Museum  February 26, 2021  Christopher Siwicki

Napoleon in Rome and the Origins of Archeology

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

François Gérard, Detail of Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, 1805.

Of the many invasions of Rome by foreign powers, the French occupation is often overlooked. On February 10, 1798, soldiers of the French Republic marched into Rome, temporarily removing the Pope from power and imprisoning him. Eleven years later in 1809, on the order of Napoleon Bonaparte, the troops of what had now become the French Empire returned to the Eternal City, where they remained for the next five years.


The Column of Trajan situated in the area excavated by the French.

This episode in Rome’s history is the subject of a new exhibition in the city—Napoleon and the Myth of Rome (curated by Claudio Parisi Presicce, Massimiliano Munzi, Simone Pastor, and Nicoletta Bernacchio). The exhibition explores both the links that were made between Napoleon and Ancient Rome, as well as the impact of the French occupation on archaeology in the city.

The reason for putting on this exhibition now is that May 5, 2021, is the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon. That it is held in the Markets of Trajan and Museum of Imperial Forums is particularly fitting because of the important excavations around the adjacent column of Emperor Trajan, carried out by the French (and later Papal) authorities between 1811 and 1815.

Efforts to link French politics to those of ancient Rome existed before Napoleon came to power. With the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in the French Revolution, parallels were drawn between the new Republic and the ancient Roman republic (as had also happened in the American Revolution a decade earlier). In particular, the figures of Marcus Brutus – assassin of the dictator Julius Caesar – and his ancestor Lucius Brutus – who had expelled the last of Rome’s kings – were held up as Republican heroes. They are represented in the exhibition by an ancient marble bust which, in the eighteenth century, was believed to be of Marcus and a reproduction of Jacques-Louis David’s 1789 painting of Lucius.

Courtesy of The Met Museum.

The Peace Treaty with Rome, 1789.

Napoleon received an education in Classical Antiquity while at military academy. Unsurprisingly, he took a particular interest in the famous generals of the past, particularly Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and the Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca. In his Second Italian Campaign of 1800, Napoleon was able to emulate Hannibal’s great feat of taking his army over the alps (minus any elephants), as immortalized in another Jacques-Louis David oil painting reproduced in the exhibition. This link to the past is made explicit in the bottom left corner of the canvas, where the name ‘Bonaparte’ is carved into a mountain next to that of ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Karolus Magnus’ (Charlemagne), the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who had also taken his army over the Alps in the eighth century.

In name, the institutions of Revolutionary France looked to ancient Rome. Napoleon was ‘consul’ before he declared himself Emperor in 1804. The following year Napoleon traveled to Milan where he crowned himself with the French Imperial Diadem, a new crown for the Kingdom of Italy (as seen on a bust of the emperor in the show), as well as the historic Iron Crown, which had previously been bestowed by the popes on the Kings of the Holy Roman Empire.

Ancient bust believed to be Brutus.

Ancient bust believed to be Brutus.

Bust of Napoleon crowned with laurel

Bust of Napoleon crowned with laurel.

Napoleon himself never visited Rome, although he made it the second city of the French Empire in 1810. The imagery of Napoleon’s regime drew heavily on that of Imperial Rome: French legions carried the representation of an eagle as part of their battle standard (that of the seventh Hussars is in the exhibition), the Arc de Triomphe in Paris was modeled after the triumphal arches of the ancient city, and the Vendôme Column—a spiraling pictorial frieze which shows Napoleon’s 1805 victory over the Austrians and Russians—is based on the Emperor Trajan’s column, which narrates his own conquest of the Dacians 1700 years earlier.


Eagle military standard of the Seventh Hussars.

The French rulers in Rome were not simply interested in using the relics of Rome’s ancient past but also wanted to investigate and protect them. It was during the occupation that some of the first systematic excavations of Rome’s monuments were carried out. In particular, the area around Trajan’s column was cleared and plans were drawn up to create a large oval piazza in front of it. The latter was never fully realized but three proposed schemes for the piazza—drawn up by the architects Giuseppe Valadier and Giuseppe Camporese—are here on display for the first time.


Rosary from the orphans’ cemetery under the Church of Saint Eufemia.

Further excavations over the last two centuries (one as recent as 2020) continue to alter the appearance of this area of Rome near the column of Trajan. As a consequence, an entire neighborhood has vanished. The cost of the archaeological discoveries has long been the destruction of homes and churches. A collection of small metal rosaries serves as a poignant reminder in the exhibition. These likely came from the orphans’ cemetery under the Church of Saint Eufemia, which was demolished in the Napoleonic-era excavations.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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