired,' according to

In the end, the large ex-barracks and military hospital of the Hotel des Invalides was chosen, and his coffin laid in the Eglise du Dome that can be seen from all over central Paris. The large formal barracks building is crowned with a giant spired golden dome that rises brightly amidst all the other notable landmarks nearby. It was re-gilded in 1989 using 12kg of gold, and it certainly stands out. Although the church was begun in 1677, the monument was completed in 1861 when his remains were laid to rest. To visit, you buy a ticket that also allows entry into the Musee de l'Armee, which is currently half-closed for renovation, and walk back out to the front and climb the steps to the main entrance.

What hits you first is the sheer scale of the Mausoleum - the inner cup of the dome soars away above your head, covered in more gold and painted murals of the General's greatest triumphs. Large alcoves stretch away from the centre, each housing the tomb of a notable French military leader. Marechal Foch - the Allied Commander of WWI forces - has the most poignant, a life-sized grey marble statue of six French soldiers carrying his body on a stretcher. However, this pales into insignificance when you reach the centre of the church, and see the huge circular hole housing Napoleon's Tomb. Built into the crypt level is a mammoth red wooden casket made from Finnish Porphyry. Inside are five successive coffins (tin, mahogany, lead, lead again, and ebony), and inside that are the ashes of the man himself.

Egotistic isn't the word. If there was a statue of him and a large coffin, that would be understandable - but this monument is incredible. Walking down a set of stairs behind a gilded and mirrored altar takes you level with the tomb, and a large circular chamber. Here the walls are covered in marble frescoes of Napoleon in God-like poses handing out decrees to subserviant minions. One of the quotes on the wall translates as 'By it's simplicity my code of law has done more good in France than all the laws which have preceeded me'. He wasn't shy about self-promotion, that's for sure.

I wasn't really sure what to make of the tomb. Napoleon was undoubtedly a great figure and a leader - and he's still incredibly popular in France. Walking through the War Museum afterwards I could see how proud they are of their military tradition, and only Charles de Gaulle is comparable to the pint-sized Corsican. Someone of that legend should be given a suitable and fitting resting place. But although I was staggered by the scale of the thing - so the 19th Century designers had succeeded in their aim, it left me uneasy. I don't remember Wellington's grave at St Paul's Cathedral in London being anything like it. What about the 550,000 men of the Grande Armee who died on his madcap campaign into Russia? For me, one of the most telling things about Napoleon is that in the Eglise du Dome you'll find the grave of his son - buried under a statue of himself.