Saturday, August 22, 2009

Josephine's Hair

A lock of Josephine's hair; snipped on the day of her death, May 29, 1814.

Run, don't walk, or at least take one of those $1 buses, to Philadelphia before September 7, when the National Constitution Center's Napoleon exhibit shuts its doors.

And prepare to spend at least two hours there, because the exhibition is massive, containing an exhaustive and comprehensive collection of items belonging to Napoleon, his two wives, his numerous siblings, and those, like Talleyrand, with whom he had contentious relationships to say the least.

In the short time I had at the Constitution Center, I barely made through half the exhibit, and found it so compelling that I have made plans to return to Philly to see the rest of it.

The exhibition is divided into segments covering the rise to power of a Corsican upstart named Napoleone Buonaparte; his roles in the rapidly changing post-revolutionary governments; his marriages to the soigné Creole widow, Josephine de Beauharnais, and to the naive Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria; his numerous siblings (you'll want to take a nap on Jerome Bonaparte's sumptuous bed with it's apricot brocade curtains and bolster); his military career and accomplishments; his coronation as Emperor of France; and his exiles on Elba and St Helena.

The item that has most remained with me from my first visit to the exhibit is depicted above--a lock of Josephine's hair, snipped from her corpse by her physician on the day she died -- at the age of fifty, on May 29, 1814. Tied with a dark green ribbon, it is a shade of pure brown, exactly the color that comes to mind when you think "brunette." I admit to tearing up when I saw such a deeply personal memento, and almost felt as though I was invading her privacy by viewing it. Perhaps my visceral reaction had to do with the fact that the curl was taken after she had died, a true rape of the lock because she had been unable to consent to its loss.

Josephine's prayer book; on exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia PA until September 7, 2009

I fell in love with Josephine when I researched her life and her marriage to Napoleon for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (NAL, January 5, 2010). She was no saint, but she was not well treated by either of her husbands.
Another highlight (for me) from the exhibit is an enameled snuffbox that belonged to Napoleon's nyphomaniacal sister Pauline. It bears her silhouette in gold, which makes it a particularly egotistical gift to have bestowed on one of her homelier sisters. But that's what she did. Pauline will get her due in my third book of the royal nonfiction series, currently titled ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Bastards, and Bad Seeds.

Stay tuned for more from the National Constitution Center's Napoleon exhibit.
In the meantime, have you ever been moved to tears by an artifact you saw in a museum exhibition? What was it?

No comments: