The ghost of Marengo: how the beloved horse of the emperor quarreled the French

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A huge scandal provoked a horse skeleton, suspended directly above the tomb of Napoleon in the Les Invalides in Paris. This installation was commissioned by the actionist Pascal Cover by the Paris Army Museum for the exhibition “Napoleon? Yet!” (Napoleon? Encore!), Dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the death of the emperor. Izvestia found out why the beloved horse of the emperor so upset the French.

The exhibition, which is due to open on May 7, presents the work of 30 avant-garde artists from different countries, including the Russian Pavel Pepperstein. Their works are housed directly in the Army Museum, while the skeleton hovers in the crypt above the sarcophagus in the House of Invalids, in which the imperial remains rest.

The author called his project Memento Marengo – “Remember Marengo” – an Italian place where the then consul of France Bonaparte defeated the Austrian army on June 14, 1800. In honor of this victory, the emperor named Marengo his faithful horse, whose skeleton, along with other trophies, is in the National Army Museum in the British capital.

15 years later, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, and his faithful horse was captured by the British. The Britons treated it as a valuable trophy and transported the booty to England. After the death of Marengo, his bones were exhibited in a London museum for the edification of posterity.

Pascal Carpet remembered the skeleton after he received a carte blanche from the Museum of the Army in Paris for an installation for the memorable date May 5, 2021. Initially, the actionist was going to use the original, but it turned out to be too fragile and could fall apart on the way across the English Channel. In addition, new regulations related to Brexit and COVID have made transportation more difficult. Therefore, the author had to make adjustments to the original concept, and the Army Museum had to agree to a 3D copy.

The first to see the exhibit before the opening day was the right-wing deputy of the National Assembly Jean-Louis Thieriot: “What a crazy idea! Let us honor the necropolises in which our glorious commanders rest. The House of Invalids is not a museum for installations, but a war memorial. ” The deputy sent a letter of protest against the “profanation” to the Minister of War Florence Parley and demanded an explanation.

The famous historian Thierry Lenz, president of the Napoleon Foundation, spoke in the same spirit. “Think of hanging a skeleton over a national shrine! They’re just crazy! ” – he wrote on Twitter.

High military ranks and eminent historians joined the indignant. Biographers say that Napoleon had a whole stable at his disposal and that all the horses were named Marengo. No one knows which of the horses Napoleon had that day.

A different point of view on Memento Marengo from the descendant of Napoleon, the writer Charles Bonaparte, with whom the organizers of the exhibition in the House of Invalids did not consult.

“The fact that works of contemporary art are combined with historical monuments does not shock me in any way,” he stressed in an interview with Izvestia. – I am not against this approach. Sometimes this can give interesting results, as, for example, in his time, the work of Christo (an American artist of Bulgarian origin, who, in particular, “wrapped” the Parisian New Bridge, wrapping it with cloth. – Izvestia). Provided that such an installation is temporary, the monument is treated with full respect, and then it is returned to its original appearance. I don’t see any profanity in this. I am tolerant of such innovations and I understand that people have different tastes. I don’t know what Napoleon himself would have said about Memento Marengo, but he was always very interested in the art of his time.

Making excuses, Pascal Carpet tried to explain to the uninitiated the meaning of his message: “The skeleton is designed to remind a person of the frailty of earthly existence, that everything is vanity. It is also an homage to the faithful Marengo, who served the general in many battles. The animal helps to better understand Napoleon the man. Finally, since ancient times, there was a ritual according to which military heroes were buried with their weapons and armor, and sometimes even with horses. “

In order to somehow calm the passions, the Army Museum is ready to meet the dissatisfied public. He promised on May 5, the anniversary of Napoleon’s death during mass, to dismantle the installation for several hours, and then return it back. This is not enough for the opponents of “dancing on the bones”.