Open Eye: Church versus State, city-style

How Napoleon stole from Rome and built an empire on looted treasures
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The Independent Online
Are capital cities shop windows for national culture or are they centres of administration? In the summer months they seem primarily tourist magnets dominated by the modern empires of McDonald's and Coca-Cola.

A Tale of Two Cities gives a visually rewarding insight into how Paris and Rome became truly powerful emblems of the modern nation-state, celebrating culture and conquest.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Paris was the capital of Napoleon's Empire, while Rome was just a city within it, full of decaying classical ruins, orchards and vineyards. Commanding the Pope to attend his imperial coronation in Paris in 1804, Napoleon soon annexed Rome and had developed plans to move the Papacy into a palace close to Notre Dame.

The column in the Place Vendome, made from cannon captured at the battle of Austerlitz, celebrates military power.

In a direct reference to imperial Rome, a statue of Napoleon stands proudly on top, dressed in classical robes. The friezes on the Arc de Triomphe show the French army leaving Egypt with cartloads of looted treasure, reminding us that invading armies from Sparta to Kosovo have behaved in similar ways.

Imperial Paris was planned for prestige and greatness and Napoleon fulfilled essential conditions for ruthless town planning: he possessed both money and power. But the city was also designed to become both a political and an artistic capital.

Four hundred cartloads of art treasures were brought back from conquered Rome to form the basis of the Louvre's collection. The archives of the defeated countries were taken to Paris to become 'the memory of Europe'.

After the 1848 revolution, Napoleon III made even more profound changes to the appearance of the city.

Now with the legal power of expropriation added to the essentials of power and money, Baron Haussmann embarked on the most drastic rebuilding, and created modern Paris.

New boulevards made barricades impossible and easier for police surveillance. Extraordinary engineering feats created new sewers and water supply systems, which reduced the incidence of cholera. A wonder of the age, the Parisian social elite celebrated with underground parties and banquets.

The gas-lit boulevards linked gardens and grand squares and provided new vistas to architectural marvels like the new Opera of 1857. The controversial tower of the 1890s became a monument to the great engineer, Eiffel, and a celebration of French progress in industry and technology.

In Rome, St Peter's may have been the holiest shrine after Jerusalem but, in the early nineteenth century, it was a city in decay with serious public health problems. It was also one-third the size of Paris. The concept of 'Italy' did not exist. Some of its classical monuments were christianised (Trajan's column, a celebration of military might, was topped with a statue of St Peter) and many depended on the church for employment.

It was a city of the church, yet its destiny became entwined with that of Napoleon's France. Napoleon's conquest of Rome imposed a legal code and a formal administration mirroring the new bureaucracy in Paris. Eventually, the occupying army withdrew, but revolutionary ideas remained. Ideas of the rights of man, citizenship and the nation-state fired liberal thinking and were like a genie escaped from the bottle.

The concept of 'Italia', a single nation-state rather than a patchwork of regions, became a dominant idea among the liberal intelligentsia.

For the liberal Mazzini, the First Empire based on Rome unified the known world; the Second Empire, based on the medieval Papacy, unified Europe in the spiritual sense. The Third Empire would bring peace and brotherhood.

Unfortunately, Mazzini did not solve the problem of creating peace and love amid a revolution. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the charismatic red-shirted freedom fighter Garibaldi drew idealists from across Europe to create a new Italian nation based on Rome, and fought a French army defending the status quo of Papal power.

With the French garrison withdrawn from Rome to defend Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the Papacy was fatally exposed and, on 20 September, the Italian army under Victor Emmanuel stormed Rome. The Papacy withdrew to Vatican City - later to come to terms with the state during Mussolini's new Roman Empire of the twentieth century.

Now the dominant buildings of Rome include the white 'wedding cake' of the Victor Emmanuel monument and grandiose public buildings in 'international government style' amid the ruins of the Forum.

Cities rise, decline and then fall, and Paris and Rome are permanent evidence of imperial power and national cultural pride. Now they are international cities of pleasure, trade and culture and A Tale of Two Cities shows us how to become better-informed tourists this summer.

Simon Newton

A Tale of Two Cities will be broadcast on BBC at 0610 on Saturday 24 July.