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Home > The Magazine > Interviews > Jérôme Zieseniss

 Jérôme Zieseniss

A First Empire historian, Jérôme Zieseniss has been president of the The Comité Français de Sauvegarde de Venise (the French Save Venice Committee) since June 1999. In full agreement with the director of Venetian Museums, he has chosen to launch a grand project for the restoration of the Ala Napoleonica in Piazza San Marco, in which the Napoleon Foundation is a partner.

In conversation with Karine Huguenaud

Karine Huguenaud : What started your interest in Napoleon?

Jérôme Zieseniss : It all started when I was young, when I used to play with lead soldiers with my uncles and my grandfather. I was always interested in history, particularly for periods which are in fact turning points- they are always the most interesting. Since my father [Charles-Otto Zieseniss] was historian of the First Empire, our later conversations certainly fanned the flames of my interest in the period. I used to love reading his articles in the Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, because they were not about military matters but rather Napoleon's influence upon the arts. That interested me more than the battles - I think that I had left all that behind me with the lead soldiers !
K.H. : You went on to study law and political science at university. However, given your many publications, your vocation would seem rather to be historical research?

J.Z. : Absolutely. You should never try to force a child to go against his vocation, if he has one that is. I was very bad at science and always top in history and literature. I should have taken account of that fact. That being said; I have tried to keep up a certain desire to participate in research into the Napoleonic period and in the work which is bringing it alive. But I was never able to develop my vocation as I would have liked.
K.H. : You have written some important articles for the Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien notably on the nobility during the First Empire (Napoleon et la noblesse and La noblesse impériale).

J.Z. : I thought that it would be interesting to show how the representatives of the ancien régime, the elite of the previous generation which possessed an enormous amount of power, tried to survive in the new environment of Napoleonic France. The subject has often been treated either in a facile way, or quite simply represented as a caricature. On a request from Jean Tulard, I wrote the article "Noblesse impériale" for the Dictionnaire Napoléon. That was quite a generous gesture on his part because I was full of youthful indignation against some of his own conclusions, notably the idea current at the time that the nobility of the ancien régime did not rally to the Napoleonic cause. In fact it was quite the opposite. But they weren't just being fickle. At the time, the nobility of the ancien régime held much of the private national wealth of the land through their property. It is clear that such a class needed to be close to the seat of power, whatever face that power adopted. And that is exactly what they did.

Jérôme Zieseniss,
Berthier, frère d'armes de Napoléon,
Belfond, Paris, 1985.
K.H. : In 1986 you published a biography of Berthier which won you a grand prix from the Souvenir Napoléonien. Why did you choose this subject?

J.Z. : I suggested to the publisher a less military subject, that is, Napoleon's relationship with the traditional elite. But it was considered as not suitably commercial, and so they advised me to do a biography of a marshal. Berthier was ideal for me. Not much had been written on him. The only general work written was by general Derrecagaix and published before the 14-18 war, and in it Berthier was a monument erected to the glory of the French army. The book was the work of a great military specialist and so militarily speaking it is excellent. But from a civilian and personal point of view, Berthier was yet to be discovered. He was not a flashing blade, but he was remarkable in his field, notably that of administration. Bonaparte chose him during the First Italian Campaign from his reputation as the best chief of staff in the French army. After that their friendship grew. He was much liked and very interesting, but he was much undervalued as a result of his proximity to the Napoleonic giant.
K.H. : What is your vision of Napoleon?

J.Z. : For me, his military manifestation is not essential. It's the other Napoleon which interests me. The Napoleon who attempted to build lasting structures for a world at peace, as for example the Code Civil and the Conseil d'Etat, the Banque de France, etc., all institutions which he either created or refounded. It was he who in fact built the foundations of France today. I see Napoleon as a cultural rather than military figure, someone who wanted to create a lasting system of government which would guarantee a harmonious society.
K.H. : You're not only a historian but also a keen member of the Association du Souvenir Napoléonien?

