Within the space of no more than three months in 1812, Bertel Thorvaldsen executed a one-metre high and 35-metre-long relief frieze for the papal Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome on the occasion of the Emperor Napoleon’s planned visit to the city. The work was agreed with Thorvaldsen in March 1812, and the second centenary of the frieze is being marked with an exhibition in Thorvaldsens Museum focussing heavily on high politics in both ancient times and in the early 19th century and at the same time providing the key to an understanding of the scenes in one of Thorvaldsen’s most outstanding works: the frieze made for the homage to Napoleon, the subject of which was Alexander the Great’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon. This motif was chosen as an ancient parallel to Napoleon’s arrival in Rome.
Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor of France in 1804 and the following year he took the title of King of Italy. In 1811, the Emperor and his family started planning a visit to Rome, the second capital of the Empire, coming only after Paris. On that occasion, Thorvaldsen was awarded his first commission for the Napoleonic dynasty: a frieze for the palace in Rome where the young Emperor and his family were to reside. Napoleon’s choice of Alexander the Great as the main figure in the frieze signalled a quite unambiguous indication of Napoleon’s own view of his role in the world and its high politics. And Thorvaldsen’s Alexander frieze stands out as a clear example of Napoleon’s eagerness to use art in the service of politics and propaganda. Great French painters such as Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) were among the preferred interpreters of Napoleon’s physiognomy.
Thorvaldsen brought with him from Copenhagen a radical outlook partly deriving from his mentor in the Academy of Fine Art, the painter N.A. Abildgaard. And in Rome there is plenty to suggest that he shared the enthusiastic – and revolutionary – ideas of a new age for mankind that surfaced there in the years succeeding the French Revolution. And at first, all Europe viewed Napoleon as the saviour of the free and equal people of the new age. But as Napoleon became increasingly despotic, the enthusiasm waned in many people. There are, however, no sources indicating Thorvaldsen’s personal view of Napoleon in 1812. His work suggests that, like countless other artists before and since, he turned to motifs for which there was a demand. Thorvaldsen’s sculptures expressed the ideologies and values represented by the broad range of those commissioning him. Napoleon never undertook the planned visit to Rome in 1812 and so he never saw Thorvaldsen’s frieze. High politics and Napoleon’s lust for power got in the way of the journey to Rome. His empire collapsed and he was forced to abdicate in 1814.
The Alexander Frieze, however, ensured Thorvaldsen’s position as one of the leading artists in Europe, and news of his new masterpiece also reached Copenhagen. In 1818, he was commissioned to make a marble version of the frieze for Christiansborg Palace, which was at that time being built with C.F. Hansen as architect. Thorvaldsens Museum possesses the full-sized frieze both as an original model and as a plaster copy, and there is also a smaller marble version of the frieze in the museum.
Including works by Thorvaldsen, graphic prints and paintings from 19th-century Rome and France and with a plaster copy of Napoleon’s death mask, the exhibition IN PRAISE OF POWER provided visitors with ample opportunity to examine the worlds of Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Thorvaldsen.
The exhibition was arranged by curator Margrethe Floryan.
Bertel Thorvaldsen: Napoleon Bonaparte,
Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet: The Death of Napoleon in St. Helena, c. 1843.
Thorvaldsen’s sketch to the Alexander Frieze.
Thorvaldsen’s Alexander Frieze.
Photo: Pernille Klemp.