MONTREAL - French collector Pierre-Jean Chalencon has spent much of his adult life amassing rare and precious items from the world of Napoleon Bonaparte.
This summer, Chalencon is sharing some of those rare finds — including personal items that belonged to the first emperor of France himself — as part of a touring exhibit that hits Montreal.
The Treasures of Napoleon: A Rendez-Vous with History, opens in Montreal in mid-May. Some 350 items will be on display and it's said to be the largest-ever collection of Napoleonic artifacts to cross the Atlantic.
The Chalencon collection has been touring North America, but the Montreal leg of the tour is being infused with a few items from other private collections. Notably, Serge Joyal, a Canadian senator and art collector, is donating personally to the exhibit.
"It's the first time such an important private collection will be on display," Chalencon said in a telephone interview from Paris. "And it's also important for me that everyone has a chance to see it."
The exhibit is divided into six aspects of Napoleon's life — tracing the exploits of the Corsica-born military mastermind from his coronation and his marriages to his final days on Saint-Helena, the island where he was exiled and died in 1821 after his historic defeat against the British at Waterloo in 1815.
Items that tell his story include paintings, sculptures, drawings, tapestries, clothing, cutlery, books and chairs.
Some items stand out.
Among them is one of Napoleon's famous hats, a handul of which survived the era.
There's also a collapsing campaign bed used by Napoleon on the battlefield.
Visitors will also be able to inspect the sword used at his coronation on Dec. 2, 1804.
There's also Napoleon's lotto game box, dating back to 1810 and apparently a favourite pastime of the emperor. He is said to have played often and the display indicates he would sometimes hide cards up his sleeves to ensure victory.
It's a side of Napoleon that doesn't always come across, Chalencon laments.
Napoleon is one of the most studied political and military leaders in history but Chalencon says he is unfairly depicted as a diminutive despot.
In fact, historians say that, at 5-6, the emperor was most likely average height for the time. Chalencon says there is more to Napoleon — a self-made man who had a quick and impressive rise to power.
Despite his ultimate defeat on the battlefield, his reputation as a military strategist remains renowned. Chalencon says his lasting legacy is the Napoleonic Code — the French civil code established in 1804 that has been influential in the drafting of other legal systems globally.
"I like to show how Napoleon was because I think that he has a very bad reputation, but he was a really interesting guy, a funny guy, not a dictator," Chalencon says. "Napoleon was a very clever man, so it's important for me to share (that) with this collection."
The artifacts have been meticulously collected over the years by Chalencon. The French native has spent years amassing the collection, which currently contains about 2,000 pieces and is constantly in a state of flux.
Nous étions à un restaurant indien à l'ouest de Montréal pour célébrer l'anniversaire d'une amie. Voice les photos que j'ai reçu ce soir. J'attends beaucoup plus de photos bientôt :)
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