Napoleon greeted the birth of his son with delight. Having emerged victorious from the gruelling War of the Fifth Coalition, in which he had eventually defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Wagram in July 1809, the Emperor determined to secure the future of his dynasty by divorcing the Empress Joséphine, who had failed to provide him with an heir. In 1810 he married the Archduchess Marie Louise, daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Francis II of Austria. After a long and difficult labour, the Empress gave birth to a son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, L’Aiglon (The Eaglet, after his father who was known as L’Aigle, The Eagle), on 20 March 1811. Napoleon’s Private Secretary, Baron Claude-François de Méneval, whose memoirs shed a fascinating light on the life of the Emperor, described the scene of the presentation of the newly born:
In the effusion of his joy Napoleon bent over the child, seized it in his arms, with a spontaneous movement, carried it to the door of the drawing room in which all the grandees of his Empire were assembled and presenting it to them said, ‘Here is the King of Rome’
Méneval, op. cit., p. 347
One hundred and one cannon shots announced the birth of Napoleon’s son, and the bells of Notre Dame rang out, drawing a huge crowd of Parisians to the gates of the Tuileries. The arrival of the new king garnered a warm reception from wider French society, and the population of Paris commissioned a magnificent silver cradle to celebrate the Christening. Crafted by Pierre Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), the cradle featured a winged figure of Victory supporting a canopy formed from a wreath of silver laurel leaves surmounted by celestial bodies, the central star dominated by a capitalised N. The cradle, which is now in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna (inv. no. XIV 28, Cat. 119), is guarded by an eagle, standing sentinel over the space where the little king would have slept. It is adorned by silver-gilt bees and fictive garlands, and is supported by legs of cornucopiae, filled with the fruits of Napoleonic largesse.
In his relationship with his son, Napoleon showed a side of his character hitherto unknown to his subjects, who were familiar only with the image of the great military tactician and rational lawmaker. In the years after his son’s birth, the Emperor would receive L’Aiglon daily into his study at the palace of Compiègne, his principal residence at the time, meetings that are discussed in intimate detail by Méneval, who marveled that:
This workroom, which was the scene of the birth of so many skilful maneuvers intended to repel the attacks of our eternal enemies , and so vast and generous schemes of government, was very often also the silent witness of Napoleon’s paternal tenderness. How often have I watched the Emperor there, keeping his son at his side as though he were impatient to initiate him in the art of government. Either seated on his favourite settee near the mantelpiece … occupied in reading some important report; or going to his writing table … to sign a dispatch, each word of which had to be weighed; his son, seated on his knees or pressed against his bosom, never left him. Endowed with a marvelous power of concentration, Napoleon was able at one and the same time to attend to serious matters, and to lend himself to a child’s fancies
Méneval, op. cit., p. 358
Following the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812 and the gradual depletion of French forces in the aftermath of the large set-piece battles of Dresden and Leipzig, Napoleon’s empire was on the brink of collapse by the closing months of 1813, facing an allied army nearly three times the size of its own. Napoleon returned to Paris on 10 November. He would not remain for long. Within three months the Emperor would be forced to mobilise his troops to defend his nation’s natural borders, a far cry from his crushing victories at Marengo (1800) and Austerlitz (1805). On 23 January 1814, the Emperor summoned the officers of the National Guard to the Tuileries and declared, I am going to fight the enemy. I entrust to you what I have dearest – the Empress, my wife, and the King of Rome, my son (Méneval, op. cit., p. 456); Marie Louise was made Regent in his absence.
