Stop 7: The Bonapartes encounter the infernal machine

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Stop 7: The Bonapartes encounter the infernal machine.

All great events’ Napoleon once said, ‘hang by a hair.’ This is especially true of an extremely daring military campaign led by Napoleon in 1800. That year Napoleon made a bold decision to surprise the Austrian army, which then controlled Northern Italy, by leading France’s Reserve army up over the Alps. The Austrians would never have imagined that Napoleon would attack from that direction – crossing the Alps was a treacherous journey and seemingly impossible for 50,000 men as well as mules, cannons and supplies. However Napoleon’s daring paid off. He defeated the Austrian army on 14 June 1800 in the famous ‘Battle of Marengo’.

In this room you can see Jacques-Louis David’s bombastic painting commemorating Napoleon’s victory at Marengo. Like many supreme rulers, Napoleon was a great propagandist. ‘Orders and decorations are necessary in order to dazzle the people’ he believed. Here, in this powerful propaganda, Napoleon – and his stallion – strike very powerful poses. Yet – as is often the case – this advertising is fanciful. Napoleon did not cross the Alps on a white charger. He rode a mule, an animal clever at navigating the tricky mountain paths. He also wore a simple grey greatcoat and not the magnificent billowing costume pictured here.

By now, Napoleon was enjoying enormous fame. However this also brought a new type of danger – the threat of assassination. The notorious incident of the ‘infernal machine’ illustrates the very real dangers facing Napoleon and Josephine.

It was Christmas Eve of the year 1800. That night, the Bonapartes were to attend the Paris Opéra to see a performance of Haydn’s magnificent new opera The Creation. And they were running late. It was Josephine’s fault because, at the last minute, she had changed her mind about which colour cashmere shawl to wear. At the Paris Opera the show had already begun. The orchestra was playing the prelude – presciently titled The Representation of Chaos.

However, because of Josephine’s changeable mind, the carriages carrying the Bonaparte entourage were still making their way to the theatre. Josephine’s wardrobe change perhaps saved their lives.

At 8.15pm the carriage carrying Napoleon veered sharply to the left in order not to hit a young girl holding a horse and cart, which was blocking the street. Soon after, there was a deafening explosion. Napoleon shouted to his coachman: ‘They’re firing on us! Stop the carriage!’ He rushed out to see what had happened to Josephine’s carriage, which was travelling behind his. Luckily the Bonapartes were all unharmed, although Josephine’s daughter Hortense was covered in blood from a wound to her wrist and Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, who was eight-months pregnant, was badly shaken up. Behind them, the street had exploded. It was nothing but a pile of rubble strewn with bodies. Many victims died in the explosion including the young girl. Most treacherously, she had been paid by the assassins to hold the horse and cart that carried the bomb.

Napoleon’s assassins had used a homemade bomb known at the time as a Machine Infernale – an ‘infernal machine’. It consisted of a large wine cask filled with gunpowder, which had been strapped to a cart pulled by an old mare.

This was the first of many assassination attacks on Napoleon, and he took great heed of this close call with death. This near miss also underscored for Napoleon the necessity to consolidate his power. He had already engineered a coup d'état that made him First Consul and thus the most powerful person in France. He then masterminded a plan to make himself First Consul for life. ‘Greatness is nothing’ he once said, ‘unless it be lasting.’

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