J.Z. : Yes that's right. I am on the steering committee. Twenty-five years ago, Guy Godlewski asked me to join, and I was a member for 20 years. To begin with there was only one meeting per year. After the Lepeyre donation, the Souvenir became more active under Guy Godlewski and later under Baron Gourgaud. Later on, I moved to Venice and I found it difficult to get to the ever more frequent meetings. So I gave up my place and let someone else take over.
K.H. : What do you think should be the role of a Napoleonic association?

J.Z. : I think that the Souvenir Napoléonien played an important role at a time when Napoleon was not much liked. I was fashionable after 1968 to consider Napoleon as an appalling tyrant, a sort of Franco or Pinochet, or even worse. The Souvenir Napoléonien, as an apolitical and scholarly association, worked steadily and apparently in an atmosphere of complete indifference, but at the same time performed a task which facilitated a renaissance in interest in Napoleonic matters. I think that the Napoleon Foundation has picked up the torch, setting itself above all factions and trends whilst remaining open to all those who show a real interest in the Napoleonic period.

 Napoleon and Venice

K.H. : Today you are president of another association, namely the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise, the French Save Venice Committee. How have you managed to reconcile this with your passion for the First Empire?

J.Z. : As I'm sure you've noticed, I have two passions in my life, Napoleon and Venice. People are always telling me that these two passions are totally incompatible because of Napoleon's destruction of parts of Venice. Some Venetian historians of great ability, such as Alvise Zorzi, consider him as the antichrist because he had certain Venetian monasteries, churches and a part of Piazza San Marco demolished. There's a lot of explaining that needs to be done to show that Napoleon not only did not have any ill-will towards Venice but also that he did in fact try to bring something to the city.
K.H. : During the First Italian Campaign, is not Bonaparte supposed to have uttered the famous threat 'I shall be an Attila for Venice'?

J.Z. : As with all famous remarks, it's very difficult to confirm. He could have said it at a moment when he wanted to impress the Venetian plenipotentiaries. He was renowned for his pretend fits of anger. It was probably a diplomatic strategy aimed at avoiding the pointless shedding of blood. Any armed resistance which the Venetians might have been contemplating would have been useless. The Venetian city state was no longer viable. It collapsed like a pack of cards on contact with the French army. And it would have been a rich prize for any of the major nation states. Austria was similarly very interested. When Napoleon arrived, he was simply the visible manifestation of an evolution which already irreversible.
K.H. : How then would you explain the Venetians' great dislike of the emperor?

J.Z. : People always cite the above quotation in the belief that Napoleon was wreaking some sort of personal vengeance on Venice. And some very fanciful explanations of this have been advanced; one historian even goes so far as to say that it was the Ligurian and Genoese origins of the Bonaparte family which were at the root of his hate for Venice. But that is much too complicated. Bonaparte bore no animosity towards Venice. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He had some grandiose building plans for the city; indeed to a certain extent he wanted to bring it up to date.

The south-western end of Piazza San Marco before
and after the changes brought about by Napoleon
K.H. : What were those projects?

