Napoleon I forged his own emblems far from those too connoted of the Ancien Régime. The young Emperor intends to offer new perspectives to France history whose values ​​are now supported by strong legible and historical symbols.

The antique influence.

Already consul Bonaparte (1799 – 1804) make clear, in his choice of furniture and art objects, an assurance which supported a broader thought in the matter of political will. Once Emperor, his architects and decorators Percier (1764 – 1838) and Fontaine (1762 – 1853) undertook to impose an official style flow with tastes of Roman antiquity. Massive mahogany and marble furniture evoked ancient temples, the luxurious sobriety of gilded bronzes borrowed the decorations of Republican Rome while the golden yellow, green, crimson and purple colors drew on the newly discovered frescoes of Herculaneum and Pompeii. It was at the dawn of his coronation that arose the thorny problem of the future imperial emblems. Everyone went there with his animal; the least chauvinists proposed the lion or the elephant while the most patriotic have their heart set on rooster. Others, probably more bucolic, suggested the oak. While the gallinace seemed to prevail for a time, it was ousted by the lion, itself scratched by the hand of Napoleon who preferred the eagle. The eagle  which was also the emblem of imperial Rome elegantly associated the high antiquity and the traditional heraldry through the evocation of the Carolingian eagle.

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Clear and erudite symbols.

If the eagle is emblematic of the reign of the Emperor, some symbols more directly evoke Bonaparte. First of all, let us quote the laurel wreath superbly presented during the coronation of the Emperor, where the latter’s head, laureled with gold leaf – art work of the great goldsmith Biennais (1764 – 1843) – gave this historical moment a grandiose character inherited from the ancient panache.

Napoleon I on the imperial throne in coronation costume
Napoleon I on the imperial throne in coronation costume painted by Jean-Auguste Dominique INGRES (1780 - 1867) in 1806. Today preserved in the Army Museum, Paris. © Cairn

For this mythological attribute of Apollo celebrated in Rome both poets and victorious warlords: the evergreen foliage symbolized the immortality acquired by victory. Honorary and prestigious award attributed to the great military characters and, consequently, to the Emperor, the laurel wreath never lost its superb and reached the XIXth century with the same freshness, enriched only by the idealized glory of the Roman Empire.

Bees, for their part, were recognized for their organization, their hard work and their ability to sacrifice for the common interest of their hive. Nothing less than an ideal patriotic symbol, especially as they held from the Church a divine connotation (they carry the Word of God and wisdom to St. Ambrose and John Chrysostom). Moreover, it is believed (until recently) that the gold insects found in 1653 in the tomb of Childeric I – the not very famous founder of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis – were bees. But it turns out that the latter were actually cicadas. Either, Childéric’s bees were considered as the first emblem of the sovereigns of France. It was enough to sit our Emperor in the natural continuity of ruling power without vexing the religious power. Thus linked to idealized antiquity and to  history, if not entomological, at least French, Napoleon Bonaparte had only to engrave his name in history. What he did literally. His number (the letter N) was indeed carved on the facades of the Louvre. Nevertheless, the avenging Bourbon, once returned to the throne, hastened to hammer the imperial letter wherever it was. Thus, most of the “N” that adorn the Louvre today are those of Napoleon III and not those of his uncle emperor. Finally, last symbol and not least, the crowned “N” found on the coins of that period. This crown, now preserved in the Louvre, was only used on the coronation day. Called the Couronne de Charlemagne, it presents a timeless medieval look with eight half-arches of gold adorned with cameos; a globe surmounted by a cross completes the work drawn by Percier. Placed above the head of the Emperor, already surrounded by laurels, the crown tied ancient glory, history and patriotism all the ceremony long.

This set of symbols produced a simple speech, clear and powerful as the juxtaposition of its elements instantly evokes, and still does today, the Emperor Napoleon I.