Confronting Napoleon: European Culture at the Crossroads
An Interdisciplinary Program Exploring History to Celebrate the Mind and the Arts
- Humanities West, a Bay Area non-profit, presented Confronting Napoleon: European Culture at the Crossroads, a two-day program of lectures, discussions, and musical presentations exploring Napoleon Bonaparte’s far-reaching influence following the French Revolution.
Confronting Napoleon: European Culture at the Crossroads brings together a panel of world-class scholars and a San Francisco pianist to examine Napoleon’s far-reaching influence on European culture. The French Revolution unleashed institution-shattering forces. Napoleon successfully refocused these forces on the rest of Europe, and the French tide swept over the continent, and even across the Mediterranean, leaving the remnants of many ancien regimes refashioned in its wake. France’s reassertion of cultural preeminence provoked responses from uncritical enthusiasm to repugnance, from a love-hate affair with the Russian aristocracy to British resistance against both Napoleon’s armies and his cultural influence. Napoleon invaded Egypt yet crafted enlightened policy sympathetic to Islam, resurrected Roman civil law, inspired Beethoven, challenged Goethe and Tolstoy to think again, and bankrolled a return to grandeur in the fine arts. This two-day presentation explores both the charisma and contradictions of Napoleon’s character and cultural legacy.
Roger Hahn (UC Berkeley) moderated the program. Steven Englund (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and American University of Paris) discussed the mesmerizing power of Napoleon the man, Napoleon the general, and Napoleon the Emperor; and how this 27-year-old minor Italian nobleman rose to power with the promise of glory for the French following the horrors of the Revolution. Michael Marrinan (Stanford University) followed with an illustrated survey of the arts under Napoleon, demonstrating that aesthetic productions of the Empire mirror the myriad political contradictions of their patron.
Laurent Mayali (Lloyd M. Robbins Professor of Law, UC Berkeley Law School) lectured on the civil law reforms instituted by Napoleon, and the other positive cultural legacies of his short-lived empire. Luba Golburt (Assistant Professor of Russian Literature, UC Berkeley) traced some of the stages of Napoleon’s dethronement as depicted in Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace, examining the character’s physique and mannerisms, his mistaken notions of hero-centered warfare, and the contrasting models of leadership. Pianist Teresa Yu (San Francisco Conservatory) performed Beethoven’s virtuosic “Eroica Variations,” Op. 35, a set of fifteen variations for solo piano dating from 1802, and based on the same theme Beethoven used in the finale of his “Eroica” Symphony (No. 3), composed the following year and originally dedicated to Napoleon. Juan Cole (Richard P. Mitchell Distinguished University Professor of History, University of Michigan) completed the program with a presentation on the painters who, in subsequent decades, took up the themes of Napoleon’s Egyptian conquest, some glorifying French dominance and others depicting the barbarity of Napoleon’s military policies.