Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities December 2017


(Click on images to enlarge them.)

Curiosity: 2 miniature portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte

Created: 1824

Artist: Maestro di Pavia

Measurements: Full-length portrait: 183×118 mm

                              Head portrait: 74×62 mm

These two miniature portraits have come to the University museum’s collection through the bequest of George Powell of Nanteos. As with so many of his objects, we have unfortunately no idea how, when and where he bought them. Holland and Meyrick explain that “Powell was very taken with Romantic struggles for liberty and nationhood. Like many other collectors in the 19th century he collected material associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.” This and the exquisite execution of the portraits might have been his reasons for acquiring them.

Both pictures depict Napoleon (1769-1821). Although they could pass as etchings, they are actually ink calligraphy drawings. The minuscule writing recounts the battle of Waterloo in the head portrait, and in the full-length one Napoleon’s last will and testament. They were created by the ‘Maestro di Pavia’, who had been involved in the unsuccessful revolt in Piedmont, 1821, and subsequently been imprisoned. It took him apparently three years to complete the works. I could not find any further information about said artist; nothing seems to come up online; I could not find a book or journal article that mentions him so far. Hint: In case you have any information, it would be great if you could get in touch.

The Unification of Italy 1815-1870, Shepherd, William. Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I might not have any further details about the Maestro, but I am still asking myself why somebody would produce two portraits of a recently deceased French emperor whilst sitting in an Italian prison. Well, I had to brush up my knowledge about Napoleon and the history of Italy to figure out a possible motive. As commander-in-chief of the French army, Bonaparte started a successful campaign against the various kingdoms and duchies of Italy, including Piedmont in March 1796. Although the kingdom was supported by the Austrians, Napoleon beat them and continued conquering other parts such as Lombardy and the Republic of Venice, too. Under Napoleon, Northern Italy became a republic in 1802. However, only a few years later, in 1805, he crowned himself ‘King of Italy’ in Milan Cathedral; the parts he had conquered became an administrative monarchy. In Piedmont, the French conquest meant the end of the absolute reign of the House of Savoy, rulers of Sardinia-Piedmont. The code civil or code Napoleon that Bonaparte decreed in 1804 came into effect. The code civil prescribed equal rights for all in front of the law, freedom of contract and the division between church and state. Hence, military or administrative careers, for example, were now based on merit rather than social status.

The Unification of Italy 1815-1870, Shepherd, William. Historical Atlas. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, after the defeat of Napoleon, the assembled powers, such as Russia, Prussia and Austria at the Congress of Vienna (1815), restored Piedmont to the House of Savoy. Victor Emmanuel I (Duke of Savoy, 1759-1824), who had been restricted to rule Sardinia only during the French occupation of Piedmont, reinstated the customs and laws of the ancient regime with its privileges for the aristocracy and power of the church. Although many welcomed the liberation from the French, having suffered from “heavy taxation, conscription, and anticlericalism born of Jacobinism” as John A. Davies explains, others were less happy with the reestablishment of the old rulers. These were those who had had the chance of creating a career during the French administration and liberals who favoured a democratic constitution. Certain secret societies, foremost the Carboneria, were also dissatisfied with the developments; they were anticlerical and forerunners of the Risorgimento, the movement endeavouring the unification of Italy. Discontent not only grew in Piedmont but also in Naples where parts of the army, the Carboneria and their allies started a revolt in November 1820. By March1821 the unrest had spread to Piedmont’s capital Turin, and Victor Emmanuel I abdicated in favour of his brother Charles Felix (1765-1831). The new regent did not hesitate to ask Austria for support with the result that the rebellion was crushed in the Battle of Novara in May. Many liberals fled into exile, or, as our Maestro di Pavia, were thrown into prison. Tim Chapman explains that the insurrection in Piedmont failed because the mainly middle and upper class rebels did not have the support of the peasantry. To cut a long story short, further revolts followed over the next decades across Italy with the result that Victor Emmanuel II (1820-78) was crowned king of Italy in 1861 with the Piedmontese constitution becoming the constitution of the whole country.

Let’s have a closer look at the images themselves: The full-length portrait shows Napoleon wearing his Imperial robes and a laurel wreath. He is holding another laurel wreath in his right hand and a staff topped with an eagle in his left. He stands next to a small plinth that is decorated with a figure. My guess is that this is the Roman goddess Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology). She was the not only goddess of wisdom but also of (strategic/victory in) war and ally to heroic warriors. An admirer would have had no qualms associating Napoleon with this deity. The laurels are symbols of Apollo, Greek god of the sun and music. The winners of the Pythian Games that were held every three years at Delphi in honour of the god, were crowned with laurels; as were the victors of the ancient Olympics. The custom was adopted by the Roman victorious imperators and emperors.