J.Z. : When he arrived in 1807, Napoleon decided to create some gardens in the style of the Tuileries. And in order to build these Giardini Napoleonici (which were on the site which is these days occupied by the Biennale), two or three monasteries had to be demolished. Napleon and France were much criticised for this. In the 19th century, the gardens were covered up by an encroaching residential quarter, incidentally called Sant'Elena, a very ugly neighbourhood with some very mediocre constructions. Hence, the benefits of these giardini built on the destruction of the monasteries were gradually whittled away, and the people were left with the impression that religious establishments had been removed for nothing. Napoleon also built the large cemetery of San Michele. For reasons of public health, it was set outside the city, but it became one of the most poetic parts of the lagoon. He then had a royal palace built in Piazza San Marco. The idea of this Ala Napoleonica or Napoleonic wing was to create a palace ensemble for the King of Italy comprising a monumental staircase, a ballroom, a throne room and grand royal apartments. Since for both ideological and practical reasons there was no question of using the Doge's palace, Napoleon's eye fell on the disparate group of asymmetrical buildings facing the basilica at the other end of the piazza. One part was the continuation of the buildings known as the Procuratie Vecchie and the Procuratie Nuove, between which stood Sansovino's church of San Geminiano. As a man of his times, Napoleon thought that he could make that side of piazza San Marco more beautiful and at the same time make the whole piazza more harmonious. He thus demolished the three above-mentioned structures and built a gigantic Neoclassical palace. In fact there's an amusing story about this. Sansovino's church was built over part of an earlier church which had had to be knocked down so as to enlarge Piazza San Marco. In penance for this, the Doge went every year on pilgrimage to San Geminiano. When I told this story to the Princess Napoléon, who is a great lover of Venice, she replied 'Do you think I should do the same thing?' !
K.H. : But isn't it comprehensible that the Venetians should bear a grudge when you think of the removal of the horses of St Mark's, the very symbol of the town itself?

J.Z. : It's true, that was taken very badly. There was a small conference recently in Venice on Vivant Denon on the occasion of the exhibition at the Louvre. Pierre Rosenberg, a great lover of Venice and on the board of our Venice committee, was president. With his typical cheeky humour, he was bold enough to stand up before a Venetian audience and say that after France had returned the horses in 1815, he hadn't heard anything about Venice doing the same thing vis-à-vis Constantinople [The horses were taken as booty from Constantinople in 1214]. This stealing of works of art seems inadmissible these days, but during the Revolutionary and Imperial periods it wasn't quite so revolting. It was no longer a question of royal, aristocratic, or ecclesiastical collections. People were turning more towards public museums in which as many masterpieces as possible would be collected. In fact this idea was launched during the Revolution but it was Napoleon and Vivant Denon who were the first to put it into action. We should look at this sort of thing in context. It's true that were some excesses, as there always are in periods of enormous change, but basically no work of art was ever taken for private use. Everything went into French or Italian museums, indeed the Brera in Milan and the Accademia in Venice are both Napoleonic creations.

 The Restoration of the Ala Napoleonica


The Ala Napoleonica, Piazza San Marco
K.H. : Could you give us a brief presentation of the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise and the project for the restoration of the Ala Napoleonica in piazza San Marco.

J.Z. : The Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise was founded in 1966 by Gaston Palewski, ex French ambassador to Rome, a close friend of De Gaulle, and at the time president of the Conseil constitutionnel. Following the catastrophic floods of 1966, there was international reaction which resulted in the creation (on the initiative of certain French, English and American individuals) of several national committees with the brief of overseeing the restoration of specific monuments. With Gaston Palewski as president, the French Save Venice Committee brought about the restoration of the Salute church. When I was elected president of the committee in June last year, I thought that what was needed was a similarly high-profile and as prestigious project. The Ala Napoleonica was the obvious choice. It's a grand French monument in Venice which was excellently designed and built and is a fine example of architectural symmetry and harmony. Furthermore, it has a unique setting facing the basilica of St Mark's at one end of Piazza San Marco and between the two Procuratie. There are not many buildings outside France which were commissioned by Napoleon. Many constructions were rebuilt but here is a real architectural project.
K.H. : What sort of response did you get from the Venetians at the suggestion of such a restoration project?

J.Z. : The masterpiece of Neoclassicism built for Napoleon in his role as King of Italy today houses the Museo Correr. I therefore approached the director of the governing body of the Musei di Venezia. I was however very circumspect because knew that the name Napoleon caused knee-jerk reactions in some quarters. Fortunately, Professor Romanelli, the director of Musei di Venezia and a great 19th century specialist, put me straight away at ease assuring me that French interest in this monument seemed to him to be perfectly reasonable.

The Ala Napoleonica, Piazza San Marco
The grand staircase
K.H. : Which parts of the building are to be restored?

