The National Gallery of Victoria is the venue for a marvellous exhibition called Napoleon: Revolution to Empire. It will continue till October 7 – following a lacklustre start, attendances greatly increased around and after Bastille Day – and to describe it, the journalistic cliché is perfectly valid: should you attend only one art gallery event this year, make it this one; should you attend only two, go twice.

War-games buffs concerned with ‘the little Corsican’ will find their own preoccupations abundantly catered for.  So will historians of costume, of art related to Aborigines (French explorers prove to have been surprisingly diligent practitioners here), of imperial ceremony (an entire room has been devoted to Bonapartist coronation paraphernalia), and of Gallic government overall, including the ancien régime’s dying stages. This layman found the captions accompanying each picture, sculpture, sartorial ornament, piece of furniture, piece of crockery, and piece of cutlery to be excellent, indeed to border on perfection.

Time was when Eminent Victorians – that pert, bitchy exercise in pseudo-historical fantasising with which the Cambridge-trained Lytton Strachey acquired celebrity and fortune in 1918 – seemed to possess scholastic as well as aesthetic significance. Few adults who read it now can retain towards it the gushing enthusiasm of its original public. The book is almost as prominent a spiritual casualty of the matriculation process as is The Catcher in the Rye.

And yet, the National Gallery’s captions seem to have been written according to Strachey’s own self-confessed formula: in other words, ‘a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant.’ Perhaps the jottings of one layman – whose pre-exhibition knowledge of Bonapartism comprised little more than what Australian history undergraduates a generation ago took for granted – may be of a wider interest than a specialist’s fixations could provoke.

The first thing which strikes a beholder upon entering the initial room is just how nasty the French Revolution got very early in the proceedings.  We are traditionally expected to deplore the fact that Edmund Burke produced his Reflections in 1790, when extremely few outside the ranks of legislators and secret police had realised (certainly Burke had not) the existence of Danton and Robespierre, let alone discerned that Jean-Paul Marat, Jacques Hébert, and Joseph Fouché constituted future political reality rather than mere effluvia from the Marquis de Sade’s asylum.

Clearly Burke knew better than most of us ever imagined. Placed prominently in the exhibition is a banner with the words ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ou La Mort!’  A product of Marat’s or Robespierre’s supremacy, one wonders? No, the caption puts one right: 1790. Also: faced with portrait after portrait of various among the Revolution’s lower-ranking bruisers, one is impressed above all by their lack of even moderate facial charm. Shades of Arthur Koestler’s warning – largely unheeded – that everything wrong with communist parties can be extrapolated from the sheer ugliness of their women.

One large section, under glass, deals wholly with Napoleon’s royal relatives. This visitor had rather hoped that the captions would include the Emperor’s put-down of another sovereign during a family pow-pow: ‘Quiet, King of Bavaria! [Taisez-vous, Roi de Bavière!].’ They didn’t, but nothing else seems to have been omitted. Even the less famous siblings and in-laws, such as Jérôme Bonaparte – King of Westphalia and husband of a Baltimore merchant’s daughter – are given due coverage.

Jacques-Louis David’s preparatory cartoon of the Big Kahuna’s 1804 coronation rite differs in one fundamental respect from the official painting (which dates from three years after the event) that we have all seen scores of times: it shows Napoleon crowning himself. This is exactly what happened on the day at Notre Dame, though the widespread tale that he whimsically tore the crown from Pope Pius VII’s hands turns out to be pure fiction. The ritual had been choreographed well in advance, using pre-1789 protocol books, and the Pontiff had been presented with a fait accompli.  But for propaganda purposes, it would appear, the auto-sacralisation needed to be left out of David’s final painting.

What no painting can convey, but what visitors may hear through speakers in the relevant annexe, is some of the ornate choral music performed on the occasion. It came from the pens of various minor composers, among whom Italy’s Giovanni Paisiello alone appears in general history books (and that solely because he wrote a Barber of Seville before Rossini was even born).

Curiously, the sheet-music for the relevant compositions went missing later, and failed to turn up until 1965, when an enterprising Paris Conservatoire archivist stumbled on it. Throughout the Bourbon restoration, the Orléanist epoch, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, the Nazi occupation, the Fourth Republic, and the first seven years of Gaullism, it had serenely slumbered.  Do the French (one is forced to enquire) ever discard anything?

Most of us probably imagined Napoleon’s Saint Helena exile to have been a sort of refined gulag. Thus, we non-specialists in the National Gallery’s corridors found it an extraordinary experience to learn – putting it bluntly – how high the fallen idol lived on the hog. Gina Rinehart would have gulped at the sheer opulence of some of Saint Helena’s rooms. It is also extraordinary to learn how little official interference, take it for all in all, visitors encountered during Napoleon’s final banishment. But then, in those days there was such a thing as an all-encompassing European civilisation.

Some historians have maintained that even when the Napoleonic wars raged most fiercely, Englishmen could still visit the Continent while bearing few if any official documents. Blockade or no blockade, civilians’ rights still meant something. The truth or falsehood of this allegation must be decided by experts. What remains undeniable is that as late as July 1914, a tourist could visit any European country west of Serbia – ‘Servia’, people spelled it before Sarajevo – without a passport. Naturally the War to End Wars put an end to that douceur de vivre, as to so much else of value. By 1930 the novelist Norman Douglas found himself penning, in an essay called Goodbye to Western Culture, this outburst:

‘You can live without friends, without wife or children or money or tobacco; you can live without a shirt, without a reputation; you cannot live without a document establishing your servitude to bureaucracy. A man’s passport or carte d’identité is beginning to be of greater consequence than his person, and for a good reason. It makes him authentic. If Mr Jones, the European, cannot produce a passport, he is a solar myth.’

‘Unrelievedly repellent’ is the politest possible phrase for Douglas’s own private life. Yet his elegantly phrased complaint is worth remembrance, dating as it does from seven decades before 9/11.

So even when one time-travels to the Bonapartist era, some postmodern grotesqueries remain inescapable. That said, Napoleon: Revolution to Empire deserves, as a whole, the same accolade which Dryden paid to Chaucer’s output: ‘’Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that “here is God’s plenty”.’ And France’s plenty. And, for a while, Melbourne’s. All Australians with more than a milligram each of historical awareness should pay the exhibition a visit while they still can.

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, edits the quarterly magazine Organ Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Maryland).

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, edits the quarterly magazine Organ Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Maryland).