Drawing on Méneval’s accounts of the relationship between the Emperor and his son, the novelist Octave Aubry evoked the scene of Napoleon’s last day in Paris in his 1933 novel, Napoleon II. The King of Rome. L’Aiglon:
Napoleon kept the King of Rome in his study the whole afternoon. Alone with him he sorted and arranged his private papers, burning bundles of them. The swift, leaping flames delighted the child. Seated in a corner of the fireplace, his hands hanging at his sides, his bald forehead bowed, the Emperor was lost in thought. The little boy trotted about the room, pulling his wooden horse by the bridle and singing to himself. Then, on the huge map of Lorraine and the Champagne that was spread on the table before him, the Emperor began figuring out the maneuvers by which he could retake Saint-Dizier, cut Blucher off from Schwarzenberg, roll up the Russians and the Prussians and hurl them back beyond the Rhine. Time dragged for the child. Wearying of his solitary game at last, he pulled at his father’s coat-tails. Napoleon turned and looked at him. Forgetting everything, both strategy and danger, he seized the boy, tossed him high above his head, then let him drop suddenly, only to toss him up again…. His ‘little King’ he was never to see again.
Aubry, op. cit., pp. 50-51
The date on the Roi de Rome Pistols, Janv 1814 (January 1814) takes on a new significance in the light of these historical events. For months Napoleon had known that France itself would soon be under threat from enemy forces, and he is likely to have understood that his time with his beloved son was potentially slipping away from him. The Roi de Rome Pistols, a magnificent pair of presentation guns of a small bespoke size, clearly made for a young boy’s hands, would have been a fitting and lavish gift for L’Aiglon’s third birthday on 20 March 1814. Following the invasion of France in January of that year, the pistols would have been perceived as being an even more appropriate present from a father who was due to part with his son to fight for the very survival of their fledgling dynasty. In terms of precedent, the gift of guns to the heir to the French throne had a long and distinguished lineage within French culture. Louis XIII (1601-1643), father of the Sun King, had received his first arquebus and bandolier (with cartridges) at the age of three, and, by 1610, when he was aged ten, is recorded as owning no fewer than seven guns (Tarassuk, op. cit., p. 65). Napoleon certainly gifted guns to his son: whilst in exile he sent a group of pistols to the Roi de Rome, which were withheld by the Austrians, never reaching the his cherished L'Aiglon (‘Napoleon’, The Observer, 26 January 1969, pp. 22).
That Napoleon commissioned the pistols is underlined by William Bullock’s 1816 description of the small group of arms in his famously well provenanced London exhibition, only two years after the date of their creation:
Each article of the fire arms that have been thus imperfectly described, will interest the soldier, the sportsman, and the artisan. And whatever may be the various opinions of the man [Napoleon], in obedience to whose directions they were manufactured, yet looking at them as specimens of taste and ingenuity, they must obtain not only praise but high admiration
Bullock, 1816, op. cit., p. 28
January 24th 1814 was the last day that Napoleon could have presented the Roi de Rome Pistols to his son. What may have been intended as a birthday present became a poignant leaving gift. Enclosed within a case adorned with the motif of the young Achilles being taught archery by the centaur Chiron, after a painting of the Education of Achilles by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829) (1782, musée du Louvre, inv. no. 7382), they were evidently conceived as the boy king’s first pair of pistols. However, these virtuoso guns would have taken on a new significance on the eve of invasion for Napoleon, who is said to have feared nothing more than for his wife and son to be captured by his enemies. Whilst the child could never have used the guns to defend himself personally, Napoleon would have left Paris in the knowledge that he had symbolically armed his son for the battle that was to come.
Paris fell to allied forces on 31st March 1814. In the days previous, the city, in the midst of a biting winter, had descended into an uneasy calm. As lines of wounded soldiers processed down the snowy grand boulevards, the fashionable Café Tortoni remained open, serving punch and other delicacies to a depleted group of cultivated Parisians. The Empress Marie Louise and her entourage quietly took the decision to vacate the city, taking the contents of the Imperial Treasury with them. The Treasury included 10,000 francs worth of gold and silver coins, 3,000,000 francs worth of silver plate, and an array of other valuables from snuff-boxes to gold rings, and very possibly the Roi de Rome Pistols. On hearing of the Empress’ departure, the upper classes panicked, packing up their possessions as rapidly as they could, and blocking all roads leading out of the city and away from the advancing allied soldiers. ‘Everybody has lost their heads’, said one observer, whilst Napoleon’s brother Louis is described as being ‘in such a state of panic… and so demented that it is embarrassing’ (quoted by Dwyer, op. cit., pp. 481, 483).
