Review of Napoleon: In the Name of Art

Direction: Giovanni Piscaglia | Scenario: Didi Gnocchi & Matteo Moneta | Cast: Jeremy Iron (as himself/narrator), ea | Playing time: 100 minutes | Year: 2021

Was Napoleon Bonaparte one of the most influential people of the last two hundred years? The creators of Napoleon: In the name of art seems convinced of it. Not so much because of his military victories or how he conquered Europe, but because of his relationship with art.

A number of historians, musicologists, art historians and writers from Italy, Egypt, France and England will be present for this. And Jeremy Irons, who speaks to the viewer and forms the bridge between all the various interviews with experts. He loosely tells the story of Napoleon’s life, based on his relationship with art. From the art that Napoleon loved, to the art that was stolen in his name, to the use of art as a means of propaganda.

Together with Irons and Napoleon, we travel through Europe and Egypt, starting from the Duomo in Milan, where Napoleon was crowned king of Italy after conquering the northern part of it. A piece of music was specially composed for this, a Te Deum, which was performed only once and then lost. Until it recently resurfaced.

The discovery of this and the preparations for a new performance are a common thread Napoleon: In the name of art. Unfortunately, this is the least interesting aspect of the documentary, unless you have a specific interest in early nineteenth century music, of course. But even then, this is the least dramatic part of the documentary.

In addition to the interviews with experts and the scenes narrated by Irons, Napoleon: In the name of art especially full of pictures of places where he came thanks to his campaigns. Specifically, the highlights of visual arts and architecture in these places: Italy, Egypt and Paris. The first two because he took a lot of that art with him to the last one.

Because Paris was to become the new art center of the world. It was already the dream of French intellectuals before the French Revolution. But it required a lot of Roman and Renaissance art. Fortunately for them, Napoleon came with his ambitions to conquer Europe and he was an art lover. In 1793, the Louvre (until then a palace) became a museum and of course had to be well filled.

Despite the fact that Napoleon’s art theft is widely publicized, we should not think that he was not a cool peer. He was just extremely passionate. Therefore, Irons also reads love letters from the general to his beloved Josephine. Which he later brushed aside because she did not provide him with a male heir.

A comprehensive comparison between Napoleon, Mussolini and Hitler emphasizes that he was not a dictator like them and that he did not have the oppression, persecution and mass murder on conscience like these two. The comparison is only about how they took him as an example for their visual propaganda. The desire for and the copying of symbols from ancient Rome, they got that from him.

Of course, when twentieth-century dictators did this, it was devastating, but Napoleon was apparently a genius when he did it a century earlier. Filmmaker Giovanni Piscaglia is full of admiration for how Napoleon uses paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints to ‘appeal to the eyes’ of all walks of life.

It is striking how much focus there is on France and Italy, while Napoleon also added other countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria and Poland to his empire. Could it be due to the origin of the filmmaker or the financing of the film? Optionally. One cannot escape the failed attempt to conquer Russia, nor his defeat by an international coalition at Leipzig and later Waterloo. These are mandatory numbers that must be filled in.

In itself, it is interesting how all these events serve the exploration of the relationship between Napoleon and art: the merit of, among others, British Wellington over Napoleon at Waterloo is in Napoleon: In the name of art especially important in the context that Wellington paid for the return of a number of Italian art treasures, because after the fall of Napoleon the French said they had no more money for them.

In any case, the approach to Napoleon’s life through the art that played a part in it is a refreshing approach, despite the exclusive view of certain countries and the endless dwelling on the Te Deum. An intriguing byproduct of Napoleon’s extensive view of propaganda and the use of various imagery to tell his life story is that Napoleon: In the name of art becomes almost propaganda in itself. The fact that it ultimately does not happen is primarily due to a lack of cohesion. The documentary is more of an entertaining series of anecdotes than a complex, coherent story.

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