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Napoleon Bonaparte, gardener? Yes, says a new book

Feature desk || shiningbd

Published: 16:48, 10 August 2021  
Napoleon Bonaparte, gardener? Yes, says a new book

Of the making of books about Napoleon Bonaparte, there seems to be no end. Two hundred years after the emperor’s death in 1821 on the island of St.

Helena, he continues to be the subject of new biographies and speculations. His name and iconic image — the bicorne hat worn sideways, the army greatcoat, the hand inserted in the vest — are instantly recognizable the world over.

Even though ours is an age of billionaire boy wonders, Napoleon’s sheer precocity still dazzles: On Nov. 9, 1799, shortly after his 30th birthday, the former artillery officer from Corsica assumed dictatorial powers over all of France.

Five years later, he crowned himself Emperor of the French. At 40, “the man on horseback”— Edmund Burke’s prophetic phrase — had conquered all of Western Europe. When Napoleon’s armies fought and lost the make-or-break Battle of Waterloo, he was all of 45. Imprisoned afterward on St.

Helena, the deposed emperor eventually died of stomach cancer — or, possibly, arsenic poisoning if you’re conspiracy-minded — at a still-young 51.

What did Napoleon do during his six-year confinement on that tiny South Atlantic island? He grew flowers (the roses died), planted trees, constructed an aviary and harvested peas and beans. An engraving shows him wearing a straw peasant’s hat and leaning on a spade.

In fact, contends Ruth Scurr in “Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows,” this world-shaking military genius had always turned to the natural world — and to two- or three-hour long baths — for succor from the ills of the spirit or the burdens of power.

In her book, Scurr tracks Napoleon’s rise and fall with hardly a glance at his battles, political maneuverings and mistresses (there were at least 21).

Instead, we learn about the vegetable patch young Bonaparte kept while at school, his later attention to green spaces when undertaking urban renewal in Egypt, Italy and France, his enjoyment of reflective walks in the woods and his penchant for neoclassical landscape design. Straight lines, notes Scurr, along with “precision and order were central to his aesthetic.”

In contrast, Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, insisted on natural, parklike surroundings — the English style — for Malmaison, their private residence. As empress, she obsessively collected plants and animals from around the world and was apparently the first person to breed black swans in captivity.

Most accounts of Napoleon’s inner circle usually concentrate on that slippery diplomat Talleyrand or the scheming minister of police Joseph Fouché, two masters of Realpolitk: Each has been credited with the classic Machiavellian comment:

“It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” Scurr, though, prefers to devote greater attention to André Thouin, head gardener at the Jardin des Plantes. Thouin was among the 167 members of the Commission for Arts and Sciences that accompanied Napoleon’s army during his largely unsuccessful Egyptian campaign.

Stationed in Cairo, the group soon created a 30-acre walled garden and research center, eventually producing an encyclopedic record of their labors in the landmark catalogue “Description of Egypt.” Later, many of the botanical and zoological specimens brought back from France’s scientific expeditions ended up in Thouin’s care.

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