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The Emperor’s Dream Room

· How the architect Raffaele Stern transformed an Italian palace for Napoleon after the deportation of Pius VII ·

What should the bedroom of an Emperor look like, if the Emperor is Napoleon I Bonaparte? This was the question on the mind of the architect Raffaele Stern in 1811 and the beginning of 1812. Stern had been given the job of transforming the Quirinale Palace into the Italian seat of Napoleon.

We know how events unfolded in Rome in the years just prior. On February 2, 1808, General Miollis had occupied Rome declaring, “ ville imperiale et libre .” One year later, May 1809, Bonaparte abolished the temporal power of the popes. Pius VII Chiaramonti, responded by excommunicating Napoleon. The result was the occupation “ manu militari ” of the Quirinale and the deportation of the Pope on the night between July 5 and 6th, 1809.

They were huge and dramatic events that left Christianity in Italy and in Europe dazed and disabled, while leaving Napoleon unscathed. His star was at its zenith in those years; there were no barriers to the glory of the Emperor. To the world, it seemed he had ushered in an era of order, peace and prosperity.

Or so thought the Romans and Italians in 1811 and 1812. And so thought Raffaele Stern, who had served, until then, as the architect of the Apostolic Palaces and was now happy to offer to Napoleon a worthy residence in the Quirinale Palace.

For Stern, they were months of feverish activity. He needed to choose the best artists: painters, sculptors, stonemasons, cabinetmakers, plasterers and to do so quickly because the Emperor would be in Italy the following year. In Rome, Napoleon would celebrate his immense triumph, just like the Caesars of antiquity: fifteen years of incessant victories, from the Vistula to the Nile, the Danube to the Ebro; the crowns of Europe were placed at his feet. Then he would take up residence in the imperial rooms prepared just for him.

Raffaele Stern was talented. He was perfectly familiar with the Italian and European artistic scene and was a formidable organizer. He could also count on the assistance and advice of his friend, Antonio Canova. He commissioned Bertel Thorvaldsen to create the stucco frieze that we still see today in the Quirinale, in the room called “ delle Dame .” It is a representation of the Triumph of Alexander the Great in Babylon , a clear allusion to the upcoming arrival of Napoleon in Rome.

At the same time, the fresco painter, Felice Giani was commissioned to paint the vault of the rooms with depictions of the Virtue s. In the rooms called “ of Music ” and “ of Victory ” and “ of Peace ” the creative genius of Giani is evident in winged “Nikai”, a panoply of weapons, wild battles, and depictions of the protective gods of Rome.

When it came to imagining the bedroom of the Emperor, Raffaele Stern had a brilliant idea which shows how fully he belonged to the sentimental and fantastic climate of early Romanticism: he wanted the protagonist of the room to be Sleep. Not the sleep of common mortals, but the dreams, premonitions and visions of the great men described by ancient authors. The sleep of Cicero in Plutarch, when Jove appears to show the young Augustus the lord of the world; the sleep of Achilles in the Illiad evoking the shadow of Patroclus; the sleep that announced victory to Caesar the night before the battle of Farsalo; the night populated by visions of the Spartan hoplites in Thermopolis. All portrayed in a plaster frieze of twenty-seven squares, thirty metres long.

Covering the bed of the Emperor was the celebrated Ossian’s Dream by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, an absolute masterpiece of the romantic and visionary 1800s.

Ingres’ canvas is today kept in the Museum which bears his name in Monteauban. The plaster frieze, practically completely intact, is conserved in the warehouse of the Vatican Museums. It’s creator is Jose Alvarez, a Spanish artist resident in Rome, very close to the style of Canova, Thorvaldsen and Francesco Massimiliano Labourour.

Why did the canvas of Ingres end up in France and the twenty-seven panels in plaster by Alvarez at the Vatican? Because on June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia in a decision that would signal the beginning of his ruin. Between Borodino and the fire in Moscow, Beresina and Waterloo, Elba and “100 days”, the Emperor had other things on his mind than his Roman palace at the Quirinale.

The year 1812, which should have been the annus mirabilis for Napoleon, became an annus horribilis of the most humiliating, catastrophic defeat. With the Great Army of seven hundred thousand men reduced at the end to twenty thousand, the most powerful force in the world was destroyed by frost and hunger and massacred by Partigiani and Cossacks.

The world returned to its ancient order, at least apparently (and temporarily). In 1814, Pope Chiaramonti re-took possession of the Quirinale, Raffaele Stern was once again the architect of the Sacred Palaces (at that time there were no political vendettas against intellectuals and artists), the paintings and decorations that Felice Giani, Thorvaldsen and others had created for the palace of Napoleon remained in place. Ossian’s Dream was bought by Ingres in 1835 and destined for his museum in France. While the plaster friezes of Jose Alvarez, not yet in position, made their way to the Vatican warehouse, where they still are today.

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