Rémi Cariel, curator of the museum and curator of the exhibition, warns us right away: Bonaparte is discreet about this panoramic wallpaper from the nineteenth century, which, far from being an ode to the conqueror or a tool of Napoleonic propaganda, takes the Italian countryside as a simple motif to illustrate a typically French art that was extremely popular during the Restoration. Do not ascribe any more ambition than they had to these sixteen yards of paper: the promise was above all to amuse the bourgeois, who had only to glance at the walls of his drawing-room while drinking his tea, or at those of his bedroom before falling asleep, to lose himself, from his armchair or his bed. in the Cisalpine Mountains or the views of the Eternal City.
Élisabeth Caude, director of the National Museum of the Castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau, in Rueil, detected the interest of this paper treasure, which entered the museum's collection in 1914 and has never been offered to the public since then. She patiently had her 31 strips restored to put them on display. What for? Because they constitute a common thread and a pretext for a fascinating dive into the famous but little-known Italian campaigns of 1796-1797 and 1799-1800, carried out in the peninsula by the Directory and then the Consulate against the European powers, Austrians and then English.
Engravings, weapons, paintings
The panorama is separated into five scenes, each of which forms a time of the visit and refers to an episode, subtly attenuated, of these campaigns: the passage of the Ligurian Alps, the entry into Milan, the battle of Arcola, the stay of the French in Rome, and finally the capture of Naples. "The paper presented is perhaps a mid-nineteenth-century reissue of the model designed by the Dufour & Leroy manufacture in 1829, as suggested by the additions of blue and yellow to reinforce the skies and lights," notes Rémi Cariel.
Nearly two centuries later, this panoramic view conceived as a "monochrome dye" remains a striking effect of transmitting history. The restoration is splendid, the freshness of the paper is surprising. Its delicacy too: the shades of grey are innumerable and at the time it took 915 different wooden planks to achieve the complete panorama. Between each of these scenes, the Musée de Bois-Préau brings together magnificent objects: the letter appointing Bonaparte as General-in-Chief of the expedition by the Directory welcomes the visitor, with its remarkable portrait in microsculpture on wood, attributed to the Piedmontese Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo, a recent acquisition of the museum of great rarity. Weapons, paintings, drawings cleverly complete the décor set by the wallpaper. Further on, General Massena's scarf belt still bears witness to the glory of the most valiant officers of the time.
Read alsoFrom Malmaison to the island of Aix, Napoleon's forgotten journey
A famous painting was not long in coming: one of the three versions of "Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole", by Antoine-Jean Gros. We know that Bonaparte did not cross the bridge encircled in a flag, as Gros's portrait suggests, but that the battle was terrible and that he almost drowned. Faithful to this small arrangement with reality, the panoramic panel illustrating Arcole takes up this heroic vision of a Bonaparte soaring safely over the Adige River. Not a word from Augereau, who had set off first! The exhibition fortunately re-establishes the historical truth by exhibiting next to the panel the marble bust of the future marshal.
Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole, by Antoine-Jean Gros. Napoleonmuseum / bpk / Napoleonmuseum / Daniel Steiner
The tour also does not forget to mention the political consequences of the campaigns and in particular the creation of the Cisalpine Republic on 27 June 1797. At the end of his stay in Italy, Bonaparte had appointed several figures to head the new institutions set up and had addressed a solemn message to the Cisalpine people, as evidenced by a poster: "We have given you freedom, know how to preserve it. [...] To be worthy of your destiny, make only wise and moderate laws. Have them executed with strength and energy."
The Entry of French Troops into Rome, by Giuseppe Pietro Bagetti. National Museum of the Castles of Malmaison and Bois - Courtyard
But the Italian campaigns were not limited to Bonaparte: he was absent from the end of the panorama, which unfolded until the capture of Naples. It was Championnet who, on January 20, 1799, had crossed the gates of the city and fought fierce battles because the Neapolitans had shown themselves to be much more reluctant than the Cisalpines. Naturally, the wallpaper offers only a very watered-down vision of the bloody episode: a distant view of Naples, peaceful on the shores of Vesuvius... It is here that the testimony of the historical engravings that accompany it, especially those of Carle Vernet, takes on its full importance. This visual archive offers a detailed insight into a time when the greatness of France was knotted on Italian soil. The exhibition, by alternating between the gravity of history and the fantasy of the decorative arts, skilfully transports the visitor from the bourgeois salons of the Restoration to the battlefields of the future emperor, and vice versa.
A Napoleonic panorama. The campaigns of the French armies in Italy (1796-1799)", from 22 November 2023 to 26 February 2023 at the Château de Bois-Préau, 1 bis avenue de l'Impératrice Joséphine 92500 Rueil-Malmaison. Every day except Tuesday, 13pm-17.30pm. The park is open all day.
Full price €6.5 / reduced €5 / group €5.5. Reduced rate: young people aged 18 to 25 who are not residents of the EU, members of large families on presentation of a valid document. Group rate: per person from 10 people. Information on the website of the National Museum of the Castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau.