We are at work from 5am, and you would laugh heartily to see the Emperor spade in hand.
Count Charles-Tristan de Montholon, 1819
Napoleon was a man of his time. His era saw an increased interest in scientific discoveries linked to plants, along with continued use of flora for symbolic and political purposes. But he also had an interest in gardens as a moral mirror of people's thought, as highlighted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This was particularly relevant at the end of his life, as we will see later.
The history of gardens has always been strongly linked to politics. Without going back too far, what is known as the French garden, characterised by its grandeur, symmetry and axial development, was directly influenced by Italian gardens, mainly from Tuscany. This type of garden became more common in France in the 16th century following the unions between the Florentine Medici family and the French royal house.
In the early 18th century, French cultural dominance led to the masterpiece of Jardins à la française (French formal garden), Versailles, being adopted as the model for palatial gardens. Examples can be found from Naples in Italy to the Peterhof Palace in Russia.
In the late 18th century, Europe was flooded with exotic plants from increasing world trade. This accessibility, combined with a strong interest in sciences, was the first change in gardens being seen as a 'work of art' to becoming more like 'a museum of plants'. English gardens started to be more and more spread across the continent - they had a more natural state and were adapted for strolling and contemplation.
The childhood gardens of Napoleon
Napoleon was passionate about botany and gardening. This passion accompanied him his whole life. The first gardens Napoleon encountered were those in his childhood houses: Casa Bonaparte, in Ajaccio, and the Milelli estate, in its surrounding hills.
The Milelli estate, the former country house of the Bonaparte family, was located on the heights of Ajaccio, surrounded by 12 hectares of land, housing a centuries-old olive grove. Napoleon stayed there on his return from Egypt in 1799, in the company of his general staff, including Berthier, Murat and Lannes.
Today the property is a public garden and a very pleasant place to walk around. The French Ministry of Culture classified the house, which cannot be visited, as a historical monument and the property as a remarkable and picturesque site. An arboretum has been created for the instruction of children. Vegetable gardens have been created, with the crops distributed to people of modest means.
Napoleon spent five years, between the ages of 9 and 15, at the boarding school of Brienne-le-Château. There, Napoleon spent his free time cultivating his first garden, a small plot of land, where he learned to grow flowers and vegetables. The school was run by the Minimes de Brienne, a monastic order which placed great importance on gardening. It was considered an important part of their education, along with other subjects like French, Latin, mathematics, history, geography, music, drawing and fencing. In contrast to a number of his schoolmates, for whom gardening was not important, Napoleon devoted time to this activity, becoming proud of his garden.
In Brienne, however, Napoleon felt homesick. He later described his feelings:
(...) being deprived of your childhood room, of the garden in which you roamed in your early years, not to have a personal home, is to have no homeland.
Open-air activities, and gardening in particular, had a positive impact on him: he spent his free time and his pocket money buying flowers and plants to enrich his garden
Joséphine and the Malmaison Castle
Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife, had a strong influence on the French botanical landscape. In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, she bought the Malmaison castle. She designed the garden in the English style, paying particular attention to acquiring every type of known rose. With 250 species and varieties, she had the greatest and largest rose collection in the world, unsurpassed for more than a century.
From her youth in Martinique, where her family owned a sugar plantation, Joséphine kept a taste for exotic plants. During the Napoleonic campaigns, plants were sent to her, with the botanist Brisseau de Mirbel and then Aimé Bonpland responsible for managing the plants at the Malmaison Castle.
They acclimatised and grew the exotic plants in greenhouses, leading to developing one of the most renowned nurseries in Europe. Ventenat, helped by illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté, set up an extensive inventory and published the famous work Jardin de La Malmaison, listing the most beautiful plants in the greenhouses. Joséphine was also responsible for acclimatising certain plants in the botanical gardens on the French Riviera, such as mimosa (Acacia dealbata) from Australia.
Over the years, the gardens of Malmaison were enriched by hundreds of plant species and expanded in size to reach 726 hectares.
Elba and St-Helena: the last gardens of Napoleon
Napoleon's exile on Elba, from 1814 to 1815, also marked the botanical landscape of the island. His main residency was the Villa dei Mulini (which can still be visited today), where he personally tended the garden. He paid particular attention to roses and exotic plants, and created an avenue of citrus trees.
During Napoleon’s exile on Elba, he brought a large number of citrus trees, as well as mulberry trees intending to start silk production.
He also had a summer house in Portoferraio, the Villa San Martino. According to an anecdote, Napoleon himself planted a specimen of Micocoulier de Provence in the garden, the same tree that he later also planted in Saint-Helena.
Napoleon's second exile took place from 1815 until his death in 1821 in the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. In 1819, recommended by his doctors to exercise, Napoleon decided to start a great enterprise: to redesign the gardens surrounding his Longwood House.
He directed and drew the plans of the new garden, and as he used to do during his campaigns with his soldiers, and shared in the daily life and work of the gardeners.
The magnitude of the work was so important, that a large community of Chinese labourers moved to the island. Without them the gardens of Napoleon would not have emerged so quickly. Thanks to this community, a small Chinese pavilion also remains on the Longwood property.
Exiled at the end of the world on an inhospitable island and watched over permanently, the Emperor had been transformed during the last years of his life by his exile, growing his own garden, both physical and spiritual.
Napoleon’s family’s private parks and gardens
Other members of Napoleon’s family had also a great influence on gardens, especially Elisa Baciocchi Bonaparte, his sister and princess of Lucca and Piombino. The most striking example is the Villa Marlia, which Elisa bought in 1806 and enlarged over the years by buying bordering properties.
Part of the garden was changed considerably by Elisa. The new design was asymmetrical, with woods populated by deer, goats and merino sheep. Many rare species were introduced, such as magnolias, weeping willows, American oaks, and mimosa, found in the area of Naples.
Camellias are one of the highlights, especially in March when they are in full bloom. Originally from Asia, they were brought to Great Britain in the mid-18th century, but only arrived in Italy at the end of the century. Elisa ordered her brother Joseph, the King of Naples, to send rare plants from the Palace of Caserta to the new ‘English garden’ at Marlia.
A villa influenced by the Napoleonic period
The Villa Melzi d’Eril, near Lake Como Lake is another place that was influenced by the Napoleonic Period. The camelia, a symbol of spring and renewal of life, can also be admired in this historical garden, built between 1808 and 1810 by Count Melzi.