J.Z. : The building itself is of exceptional architectural and decorative value and we have been asked by the directing body of the Venice Museums to oversee the complete restoration of the large central portico which gives onto piazza San Marco (the Sotoportego San Geminiano), the monumental staircase with its Empire frescoes by Borsato, Venice's last great painter/interior decorator, the first salon of the Appartamenti d'onore, as well as more minor operations in the Ballroom and the Throne room. The Sotoportego di San Geminiano, which links piazza San Marco with the rest of the city, needs to be completely cleaned, the arcades in stone from Istria need to be reinforced, all the coffers need to be redone, as does the bronze lamp and the grills at the entrance. The stonework in the grand scala d'onore needs to be cleaned, the frescoes need to be restored, as do the decorations on the walls and ceiling. All the wall surfaces in the vestibule of the ballroom, today the entrance hall for the Museo Correr, need to be cleaned, and the frescoes and wall/ceiling decorations require restoration.
K.H. : What is the timescale for the restoration and how much will it cost?

J.Z. : We hope to begin in Autumn, and the work will take about a year. In fact, at around 750,000 Dollars (slightly more than 1.2 billion Lira), the costs as budgeted by the Musei de Venezia are not excessive. The Napoleon Foundation has made a very generous donation. The Florence Gould Foundation has also helped us, and the Fondation Rodolphe Mérieux, at present being created, is similarly to support us. Furthermore, I am in contact with several large French companies who might be interested by the project.
K.H. : In addition to your search for business sponsorship, are you also aiming your request at private individuals?

J.Z. : Yes of course. I'm that there are many Empire enthusiasts and lovers of Venice who would love to participate in the operation. All those interested in Napoleon and Venice - if that's not a contradiction in terms - can help in returning the Ala Napoleonica in Piazza San Marco to its former glory. Indeed the committee has an association account at the Fondation de France which means that donors from France can get tax benefits. On inauguration, we can have a roll of honour listing all those who gave - provided of course donors wish there names to figure there (A donor form is reproduced at the end of this interview). In addition to the restoration of the building, we also hope to encourage cultural exchange between France and Venice. We have noted that in terms of tourism, the French are present in large numbers in Venice. On the other hand, the French Consulate closed last year for budgetary reasons and the Alliance Française is running on almost no money. Exhibitions, concerts, theatrical performances, private visits could all be prestige events which members of the Committee could enjoy. [For further information, please contact the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise, 34, ave. de New York, 75116 Paris or send a fax to +33 (0)1 47 23 09 08]
K.H. : Are you working in conjunction with other organisations?

J.Z. : Yes, we are working in concert with an Association of Private Committees (president Alvise Zorzi), and we also have links with UNESCO. One advantage of this is that, in Italy at least, we are exempt from any VAT to be paid on the building work.

The Ala Napoleonica, Piazza San Marco
The vestibule: ceiling detail
K.H. : Which companies are to be chosen for the restoration? Franco/Italian companies or Venetian ones?

J.Z. : First and foremost the companies will be Venetian, because it's the Sovraintendenza ai monumenti and the Direzione di Musei which choose the said companies from a group of firms selected according to criteria laid down by those bodies themselves. But there's nothing to stop French companies becoming involved with the project.
K.H. : Is there a programme of events to be associated with the restoration project?

J.Z. : Many different sort of events could take place for the inauguration. I would like to organise an exhibition of the prestigious Prat collection of French drawings. We could also have a Napoleonic conference on the art theft in particular and on Napoleon's actions in Venice. The most unpleasant of these events seem to be linked not to specific Napoleonic orders but rather to the way in which certain characters joined the regime in order to take advantage of the semi-immunity which that connection gave them and which allowed them to make some very questionable decisions, most notably in the sale of some church goods at prices well below their value. That could certainly be called destruction of national heritage. The conference speakers could be Venetian and French, and the end result could be an evaluation of what Napoleon really did in Venice. I'm sure the results will show him in a much less negative light that the one generally assumed.

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