September 19, 2013
Napoleon’s Crown: A Tale of a Goldsmith, Laurel Leaves, an Emperor and Louis XVIII
Image source: Wikimedia for Napoleon on his Imperial Throne. The image of the gold laurel leaf is from the National Museum of Sweden.
Napoleon’s Royal Court Jeweler Martin-Guillaume Biennais created a crown for the Emperor to be worn at his 1804 coronation. Leaves of the laurel tree were carefully crafted in gold in two different sizes, 44 large leaves and 12 smaller ones.
Napoleon was seeking to identify himself with the Roman Emperors so he was by no means content to simply don the pre-revolutionay crown. There were two crowns used at the ceremony. He briefly donned the traditional crown of the Kings of France then removed it and placed the laurel crown crafted by Biennais on his head as we can see in the painting on the left by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
In a later ceremony in Milan in 1805 when Napoleon crowned himself the King of Italy, one of the leaves fell off and was given by the Emperor to the artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey who had arranged the first coronation ceremony. Isabey placed the leaf in a box creating a kind of reliquary. In 1819 Louis XVIII had the crown melted down with other pieces of the new royal regalia created by Napoleon. All that remains of the crown is this leaf.
Biennais must have made a mold from an actual laurel leaf as we can see when we look at a detail.
As we can see in the freshly picked leaf from the Arboretum’s grounds of Laurus nobilis the resemblance is quite striking. The process of casting each leaf in gold to such a degree of perfection must have been one of the utmost care and precision.
Napoleon’s esteem for Biennais’ work was such that when he went into exile in Saint Helena, he took at least one piece by the artist with him, an Athenian, essentially a washbasin and ewer modeled after an ancient greek tripod for offerings to the gods. It carries the following inscription, “This piece of furniture, which served the Emperor Napoleon till his dying moments, fell to the lot of his sister Caroline.”
Mitchell Hearns Bishop, Curator, Historic Collections