The Emperor Napoleon I abdicated on 4th April, accepting a life in exile on the small island of Elba, off the western Mediterranean coast of Italy. The contents of his Imperial Treasury had been loaded onto a fleet of wagons, situated in the main square of the city of Orléans, awaiting orders to be sent to Elba. Reaching Orléans, the forces of the new Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, intercepted the caravan and confiscated the lot, transferring the Treasury to Paris, where they divided the spoils amongst royalist supporters, marking the first dispersal of Napoleon’s possessions and those of his family.
An Englishman in Paris: William Bullock (circa 1773-1849) and the Roi de Rome Pistols
The Paris that greeted William Bullock’s close friend and confident William Jerdan in April 1814 was a city keen to sell its riches to an influx of British visitors, a market from which the French had been deprived ever since Napoleon had instigated his trade embargo against the United Kingdom in 1806. Jerdan wrote of being presented by immense quantities of antique furniture, knick-knacks, curiosities and productions of old masters for virtuoso admirations and purchase in England (quoted in Costello, op. cit., p. 57). Within months, William Bullock, the first British owner of the Roi de Rome Pistols, would arrive in Paris in search of his own curiosities for his celebrated ‘Museum’ at the Egyptian Rooms in London’s Piccadilly.
Bullock’s ownership of the Roi de Rome Pistols is significant because he organized the most famous and highly regarded exhibitions of Napoleonic memorabilia in London in the years immediately following Waterloo. The son of owners of travelling waxworks, Bullock has been described as a Pickwickean entrepreneur, showman, naturalist [and] antiquarian (Leask, op. cit., p. 300). He initially settled in Liverpool, where he opened the ‘Liverpool Museum’ of scientific and artistic curiosities in 1795. The success of this venture led him to relocate to London, where he had reopened his museum at 22 Piccadilly by 1809. He eventually constructed the extraordinary Egyptian Hall at 170-173 Piccadilly, a purpose built exhibition space designed in the fashionable Regency Egyptianising style. The extent of Bullock’s fame within his lifetime is elucidated by Professor Michael Costeloe, whose exhaustive 2008 account of him notes that:
Many thousands of Londoners and visitors from the provinces were to come to know ‘Bullock’s Museum’ in Piccadilly. It became not just the most fashionable place to visit and be seen but also the most popular venue in the metropolis for the range, variety, and originality of the displays. Everybody from the Prince Regent (future George IV), the Queen and several royal Princesses, and visiting European royalty, to Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Mary Wollenstonecraft, Percy Shelley, Alexander von Humboldt and untold numbers of families who took their children as part of their education passed through the doors of the Egyptian Hall.
Costeloe, op. cit., p. 5
Initially, crowds visited the Egyptian Hall to see the natural history displays, which included stuffed animals, some of which were arranged in combat scenarios, such as the remarkable scene of a boa constrictor suffocating a tiger (extant, at the Rossendale Museum). The turning point in Bullock’s career came with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815. The Emperor’s magnificent enamelled leather and dark blue painted and giltwood travelling carriage, drawn by six horses, had been captured by the Prussian Major Eugen von Keller on the evening after the battle. Keller claimed that Napoleon himself had jumped from the carriage during the attack, only to flee on horseback into the night. The superbly appointed carriage was filled with an array of luxury objects, from full dining and toilet services, embossed with the Emperor’s arms, to a stash of diamonds and currency. It was driven by Keller to London, where it was purchased by the British Government, which in turn sold it to Bullock. The display of the carriage at the Egyptian Hall in 1816 instantly turned Bullock into a celebrity, and a fascinated public flocked to see it, both in London and on subsequent national tours. In letters to Jerdan, Bullock described his years of owning the carriage:
I over-ran England, Ireland and Scotland, levying a willing contribution on upwards of 800,000 of his Majesty’s subjects; for old and young, rich and poor, clergy and laity, all ages, sexes and conditions, flocked to pay their poll tax, and gratify their curiosity by an examination of the spoils of the dead lion.
