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Napoleon and urbanism in the 19th century

Urban life

New challenges in growing cities

The grain issue is the most important and the most delicate for the sovereigns. The landlords never agree with the people. The first duty of the sovereign is to lean towards the people, without listening to the sophisms of the landlords.

Napoléon Bonaparte in his letter to Eugène de Beauharnais, September 1810 [4]

In the 19th century, Europe witnessed a tremendous increase in population with the Industrial Revolution. From roughly 100 million at the beginning of the 18th century, it reached about 400 million by the end of the 19th, mainly in urban areas. This trend led to a major change: the necessity to ensure a healthy environment, with water and food supply in the city.

Improve water and food supply

One of the massive changes instructed by Napoleon’s in that regard happened in Paris. He improved the water supply by creating a waterway between the river Ourcq, the Seine and the Marne. With the Villette basin construction (1806-09), a reserve of drinking water for Parisians was created as well as a navigation way on the Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin channels. Napoleon would eventually bring together all the waterways of Paris and plan a supply directly geared towards the consumption for the inhabitants and cleaning of the streets.

Furthermore, new fountains in the city's major outdoor markets were built, and hundreds of drinking fountains installed all over the city. In 1812, he issued a decree that stipulated the free distribution of water from fountains and protected against any speculation on drinking water.

A view on a gate and three buildings in a distance - the entrance to the slaughterhouses of Montmartre on Avenue Trudaine.

Like other aspects related to hygiene and food, such as markets and barns, for which the government had already developed ambitious plans, the slaughter of animals was considered a large-scale problem in cities.

In 1807, Napoleon ordered the creation of large slaughterhouses to supply Paris with fresh meat. Placed outside areas with high residential density, the slaughterhouses were easily accessible and close to a large source of water, made abundant by the recently built Ourcq’s Channel. Since the allocated budget was quite low, underdeveloped or unhealthy areas were chosen where the property was not expensive.

Culture for all: the rise of museums

Far from being only concerned with terrestrial needs, culture, which paves the way to reflect on the past and better define our future, was also at the centre of other important reforms.

With the French Revolution, the principle is affirmed that works of art, even those possessed by princes and sovereigns, belong to the people and must be housed in public facilities.

Group of people standing on the staircase. In the centre Napoleon Bonaparte in a uniform looking at the canvas presented by three persons on the left side.

The Napoleonic Louvre was open to all social classes and free to enter. The Louvre model fostered the emergence of new museums and a modern historical-critical spirit, which is considered vital for the development of contemporary art.

Many national museums were influenced by Napoleon’s vision, children of the Revolutionary ideals. Already in 1798, the Netherlands, following the French model, established a national museum open to the public. In 1808, Louis Napoleon, brother of Napoleon and by then King of Holland, ordered the royal collections to be transferred from The Hague to Amsterdam, which would become the capital of the Kingdom. Some masterpieces were added to the collection of the new Rijksmuseum (National Museum) to give it a broader geographical representation, and the museography was largely inspired from by the Louvre. At the same time, Joseph Bonaparte, his other brother and King of Spain, ordered by decree in 1809 the foundation of a museum in Madrid intended to house the most representative spanish pictorial collections, known as El Prado. Unlike the Louvre, the Prado was not meant to be an encyclopaedic museum but had the same mission: the royal arts collections open to all.

Napoleonic ambitions in the artistic field also benefit Milan. Unlike other great Italian museums, Brera’s Pinacotheque is not the result of private collections of princes and aristocracy. It was created by Napoleon as a small Italian Louvre and intended to exhibit the most significant paintings from all the territories conquered by the French armies. The paintings, almost all sacred altarpieces, were mainly requisitions after the closure of churches and convents in the entire territory of the Kingdom of Italy.

Iron, a symbol of military and industrial power

Etching of the Pont des Arts. The bridge and its structure are clearly visible from the front. There are trees, streetlights, and buildings on the bridge, and two people on a long raft passing underneath it.

Napoleon's reign was also a precursor to the widespread use of iron within the city. His concern for the permanence of his glory led him to suggest this material, even though the lasting qualities of the metal were not fully understood at the time. He continually sought to associate his new public monuments symbolically with his military exploits: the same iron that served his victories during the war would be used to seal peace and conquests.

One of Napoleon's most dramatic proposals of this nature was the cast iron column in Place Vendôme, inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome. Napoleonic monuments were often modelled on those of ancient Rome. Furthermore, such use of iron was unprecedented at the time in France, and Napoleon was actually in most cases dissuaded from his initial determination to build with iron for either economic or aesthetic reasons.

However, Napoleon was more insistent concerning bridges, perhaps because he did not want France to be outdone by the British. The Pont des Arts was the first iron bridge in France, and the third in the world, after Coalbrookdale and Sunderland in England. This pedestrian walkway, better known nowadays for its love locks, was built for public utility as well as for the embellishment of the cities.

The most spectacular iron project of his period is the roof of the circular grain exchange, called 'La Halle aux blés'. Following a fire in 1802, the dome was reconstructed with cast iron produced at Le Creusot. It was the largest iron structure of its day, and the novelty of the use of iron and the thinner dimensions made the Halle aux blés a notable attraction in Napoleon’s Day and throughout the 19th century.