The staging of power in the Napoleonic era

On the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana explores the theatricality of his reign in Milan with a new exhibition.

Beretini Gaetano (based on a drawing by Gasparo Galliari), view of the Public Gardens of Milan at the time of Public Holidays (detail). Dedicated to H.I.H. the Most Serene Princess Augusta Amalia of Bavaria Vice-Queen of Italy, 1810. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

Napoleon was a true drama queen. Pathos characterized all aspects of his private and political life.

On the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of his death, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana explores all the theatricality of Napoleon’s reign in Milan with a new exhibition.

Napoleon entered Milan through the Porta Marengo gate (now Porta Ticinese) on 8 May 1805, accompanied by a cheering crowd. Thus was born the Kingdom of Italy with Napoleon I as king, crowned inside the Duomo, fifteen days after his entry into the city. The legacy of Napoleonic rule is still very much present, especially because Napoleon spared no effort to assert his power through architecture, style, bureaucracy, and theatre. Elements that are still alive in the city’s memory.

The exhibition, curated by Francesca Barbieri and Alessandra Mignatti, with Annamaria Cascetta as scientific director, presents a rich selection of engravings, drawings, reports, satirical writings, librettos, and periodicals from the Ambrosiana Library.

Napoleon was theatrical in everything he did. Propaganda, bureaucracy, rhetoric, fashion, and any other form of expression shared a kind of mise-en-scène that pervaded all the spheres of his domain. It is no coincidence that one of the first places he visited after its arrival was La Scala. The dialogic form, declamation, taste for costumes, and scenography are traits that are common to the entire Napoleonic experience in Italy.

This new exhibition – on view until 23 January 2022 and curated by Francesca Barbieri and Alessandra Mignatti, with Annamaria Cascetta as scientific director – presents a rich selection of engravings, drawings, reports, satirical writings, librettos, periodicals from the Ambrosiana Library and from the collections of paintings and memorabilia of the Milanese Pinacoteca. 

The varied material allows for an in-depth study of representation, which, in its broadest anthropological sense, constitutes a privileged observatory of the cultural transformations that the city of Milan experienced during the Napoleonic era. How does the new power present itself, or rather ‘stage’ itself? How is it perceived and represented?

The profoundly theatrical character of one of the key figures in European history is made evident by the development of festivals and other forms of celebration of the Cisalpine Republic and the Kingdom of Italy, and the organization of urban space, between ephemeral and permanent architectures. 

In this decade the apparatuses for festivals, theatrical performances, new urban spaces, show recurring forms and themes that are repeated in time, between changes and continuity. Even in the Napoleonic bureaucracy, the allegories on the frontispieces of the documents appear to be closely linked to the strategies of representation of power.

These years also saw the birth of the Teatro Filodrammatici, not as a theatre of entertainment but as a key institution for the creation of a new cultural identity, at the very center of the new kingdom. In fact, one of Napoleon’s first acts in the city was the eviction of many religious institutions, including the Collegio de’ Nobili, a school for young heirs of Milanese aristocratic families that had a small theatre. A group of playwrights, the Compagnia dei Giovani Repubblicani, presented a successful petition asking for the building to be given to them, promising to create the ‘Società del Teatro Patriottico’ (the Patriotic Theatre Society) and perform pièces démocratiques, appropriate to the spirit of the times. A new patriotic theatre in which Napoleon himself attended the first performances.

However, there is no shortage of voices outside the chorus. Engravings and satirical writings in the exhibition reveal all the phases of the Napoleonic era, showing less enthusiastic viewpoints of the new government.

The first rooms of the exhibition follow an itinerary that begins with the entry of French troops into Milan and continues until 1814. The exposition opens with a portrait of Napoleon painted by Andrea Appiani immediately after the arrival of the then young general in the city and continues with engravings signed by important artistic personalities of the Milanese neoclassical period.

Andrea Appiani (1754 – 1817), Portrait of Napoleon I Bonaparte (Ajaccio, 1769 – Island of Saint Helena, 1821), 1796. © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Mondadori Portfolio.

The works linked to the Napoleonic period in the subsequent rooms of the Pinacoteca are ideally part of the exhibition, including some famous masterpieces from different periods that fell prey to the Napoleonic spoliation in the Ambrosiana and were then – only partially – returned.

Among the most precious relics are the gloves worn by the Emperor during the Battle of Waterloo, the epilogue of his story. The itinerary ends in the Federiciana room, where some drawings from Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a work that was also involved in Napoleon’s spoliation at the time, are on display. Here we find important documents from the bureaucracy of the time, fashion chronicles, and even the most biting satire on the fall of Napoleon.

The exhibition is a further chapter in a research project on Napoleon in Milan in which the Biblioteca Ambrosiana has collaborated and which allows us to go back in time and explore the city of Milan, Napoleon’s capital, as a laboratory of French modernity, and the peculiar performative culture of that season, encapsulated in the representative strategies and processes of construction of memory and public opinion.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.