William Bullock, letter to William Jerdan, cited by Costello, op. cit., p. 81
Bullock, the entrepreneur, resolved to travel to Paris to collect further artefacts formerly possessed by the fallen Emperor. He had first travelled to Paris in May 1814, purchasing the most magnificent collection of ancient armour that ever came to this country. It was the King of Bavaria’s (letters dated 24 June and 5 July 1814 in Liverpool Record Office, Ref. 920, DER (13), 1/24/1,2). According to Costeloe, Bullock acquired artworks from the Louvre, writing that he had seen many curiosities and interesting articles presented by the Directors of the Royal Museum of Paris (as quoted in Costeloe, op. cit., p. 60). He was also presented with large quantities of Napoleonic memorabilia by those who had been in service for the deposed Emperor (Costeloe, op. cit., p. 60). It is therefore fully possible that Bullock acquired the Roi de Rome Pistols when in Paris in 1814. However, he only decided to open the ‘Museum Napoleon’ in 1816, clearly to capitalise on the success of the exhibition of the carriage. It is consequently probable that the pistols were bought on his trip to the French capital in January 1816, especially since they are published for the first time by Bullock in that year (op. cit.). On this visit he is recorded as having acquired numerous items, including the Emperor’s Surtout Coat and Travelling Cap, bought from the Keeper of the Imperial Wardrobe, Guste Maitrot, as well as artefacts from Napoleon’s residences, the châteaux of Malmaison and St. Cloud (Costeloe, op. cit., p. 69); it seems probable that the Roi de Rome Pistols came from one of these two palaces.
The 1816 catalogue for the ‘Museum Napoleon’ (which features the Roi de Rome Pistols) states that the exhibits were acquired from persons who had immediate connection with the late Ruler of France; their authenticity is therefore placed beyond dispute (op. cit). This is made clear from the descriptions of many of the items, the large case of arms which precedes the Roi de Rome Pistols is recorded as having been presented by Napoleon to Guillaume Brune (1763-1815), one of his most loyal Marshals, and acquired from his widow, who was doubtless in need of funds following the death of her husband (op. cit.). Costeloe emphasises that Bullock was a scrupulous and intelligent buyer (Costeloe, op. cit., p. 57) . His repeated emphasis on the provenance of the objects in his catalogues betrays a clear concern for authenticity, so as not to undermine his profitable venture. Indeed, when, on his 1816 trip to Paris, he took the decision to employ Jean Hornn, the coachman who had driven Napoleon’s carriage, he went to great lengths to verifiy the authenticity of Hornn’s account (Costeloe, op. cit., pp. 69-71). The consequences of potentially being denounced as a fraud would have been disastrous for Bullock, and so he appears not to have taken risks in his acquisitions.
Bullock’s decision to sell the carriage and the contents of the ‘Museum Napoleon’ in 1819 can be explained by his thirst for knowledge and his continual ability to innovate so as to appeal to the changing tastes of the public. His exhibitions on Mexico in the 1820’s have been described as playing a highly influential role in presenting and interpreting Mexican natural history and culture to a British audience (Baigent, op. cit.), with Costeloe concluding that Bullock introduced Mexico to the British public (Costeloe, op. cit., p. 5). One interesting, and potentially significant, final point to consider when discussing the Bullock provenance is that his brother, George (circa 1782-1818), was a leading Regency cabinet maker, based in Liverpool. The two collaborated on numerous occasions, including in producing replicas of the statue of Napoleon from the Vendome Column, which was one of the exhibits in the ‘Museum Napoleon’. Significantly, George Bullock produced the furniture for Napoleon’s residence on St. Helena, Longwood House, a commission which he may have gained through his brother’s fame in relation to the deposed Emperor.
