NAPOLEON slipped contentedly into imperial ways. Even before the plebiscite, he had begun (May, 1804) to sign his letters and documents with only his first name; soon, except in formal documents, he reduced this to a simple N; and in time that proud initial appeared on monuments, buildings, garments, carriages … He began to speak of the French people no longer as “citizens” but as “my subjects.”1 He expected more deference from his courtiers, readier assent from his ministers; however, he bore in grim silence Talleyrand’s aristocratic ways, and accepted with some relish Fouché’s irreverent wit. Appreciating the help Fouché had given in ferreting out conspirators, he restored him (July 11, 1804) to his former post as minister of police. When Napoleon thought to subdue Fouché’s independence of thought and speech by reminding him of his having voted for the death of Louis XVI, Fouché replied, “Quite true. It was the first service I had the occasion to perform for Your Majesty.”2
One thing was still lacking to this majesty: it had not been recognized and sanctified, as with other crowns, by the highest representative of the nation’s religious faith. There was something, after all, in that medieval theory of divine right: to a people predominantly Catholic the anointment of its ruler by a pope who claimed to be the viceregent of God signified that this ruler had in effect been chosen by God, and therefore spoke with an almost divine authority. What idea could be more helpful in facilitating rule? And would not such anointment put Napoleon on a level with all European sovereigns, however rooted in the past? So he set his diplomats the task of persuading Pius VII that an unprecedented trip to Paris to crown the Son of the Revolution and the Enlightenment would symbolize the triumph of the Catholic Church over the Revolution and the Enlightenment. And would it not be useful to His Holiness to have, as a new defensor fidei, the most brilliant warrior in Europe? Some Austrian cardinals opposed the notion as a veritable sacrilege, but some canny Italians thought it would be quite a victory, not only for religion but also for Italy; “we should be placing an Italian family on the throne of France to govern those barbarians; we should be avenging ourselves on the Gauls.”3 The Pope was probably more practical: he would consent in the hope of bringing a repentant nation back to papal obedience, and regaining several papal territories that had been taken by the armies of France.
Napoleon made as careful preparations for this mutual triumph as for a major war. The coronation rituals of the Old Regime were studied, adapted, and amplified. Processions were planned as by a choreographer, and each movement was timed. New dresses were designed for the ladies of the court; the best milliners gathered around Josephine, and Napoleon bade her wear the jewels of the Treasury as well as her own; despite the protests of his mother, brothers, and sisters, he was resolved to crown her as well as himself. Jacques-Louis David, who was to commemorate the event in the greatest painting of the age, rehearsed her and her attendants in every move and pose. Poets were paid to celebrate the event. The Opéra was instructed to prepare ballets that might stir a papal breast. Arrangements were made to protect the major streets with troops, and to line the nave of Notre-Dame with the Consular Guard in a veritable marriage of Caesar and Christ. Princes and dignitaries from other states were invited, and came. Multitudes arrived from the city, the suburbs, the provinces, and abroad, and bargained for places of vantage in the cathedral or on the routes. Shopkeepers hoped to reap fortunes, and did. Jobs and spectacles kept the people contented as perhaps never since the panem et circenses of Imperial Rome.
The affable Pius VII made his way leisurely, November 2–25, through cities and ceremonies in Italy and France, and was met by Napoleon at Fontainebleau. From that moment till the coronation the Emperor gave the Pope every courtesy except deference; the Emperor was not to be awed into admitting any superior power. The people of Paris—the most skeptical on earth at that time—welcomed the Pontiff as a spectacle; an escort of soldiers and priests led him to the Tuileries, where he was guided to a special apartment in the Pavillon de Flore. Josephine welcomed him, and seized the occasion to tell him that she had not been united with Napoleon in a religious marriage; Pius promised to remedy that defect before the coronation. On the night of November 29–30 he remarried them, and Josephine felt that a blessed obstacle had been raised against a divorce.4
Early on a cold December 2 a dozen processions left from different points to converge on Notre-Dame: deputations from the cities of France, from the Army and Navy, the legislative assemblies, the judiciary, and the administrative corps, the Legion of Honor, the Institute, the chambers of commerce … They found the cathedral nearly filled with invited civilians, but soldiers made way for them to their appointed places. At 9 A.M., from the Pavillon de Flore, the papal procession set forth: Pius VII and his servitors, the cardinals and the grand officers of the Curia, in gaily decorated coaches drawn by horses chosen for their spirit and beauty, all led by a bishop on a mule and bearing aloft the papal crucifix. At the cathedral they descended and walked in formal array up the steps, into the nave, and through lanes of stiff soldiers to their assigned stations—the Pope to his throne at the altar’s left. Meanwhile, from another point of the Tuileries, the imperial cavalcade proceeded: first, Marshal Murat, governor of Paris, and his staff; then some specially distinguished regiments of the Army; then, in six-horse carriages, the leading officers of the government; then a carriage for the Bonaparte brothers and sisters; then a royal coach marked with a blazoned N, drawn by eight horses, and bearing the Emperor in purple velvet embroidered with gems and gold, and the Empress, at the peak of her precarious splendor, robed in silk and sparkling with jewelry, “her face so well made up that,” though forty-one, “she looked like four-and-twenty.”5 Then eight more carriages, bearing the ladies and officers of the court. It took an hour for all these carriages to reach the cathedral. There Napoleon and Josephine changed to coronation robes, and took their places at the right of the altar; he on a throne, she on a smaller throne five steps below him.
The Pope ascended the altar; Napoleon, then Josephine, mounted to kneel before him; each of the two was anointed and blessed. Emperor and Empress stepped down to where General Kellermann stood with a crown on a tray. Napoleon took the crown and placed it on his head. Then, as Josephine knelt in piety and modesty before him, he—”with a kind of noticeable tenderness”6—placed a crown of diamonds upon her jeweled hair. All this was no surprise to the Pope, for it had been so arranged in advance.*The patient Pontiff then kissed Napoleon on the cheek, and pronounced the official formula, “Vivat Imperator in aeternum” The Pope sang Mass. His assistants brought a book of the Gospels to him, and Napoleon, placing his hand on the book, recited the oath that still affirmed him to be the Son of the Revolution:
I swear to maintain the territory of the Republic in its integrity; to respect and enforce the laws of the Concordat and the Freedom of Worship; to respect and enforce Equality before the Law, political and civil liberty, and the irreversibility of the sales of national property; to lay on no duty, to impose no tax, except according to law; to maintain the institution of the Legion of Honor; and to govern only in accordance with the interests, the happiness, and the glory of the French people.8
By three o’clock the ceremony was complete. Through an acclaiming crowd, under falling snow, the various groups proceeded back to their points of origin. The genial Pontiff, fascinated by the glamour of Paris and the hope of fruitful negotiations, remained in or near the capital for four months, frequently appearing on a balcony to bless a kneeling crowd. He found Napoleon politely immovable, and bore patiently the secular entertainments offered him by his host. On April 15, 1805, he left for Rome. Napoleon resumed his imperial projects and ways, confident that now, being as holy as any ruler, he could face unbendingly the powers that would soon unite to destroy him.