- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Who lived a couple hundred years ago, had 60,000 books, cheated in card games, loved licorice and was the most powerful man in Europe?

Not enough information?

Well, this should give it away: He became emperor of the French in 1804.

Yes, Napoleon Bonaparte is the right answer, and for those eager to learn more tidbits about this historically significant man, National Geographic’s Explorers Hall in Northwest has plenty of them.

“Napoleon an Intimate Portrait,” on view until Jan. 2, features about 250 artifacts, many of them personal effects of the emperor. His famous hat, for example, has an entire red-painted room devoted to it.

“Napoleon had about 170 of them made, but we only know of 20 that are left,” says exhibit curator Pierre-Jean Chalencon. “They cost about 50 franc, which was about a month’s salary for the average worker.”

The reason Napoleon had so many hats made was that he frequently made gifts of them, after having worn them, to loyal followers. Another historic hat fact: Napoleon wore the hats broadside to distinguish himself from other soldiers, who wore their hats front and aft.

The exhibit, which consists of 12 rooms, each with a separate theme, follows Napoleon’s life chronologically. Mr. Chalencon says visitors can spend 30 minutes to an hour for a rewarding experience. He also says the exhibit is appropriate for children as young as 6.

Other less-known artifacts include Napoleon’s early letters and textbooks from his time at the Brienne military school in Corsica, where the future emperor was born.

He started at Brienne at age 9 and was ostracized because of his background. His family’s first language was Italian, and he spoke with a thick Italian accent. Also, his family was not as well-to-do as those of his classmates.

His status quickly improved, however, and at age 16, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the artillery. At age 28, he became the general of the Army of Italy.

“He was really a self-made man, very American that way,” Mr. Chalencon says. “Napoleon used to say, ‘Impossible’ is not a French word.”

A portrait by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, one of Napoleon’s favorite portrait painters, shows a long-haired Gen. Napoleon, sword in one hand and flag in the other, ready to charge in the battle of Arcole.

“Napoleon used portraits to promote himself,” Mr. Chalencon says. “He would order several and give them away.”

He also would send them to towns to spread the word about his successes.

Not all his military engagements were successful, however, as the Egyptian campaign illustrates. The idea was to block British trade routes, but the campaign instead ended with significant French losses. Nevertheless, it did increase scientific knowledge of ancient Egypt, as Napoleon had brought with him artists, writers and scientists. The National Geographic exhibit includes paintings and maps from the campaign.

Despite his mixed military record, Napoleon — partly through his own self-promotion — was greeted as a hero when he returned to France from Egypt in 1799, Mr. Chalencon says.

The political climate in France and his own heroism enabled Napoleon to stage a coup, after which he seized political power, becoming one of three consuls. As consul, Napoleon became the most powerful man in France. He used this position to make far-reaching changes to everything from public works to the legal system.

However, consul wasn’t enough for Napoleon, whose role models were Caesar and Charlemagne, King of the Franks. In 1804, Napoleon and his wife, Josephine — a name he gave her; her real name was Rose de Beauharnais — were crowned emperor and empress of the French by Pope Pius VII.

The ceremony included 8,000 dignitaries and took place in Notre Dame Cathedral. Napoleon was 35 years old. The exhibit room displaying paintings and artifacts from the coronation also features the music played at the time, composed by Giovanni Paisiello and Jean-Francois Le Sueur.

The exhibit also covers Napoleon’s family, which included several siblings who received royal titles once their brother became emperor. Artifacts in the “family room” include the imperial bed of Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westfalia. It features orange silk and brocade, white feather plumes and gold details.

The exhibit goes on to showcase the downfall of Napoleon, which included a disastrous decision to invade Russia, resistance in Spain and, of course, defeat at Waterloo.

Some of the last exhibit items are the long johns, shirt and madras kerchief Napoleon wore on St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic where he spent his final years, exiled and alone.

He died at age 51 of stomach cancer, although some say he was poisoned.

Mr. Chalencon says he hopes the exhibit will provide both a history and life lesson.

“When you leave the show in 30 or 45 minutes, you will know much more about European history and Napoleon than before you visited. … But I also hope that visitors will embrace the spirit of the show — that everything is possible. Remember Napoleon’s words, ‘Impossible’ is not a French word.”

When you go:

Location: The National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall is located at 1145 17th St. NW in the District.

Directions: The museum is a few blocks north of the White House. The Farragut North stop on Metro’s Red Line and Farragut West stop on the Orange and Blue lines are the closest Metro stations. Each is just a few blocks away from the museum.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The exhibit closes Jan. 2. It is closed Dec. 25.

Parking: Limited metered parking and pay-parking garages are available.

Admission: Free.

Information: 202/857-7588 or www. nationalgeographic.com/museum

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