Cora, Countess of Strafford
At Bullock’s sale in 1819 the Roi de Rome Pistols were acquired by an unknown purchaser named ‘Levery’. They were subsequently exhibited by the gunmakers Purdey at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. It was probably around this time that they entered the collection of Cora, Countess of Strafford, as they later appear in a sale at Christie’s on 20 April 1937 under the heading Sold by Order of the Executors of Cora, Countess of Strafford… Said to have been the property of the Emperor Napoleon I.
Cora Smith (1879-1932), widow of the soap magnate Samuel J Colgate (1822-1897), married Henry Byng, 4th Earl of Strafford (1831-1899) at Grace Church in New York in December 1898. Tragically, less than a year later, the Earl died in an accident at Potters Bar railway station, when he fell in front of a passing express train and was decapitated. Lady Strafford nonetheless made a considerable and positive impression when she arrived in England, where she remained for the rest of her life. Famed for her convivial dinner parties in which she brought together visiting Americans with leading members of London society, Lady Strafford’s obituary in The Times concluded:
With Cora, Lady Strafford has passed an American of great wealth and kindly-shrewd intelligence who succeeded in importing all that is best in American into English social life. She remained a jealously devoted daughter of the United States, swift to resent the slightest slur upon them. Her love of the English country and of the English people had, however, led her in her quiet way to render, perhaps, greater services than ever she realised to the cause of Anglo-American understanding.
The Times, 14 October 1932
Having inherited a vast fortune from her first husband, Lady Strafford had the financial means to have acquired the Roi de Rome Pistols in her own right. She married for a third time in 1903, Martyn Thomas Kennard (1859-1920), and commissioned the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) to paint a marvelous portrait of herself which perfectly evokes the gilded Edwardian age (Wrotham Park, Herfordshire).
Lady Strafford is the inspiration for the character of Cora, Countess of Grantham in Julian Fellowes’ award winning television miniseries, Downton Abbey. Fellowes also used her husband’s family seat, Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire, for his 2001 Academy Award and BAFTA nominated murder mystery film, Gosford Park. Coincidentally, the scene in Gosford Park, in which Sir William McCordle is stabbed to death whilst deassembling a gun is inspired by Andrew Festing’s portrait of William Keith Neal, from whose collection the Roi de Rome Pistols are being offered.
William Keith Neal: A Matchless Provenance
The William Keith Neal collection was the greatest private grouping of firearms ever assembled in Europe. Keith Neal had acquired the pistols by May 1946 (family records) from the collection of Hugh Burton-Jones, who had died in 1945. Burton-Jones appears to have been a passionate Francophile, collecting in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Vincennes porcelain from his collection can be found in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu (Watering Can, inv. no. 84.DE.89) and in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Gobelet, inv. no. 1980-12-01), whilst Keith Neal also acquired a pair of Boutet pistols at the same time as the Roi de Rome Pistols.
Keith Neal was the leading expert in antique firearms in Britain during his lifetime. By 1938, his reputation was already sufficiently burnished that he was asked to arrange a groundbreaking display of antique sporting weapons for the London British Sporting Exhibition at the Imperial Institute, South Kensington. The stand, which illustrated the history of firearms over three hundred years, was visited by members of the royal family and was the subject of early television transmissions, recorded from Crystal Palace. During the second world war, the collection was stored while Keith Neal was away, in his Georgian cottage in the garrison town of Warminster. The house, on a busy road leading up to the School of Infantry, he lent for a period to a serving officer, Lord Andrew Cavendish, the future 11th Duke of Devonshire, and his bride Deborah (‘Debo’). Later asked about the house the Duchess commented Oh we loved it, except for the dust from the tanks. ...There was a locked door down a passage we weren’t allowed to go through; we knew that’s where the guns were (personal conversation with the Keith Neal family). At its height in the 1960s, when the collection was displayed at Bishopstrow House, the Keith Neals’ home outside Warminster, it numbered some 2,000 pieces. When Keith Neal finally retired with his wife to Guernsey, he created a small private museum on the island. Following his passing in 1990, the collection was eventually sold in a series of high profile sales at Christie’s and Bonhams in London.
