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Was Napoleon Bonaparte born French and was he really short?

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Napoleon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) revolutionized warfare and changed Europe radically. Born in Ajaccio on the island of Corsica in 1769, he was the third son of Carlo Bonaparte. A copy of his birth certificate bears the mention "Giuseppo Nabulione Buonaparte". The Christian name Napoleon was given in memory of an uncle who died in 1767. Fifteen months before Napoleon's birth, the Republic of Genoa transferred on 15 May 1768 its sovereign rights over Corsica to the King of France. The definitive sovereignty was transferred just in time for the future general of the French revolutionary armies and Emperor, not to be born, neither Genoese, nor Corsican, but French. At the age of ten, Bonaparte arrived at the Royal Military School of Brienne, and spent five years studying there to become an artillery officer. He was commissioned at the age of 16 years and 15 days. For a time, Napoleon exercised his hegemony over a large part of Europe. It was only after the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig that French troops were forced in October 1813 to conduct a withdrawal, outnumbered by the coalition armies of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden. On 2 April 1814, the French Senate forced Napoleon to abdicate, and into exile, to rule the small Island of Elba. Ten months later, Emperor Napoleon I tried to regain power rapidly joined by veterans and followers. His fall was definitively sealed in 1815 when his troops were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The dazzling rise of the "Little Corporal" was stopped by another European figure, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1 May 1769 – 14 September 1852), nicknamed the "Iron Duke".

Napoleon still inspires devotion and hatred for winning a series of striking battles. At the height of his power, he ruled over 70 million people. Curiously, he is remembered for being short. In fact, this military genius was 1.70 m tall (5 feet 7 inches), no shorter than the average 1.65 m Frenchman. It's all about comparison. The Imperial Guard men had to be at least 1.70 m tall. Many were over 1.80 m (5 feet 11 inches) making Napoleon a small man by the waist among his soldiers. In addition, there was a difference in height between Napoleon's simple bicorne and the marshal's hats with white feathers, still playing against the Emperor. This is how the legend was created. In comparison, Wellington was about 1.75 m (5 feet 9 inches). Two great figures of European history, but as Napoleon himself put it "There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of people".

The year 2019 is an interesting commemorative milestone as it marks the 250th birth anniversaries of both Napoleon and Wellington. On 3 April 2019, a first tribute – organized by the 'Souvenir Napoléonnien' – was celebrated in Paris in memory of Napoleon at the Church of La Madeleine, located next to Place de la Concorde. Songs, readings and music offered an array of the Emperor's youth, based on letters and writings that were read by Robert Hossein (30 December 1927 – ), French film actor, director, and writer. The location may surprise many since the Emperor's sarcophagus, designed by French architect Louis Visconti (11 February 1791 – 29 December 1853), is located under the dome of the Church of Saint-Louis des Invalides. Although Napoleon considered many projects during his reign, the Invalides was to become a temple of war, not his mausoleum. He only wished in his last will that "[his] ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom [he has] loved so well." So why this choice? This man of ambition used and acknowledged the zeal of his soldiers. On 2 December 1806, an imperial decree launched a competition for "the construction of a temple to the glory of the French army on the [old church] site of the Madeleine". Napoleon's aim was to celebrate the achievements of his armies and veterans.

As this neoclassical jewel – designed by Pierre-Alexandre Vignon (1763 – 1828) – with its dome, paintings, and names of the men who took part in the battles of Ulm, Austerlitz and Iena (1805 – 1806) was nearly completed at the time of Napoleon's ashes being returned to the Invalides, it is most appropriate that the Church of the Madeleine was chosen to launch the anniversary tribute to a man who could not have shaped the world according to his personal vision without his soldiers. Shown in the photograph is the Church’s cupola of the choir which displays a mural entitled "The History of Christianity" (1835 – 1838). Completed by French painter Jules-Claude Ziegler (16 March 1804 – 25 December 1856), it illustrates Mary Magdalene ascending into heaven borne by three angels. "Beneath her is Napoleon in his coronation robes, positioned center stage, his figure directly aligned with Christ’s. Facing him is Pope Pius VII, with whom he signed the Concordat of 1801, a document which reestablished the authority of the Catholic church in France after the Revolution…". This is the only fresco in a Parisian church to include a figure of Napoleon. It is worth noting that it took more than three decades from time Napoleon awarded the building contract to the completion of this mural during the July Monarchy (1830 – 1848) under King Louis-Philippe I (6 October 1773 – 26 August 1850). While it is not known if an official commemorative ceremony is being organized for 15 August 2019, there has been a public event organized – 'La Nuit aux Invalides' – held from 12 July until 31 August 2019.

On this day, 15 August 2019, we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy / André M. Levesque

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