S Napoleone
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2 March Mar 2018 1444 8 months ago

Monsieur "N": Saint Napoleon among the spires

A unique sculpture, between history and hagiography

In the Grande Museo del Duomo's rooms dedicated to the 19th century several plaster models of 19th century statuary are preserved, often the work of sculptors connected to the cenacle of artists revolving around the Brera Academy. Of these, one of the most particular is certainly a piece by Abbondio Sangiorgio from 1858 portraying Napoleon. The sculpture is part of a series of works that pay homage to modern European powers. In this case the connection to the French Empire takes shape not only in the choice of subject, but also in the physical features of the face, which recall those of young Napoleon I.

The worship of Saint Napoleon certainly belongs more to the political sphere and hagiography than to religion, and was primarily stimulated after the victory at Austerlitz in December 1805. To earn the admiration of Catholics, and in a period when religious holidays and all new revolutionary commemorations overlapped chaotically with one another, a fair amount of research was conducted which sought to bestow a sacred character upon the name of Napoleon, perhaps in contrast to the tradition that had always united the Borbones in France to St. Louis IX and that continued to fuel the ambitions of French Legitimists.

Thus, in Benedict XIV's Martyrology, dated 2 May, in Rome, a martyred saint "Neopolis" was uncovered, companion of Saint Saturninus. Meanwhile, the manuscripts of the Jeromian Martyrology indicate his martyrdom in Alexandria. Cleverly combining these two pieces of information, it was possible to weave together the legend of a martyr, first tortured and then suffering in prison until his death.

Once this meagre bit of information was confirmed, on 15 August 1806 it became possible, for the first time, to officially and liturgically celebrate Saint Napoleon, more for the glory of the emperor than in honour of the saint, heretofore unknown. A worship that, after it was abolished by the Restoration, was rekindled with the rise to the throne of Napoleon III, leader of the Second Empire from 1852 to 1870.

The saint is depicted bound in chains and holding a crown of thorns in his hand which alludes to his martyrdom. The date on which the model was approved by the Veneranda Fabbrica is interesting, indicating September 1860, approximately one year after the Franco-Pedmontese armies' arrival in Milan and the liberation of the city from the Austrian regime. The statue's proud expression seems to challenge the suffering of the martyr.

Niccolò d’Agati, in the Grande Museo del Duomo's new catalogue, suggests a probable reference to one of the cycles of the "Fasti Napoleonici" byAndrea Appiani: the "Vision of Bonaparte in Egypt", in which the general appears in a rather similar pose.