Pieces from the William Keith Neal Collection are now displayed in major international museums and collections. Examples are the superb silver and gold-damascened German 16th-century carbine made for a German princely family, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv.no 1991.150). Also in that museum is a magnificent pair of flintlock pistols of 1800 made by Samuel Brunn (inv no. 1992.3320.1.2). Encrusted with silver mounts, they were almost certainly made for the Prince Regent, later George IV. The earliest dated Scottish long gun (1599), the historic Breadalbane Gun, is now in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh (inv. No. H.LH 439). A sublime Rococo English sporting gun by William Simpson of York, formerly at Burton Constable Hall, was acquired for the Royal Armories Museum, Leeds, in 1989, for a world record price at the time (£235,000). This result has since been beaten by another former Keith Neal piece, the unique Tiger Gun which belonged to Tipu Sultan (1750-99), Ruler of Mysore, which recently sold at Bonhams, London, on 21 April 2015 for £722,500 (aggregate).
It is not surprising, therefore, that the exquisite Roi de Rome Pistols would find their way into Keith Neal’s collection. In addition to being connected to one of the most famous figures in European history, they exemplify French Imperial gunmaking at its zenith. However, their petite form and jewel-like quality also give them a more feminine appeal. They were a natural present for Keith Neal’s wife, Jane, to whom he gifted them shortly after their acquisition. Friends and collectors recall that on visits, Jane would ask for the pistols to be brought out of the safe, whereby they caused general delight, and, appropriately mesmerised any children in attendance, as they must have done the young Roi de Rome when, in January 1814, he was handed them by his father, the Emperor Napoleon.
Detailed Description and Analysis of the Roi de Rome Pistols
The Roi de Rome Pistols exemplify the reputation of the Le Page family as the most outsanding maker of deluxe firearms for the French nobility during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Fliegel, op. cit., p. 172). The physical description below closely follows documentation from the Keith Neal family records written by the Peter Hawkins.
The pistols sport swamped blued twist polygroove rifled barrels, each of which are signed in gold Gothic lettering Le Page à Paris / Arq.er de L’Empereur. They are each inlaid with gold decoration around the muzzle, and are adorned with an encrusted gold spear and laurel wreath on the top flat, surmounting a gold-encrusted imperial eagle flanked by conventional foliage and a transverse band at the breech. They are each flat gilt around and opposite the vent, and there is a gold fore-sight, and gilt back-sight on each gun, the latter set into the blued and gilt tangs. The pistols are numbered 1 and 2 respectively, and they each have flat case-hardened locks with incuse border. They are each signed in gold and inlaid with a gold bee and two laurel branches. There are engraved gold-inlaid cocks and steels, gold-lined semi-rainproof pans, and brightly blued steel-springs. The upper jaw of each cock is inlaid in gold with the Iron Crown of the Order of the Iron Crown. The interior of each lock retains its bright blued finish on the springs and screws, and is inscribed with the serial number 1703 and the date janv.1814. The moulded figured walnut half-stocks are finely carved in relief in the Neoclassical style, with the head of a lion at the front of each fore-end, and with an engraved gold-inlaid owl framed by a laurel wreath to the rear of its mane. The butts are inlaid on each side with a pierced and engraved gold panel in the form of a Neoclassical trophy-of-arms, and are inlaid along each spine with a further engraved gold panel. The pistols each have fire-blued gold-inlaid trigger guards, gold-inlaid case-hardened side-plates, and case-hardened trigger plates. The finials are each engraved with the head of Minerva, her helmet with gilt plumes, all above a gold-inlaid Napoleonic N within a gold-inlaid shield-shaped cartouche. Each pistol has an oval carved ebony pommel, with case-hardened gold-inlaid cap engraved with a Medusa head within a foliate frame. The pistols have fire-blued triggers and barrel-bolts, the latter each set within engraved gold escutcheons.