Example medal, National Order of the Legion of Honour (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Around his neck, Napoleon wears the medal insignia of the National Order of the Legion of Honour which Napoleon himself had founded in 1802. The eagle on the staff is another emblem that originated in Greek and Roman mythology; the majestic bird was accessory of chief god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek). According to Michael Ferber, it was chosen by Gaius Marius (ca. 157-86 BC) in 104 BC as a “special badge” for the Roman legions and subsequently the Roman Empire.

The robe is decorated with bees, an animal that Jörg-Uwe Albig describes as an ancient symbol of immortality that Napoleon chose himself. Ferber writes that the bee had already been adapted by the French kings much earlier, as it was believed that the strictly hierarchically organised bee hive was ruled by a male bee, a king. However, Jan Swammerdam (1637-80) discovered that hives are actually ruled by a female, a queen. According to Ferber that discovery must have caused some embarrassment in France, but it seems, not enough to get rid of the emblem entirely. Those are two opinions on the matter of the bees; I am sure there might be other explanations elsewhere, but I will leave it at that.

Napoleon Bonaparte, François Gérard, ca. 1805-15, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I would suggest that the portrait resembles mostly the painting by François Gérard, but with the plinth depicting the Minerva and Napoleon flashing a well-shaped calf from underneath his cloak, the Maestro has added his individual touch to the composition.

The head portrait was apparently copied from a medal or coin, possibly such as the one on the photo below. Showing Napoleon in profile, crowned as well with the laurel wreath, it is reminiscent of ancient Roman coins with their depictions of emperors.

The School of Art curator, Neil Holland, and I tried to scan and enlarge the images to be able to decipher the calligraphy, but unfortunately our technical facilities are limited. Eventually, we got as far as to just being able to read the signature, but the rest of the text were still illegible ‘squiggles’, blurred by the attempt to enlarge the portraits. However, an article in the University College Wales Magazine (Vol. 5, 1882-82, published March 20 1883) explains that “on microscopic inspection” those squiggles can definitely be identified as words.

Gold 20 franc coin of Napoleon I, struck 1808, Pierre-Joseph Tiolier (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Given the attitude that early 19th century kings of Sardinia-Piedmont had towards Napoleon Bonaparte and France in general, I would imagine that the Maestro di Pavia had to be very careful when he created the two portraits of his French hero. I can see him furtively working on them, always in danger of being discovered. I suppose that this secrecy, in addition to the effort of writing in such tiny hand, probably in bad light as well, is the reason why it took him three years to finish the images.


Beales, Derek and Biagini, Eugenio F. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. Pearson Education Ltd., 2002.

Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century History, edited by John Belchem et al, Penguin, 1996.

Brinkley, Richard. “George Powell of Nanteos: A Further Appreciation.” The Anglo-Welsh Review pp. 130-34. n.d.

Broers, Michael. “Revolution as Vendetta: Patriotism if Piedmont, 1794-1821.” The Historical Journal, vol. 33, no. 3, 1990, ppp. 573-597. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2639731. Accessed 15 Dec. 2017.

Chapman, Tim.”Risorgimento: Italy, 1815-1871. Humanities-Ebooks LLP, 2008. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ABER/detail.action?docID=3306066. Accessed 15 Dec 2017

Short Oxford History of Italy: Italy in the Nineteenth Century. edited by John A. Davis, Oxford UP, 2000.

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols. Greenwood, 2008. Dawsonera, https://www.dawsonera.com/abstract/9781567206623. Accessed 20 Dec. 2017.

Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Cambridge University Press, 1999. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aber/detail.action?docID=217836. Accessed 20 Dec 2017

Gooch, John.The Unification of Italy. Taylor and Francis, 1986.

Guerber, H. A. The Myths of Greece and Rome. Dover Publications, 1993.

Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997.

The Faber Book of Greek Legends. edited by Kathleen Lines. Faber and Faber, 1973.

Morgan, Gerald. Nanteos: A Welsh House and its Families. Gomer, 2001.

Riall, Lucy. Risorgimento: The History of Italy from Napoleon to Nation State. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.






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