Napoleon and urbanism in the 19th century

Protecting oneself

Destruction and reconstruction of the city

[The imprescriptible rights of man] are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.

Article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen (1789) [3]

In almost all the cities where Napoleon undertook urban planning, especially outside France, this public works had not only an esthetical and political character, but also strategical.

On the one hand, he demolished old-fashioned fortifications that were often transformed into public promenades and gardens. In 1800, immediately after the victory of Marengo, he ordered the demolition of several fortresses in Piedmont and the citadel of Milan, so that it would be impossible to re-establish them. In 1803, fortresses in Belgium were demolished, including those in Brussels, Leuven, Ghent, Bruges, Möns, Tournai, Namur, Liège and Mechelen. He also took the same decision for German cities such as Düsseldorf. Once these fortifications had been demolished, he had the site laid out as public promenades to surround the cities with a green belt, as he had already begun to do in France.

On the other hand, he fortified certain strategic cities, such as Anvers, Ostende, Mayence, or Osoppo and Palmanova in Italy. In Poland, Modlin Fortress, approximately 50 kilometres north of Warsaw, was even almost granted a city charter due to its around 20,000 workers.

Plan of the fortification of Modlin with its surroundings. The map shows a view from above of two rivers merging into one (from left to right). There are many shades of green and gray for the surrounding landscape, some light brown for the sand, and light blue for the water.

To strengthen military positions, barracks were often located near the city walls to protect them, such as the Montesano Barrack in Palmanova or in Napoleonville (Pontivy). Barracks provided housing, armouries, and stabling for most kinds of soldiers and their mounts, along with the space necessary for them to be trained in the basics of military life. Imposing symbols of government solidity and power, they were also designed to be defensible and could even serve as a prison.

Within its coastal defence programme, known as the '1811 model towers and redoubts' or Napoleon Tower, 160 model works were initially planned (106 on the Atlantic coast; 54 in the Mediterranean). However, only ten or so towers were completed in 1814 due to Napoleon’s abdication.

Urban plan for a fort Griffe

Improve state’s control through strategic roads

Bonaparte favoured public infrastructure works to be politically advantageous to him. By this he meant first of all works of military interest, like strategic roads: the great roads from Paris to Italy, Germany, Spain and so on. These served primarily for wars that were almost continuous and secondly for the administrative centralization of Paris, not only of the French provinces, but also a large part of Europe. When building in the provinces, the aim was often directly political: new towns in France (La Roche-sur-Yon - Napoléon / Pontivy - Napoleonville) were intended to improve the state's control over rebel or newly pacified regions.

Mountain road zig-zagging up the mountain. There is blue sky, it's sunny, the prevalent color is the light gray of the mountain, with some green shrubs, typical Mediterranean vegetation.

In Croatia, the road known as 'Napoleon's Road' or the 'French Road' was built primarily thanks to Napoleon's military commander and duke of Dubrovnik, August Marmont, who is remembered in the history of Croatia for the numerous advanced measures he implemented. The 61km road extends from the south-east of Orebić to the north-west of the peninsula. This road along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea is one of the few remaining witnesses to the period in the Dubrovnik area. It is strategically located so that it often traversed inaccessible mountainous sections. It is located in the proximity of 48 smaller known settlements, all possessing exceptional historical significance.

Communication axes were an absolute political priority for Napoleon. Natural boundaries, such as the Alps between France and Italy, were traversed using post stations that allowed mail transit from one side to the other. One of the impacts of the development of postal services in the cities was the street numbering system: this rationalisation of spaces contributes to a higher efficiency of mail service and an important change in daily practices. Instead of having to go to the post office which would sometimes cause delay in communication, people received their mail directly at home or in their office.

The Palace, symbol of power within the city

Military review in front of Napoleon's new triumphal arch in the courtyard (1810)

The Palace has been regarded as the symbol of the city's centre of political power for centuries and an allegory that persisted during the Napoleonic era. The role of light, now grazing and bright, was very important to emphasise the size of the rooms and define the space. In 1799, Napoleon moved his official residence to the Tuileries Palace and set himself in the centre of Paris.

Elisa, his sister, restructured the area around the palace in Lucca, Italy, to make it suitable for court life and government affairs. An entire district was demolished and with it some important buildings, including the church of San Pietro Maggiore, the mint and the palace tower, which had been the tallest building in the city until then. The square resulting from the demolition was named after Napoleon and decorated with four columns commemorating the four most important battles won by Bonaparte, while the planned statue of the emperor was never built. In perfect French style, the square was bordered by rows of plane trees.