A rare survival is the superb original silver-mounted fitted presentation case of thuya wood, which is lined in crimson velvet and contains the full complement of accessories, most of them ivory-mounted, together with a silver mounted tapering cylindrical powder-flask of translucent tortoiseshell. The exterior of the lid of the case is inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl, including an oval cartouche engraved with Chiron teaching the young Achilles to shoot.
Jean Le Page was the celebrated gunsmith to Louis XVI, the Emperor Napoleon I and Louis XVIII. Trained by his father Pierre Le Page (1709-1783), he was heir to the premier firearms manufactury in France, established in 1717. Le Page was an expert in creating deluxe firearms, a term introduced during the Napoleonic period to describe the ultimate standard in luxury guns, incorporating elaborate wood stocks carved in the Neoclassical style, blued or browned steel, silver inlay and – for the most expensive firearms – gold inlay and encrustation. This approach was pioneered by Nicolas Noël Boutet (d. 1833), who established an extensive manufactury at Versailles specifically with the purpose of creating deluxe arms for the Emperor Napoleon and his court. As Irena Grabowska has outlined, In the field of fine-quality firearms Boutet found his equal in Le Page … [who] was entrusted with the execution of shoulder arms for the Emperor Napoleon I. They were mainly designed for presentation (Blair, op. cit., p. 499).
Within Le Page’s oeuvre, the Roi de Rome Pistols compare closely with rifles and pistols from the Napoleonic period, whilst standing out amongst other firearms for their lavish presentation, with ivory accoutrements, and their extensive and specific imperial symbolism. The signature inscriptions on the barrels are very close, being written in the same Gothic script, to those appearing on a double-barrelled flintlock sporting gun formerly owned by Napoleon in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. no. 1966.433). The gilding, in particular the gilt-inlay imperial N’s, finds a clear parallel in the sporting gun, made for Napoleon, in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle (inv. no. RCIN 61154). Comparison should also be made with a pair of flintlock pistols from the collection of Colonel Basil Charles Boothby, acquired after the battle of Waterloo, which were sold at Christie’s on 29 October 1986; these similarly exhibit the imperial N. A pair of full size pistols within their original case, likewise centred by a relief of Chiron teaching Achilles to shoot after Regnault, was sold at Drouot, Paris, on 19 October 1983. These pistols, however, were dated 1824 and it is likely that they were inspired by their progenitor, the Roi de Rome Pistols, which would undoubtedly have been a new design for such an important patron. The Roi de Rome Pistols represent a different class of object to the aforementioned, of a bespoke third size for a young boys hands, with exotic ivory, tortoiseshell and thuya wood for their accessories, and, most importantly, their extensive, carefully delineated, symbolism, which confirms their manufacture for the Roi de Rome.
According to the musée de l’Armée, records survive of a pair of pistolets produced by Le Page in 1814, which bear the serial number: 1704 (the Roi de Rome Pistols are engraved: 1703). This is significant as it securely dates the Roi de Rome Pistols within Le Page’s oeuvre. It is also worth remarking that the creation of the pistols at such a time of political instability is extraordinary, given the lavish nature of the commission.
