Precious artifacts on display at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica
French collector Pierre-Jean Chalencon has spent much of his adult life amassing rare and precious items from the world of Napoleon Bonaparte.
A hat that belonged to Napoleon is displayed at the Napoleon exhibit at Notre-Dame Basilica on April 24 in Montreal. — Photo by The Canadian Press
This summer, Chalencon is sharing some of those rare finds — including personal items that belonged to the first emperor of France — as part of a touring exhibit that hits Montreal.
The Treasures of Napoleon: A Rendez-Vous with History, opens in Montreal in mid-May. Some 350 items will be on display and it’s said to be the largest-ever collection of Napoleonic artifacts to cross the Atlantic.
The Chalencon collection has been touring North America, but the Montreal leg of the tour is being infused with a few items from other private collections. Notably, Serge Joyal, a Canadian senator and art collector, is donating personally to the exhibit.
“It’s the first time such an important private collection will be on display,” Chalencon said in a telephone interview from Paris. “And it’s also important for me that everyone has a chance to see it.”
The exhibit is divided into six aspects of Napoleon’s life — tracing the exploits of the Corsica-born military mastermind from his coronation and his marriages to his final days on Saint-Helena, the island where he was exiled and died in 1821 after his historic defeat against the British at Waterloo in 1815.
Items that tell his story include paintings, sculptures, drawings, tapestries, clothing, cutlery, books and chairs.
Some items stand out.
Among them is one of Napoleon’s famous hats, a handul of which survived the era.
There’s also a collapsing campaign bed used by Napoleon on the battlefield.
Visitors will also be able to inspect the sword used at his coronation on Dec. 2, 1804.
There’s also Napoleon’s lotto game box, dating back to 1810 and apparently a favourite pastime of the emperor. He is said to have played often and the display indicates he would sometimes hide cards up his sleeves to ensure victory.
It’s a side of Napoleon that doesn’t always come across, Chalencon laments.
Napoleon is one of the most studied political and military leaders in history, but Chalencon says he is unfairly depicted as a diminutive despot.
In fact, historians say that, at 5-6, the emperor was most likely average height for the time. Chalencon says there is more to Napoleon — a self-made man who had a quick and impressive rise to power.
Despite his ultimate defeat on the battlefield, his reputation as a military strategist remains renowned. Chalencon says his lasting legacy is the Napoleonic Code — the French civil code established in 1804 that has been influential in the drafting of other legal systems globally.
“I like to show how Napoleon was because I think that he has a very bad reputation, but he was a really interesting guy, a funny guy, not a dictator,” Chalencon says. “Napoleon was a very clever man, so it’s important for me to share (that) with this collection.”
The artifacts have been meticulously collected over the years by Chalencon. The French native has spent years amassing the collection, which currently contains about 2,000 pieces and is constantly in a state of flux.
Chalencon, 43, says his fascination with Napoleon began when he was a child and his father bought him a Napoleon comic. His father had to explain to him that the figure depicted in the pages was real, and took him to the emperor’s country home — Chateau de Malmaison.
“It was the place I fell in love with Napoleon and his family,” Chalencon recounted.
From then he was hooked.
Chalencon says he’s a man of modest means, although he has managed to make his collection grow over the years. It includes 500 books from Napoleon’s library, numerous paintings, cutlery, furniture and even a coronation ring, which Chalencon wears and will be on display in Montreal.
It was important to Chalencon that a wider audience be able to enjoy his treasures, which are typically not on display outside of his private home. He does use some of the items sparingly at his flat in Paris. Sometimes, he sits in the chairs and, when hosting dinner parties, he may use the Napoleon-era silverware.
“That’s why it’s really an opportunity because it may never be seen again in Montreal,” Chalencon said.
As an added bonus, the exhibit is on display at the crypt of the Notre-Dame Basilica, which is rarely open to the public. Chalencon says the venue helps bring the Napoleon event to life.
For now, the Montreal stop is the only one scheduled for Canada. If there’s an interest, Chalencon says he’d like to take the show to Quebec City or Toronto.
Meanwhile, Chalencon is always on the lookout for his next item and his resolve is clear.
“I don’t do it for money or for glory,” he said. “I do that because I love Napoleon, I love the period and I want to promote a great, great period of France.”