The Symbolism of the Roi de Rome Pistols
The pistols can only have been made for a member of the French imperial family. They are each adorned with the Emperor’s personal cypher, the imperial N - synomymous with Bonaparte - and are each engraved with bees, the symbol most closely associated with Napoleon, which appear prominently on objects personally connected with the Roi de Rome, from Thomire’s cradle in Vienna (discussed above) to the King’s lace bonnet, which is embroided with flying bees throughout (château de Malmaison, inv. No. 1989.MM40-47.8309; Beyeler, op. cit., no. 22). The imperial eagle, which is encrusted in gold on the barrels of the guns, is another of the symbols of the Napoleonic Empire, and is to be expected on arms made bespoke for Napoleon or his immediate family; they feature, for example, on the Cleveland sporting gun. The proliferation of Napoleonic symbolism on the Roi de Rome Pistols marks them out as an important gift to a leading member of the imperial family from the Emperor himself. This is further underlined by the martial iconography, notably the encrusted gold spears, the plate gold trophies, the inlaid gold laureled helmets and the wreaths of laurel and oak. Such an abundance of motifs, connecting the recipient of the pistols to classical military triumph, affirms that the owner was an individual of the highest rank within the Empire, with such iconography being entirely appropriate for the heir to the throne.
Most significant of all is the presence of the emblem of the Order of the Iron Crown of Italy: the crown on the top jaws of the cocks, which has distinctive spiked points. This form of coronet is the heraldic device selected by Napoleon to represent the famous Iron Crown of Lombardy, with which he was crowned during his coronation as King of Italy at Milan Cathedral in 1805. The crown was said to include a nail from the True Cross and was used during the coronation of Charlemagne. Napoleon’s use of the crown and his concurrent creation of the Order of the Iron Crown was a deliberate marker of assimilation to Charlemagne, the first true European. The Emperor’s son was immediately declared to be Roi de Rome and a holder of the Grand Cross of the Order upon his birth. The child appears in a engraving by J.L. Benoist, after J. Goubaud, seated in the Thomire cradle, like a little pasha propped up on a pillow, naked but for drapery, on top of an opulent crimson and ermine cloak adored with golden bees. In his hand he clutches a ribbon from which is suspended the emblem of the order, the Iron Crown surmounted by an eagle.
The same Iron Crown appears prominently on the stock of the Roi de Rome’s flintlock pistol at the Château de Fontainebleau (inv. no. F-1988.6), which was given by the young King to his beloved companion, Fanny Soufflot (Beyeler, op. cit., p. 146). This, the only other gun associated with the Roi de Rome, was made by De Saint-Étienne circa 1813. Similarly, it features the imperial eagle, the wreath of laurels, the uncrowned imperial N, the thunderbolt and the spear, and is adorned, along the length of the barrel, with a procession of golden bees. The fact that both the pistols and the rifle include the Imperial N, uncrowned, may suggest that, in each case, the N refers to none other than the Roi de Rome himself.
Complementing the imperial and martial symbolism, are a group of emblems with a didactic theme. The owl is both a symbol of Athena/ Minerva, significant for the Roi de Rome, as this goddess was one of the Capitoline Triad, the most revered of the Roman gods. She is also goddess of wisdom and war, and consequently stands for the principle of considered force. According to Napoleon’s valet, Louis Constant Wairy, the Emperor’s swords were adorned with the symbol of the owl (op. cit.), whilst hibou (owl) is said to have been one of the nicknames for the young Roi de Rome. The theme of tuition is ultimately emphasized in the engraved mother of pearl roundel on the lid of the presentation case, which shows Chiron teaching the young Achilles archery, underlining the fact that the Roi de Rome Pistols were conceived as a gift to a young boy, for the purposes of learning. The presence of the Medusa head is a typical martial image and refers to the young hero Perseus from Greek mythology, who killed the Gorgon and gave the head to Athena, who attached it to the outside of her shield and therefore appropriated the power to turn her enemies to stone.
A Treasured Napoleonic Relic
Few objects deserve to be classified as Treasures. The Roi de Rome Pistols, intrinsically precious in being engraved and encrusted in gold; astonishingly virtuoso in their technique, in being formed of blued steel and carved walnut; and unique as Napoleonic relics, in being the last poignant gift from the Emperor to his beloved son; are matchless, both in their import and in their beauty. They represent an unequalled opportunity to connect with the general, the conqueror, the Emperor, and the caring father, through possessing objects which he commissioned for his only legitimate son and heir: the Roi de Rome.
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