Napoleon and urbanism in the 19th century

Public services

Centralisation and excellence

Etching of the front of the Hôtel de la banque de France. The door is imposing and richly decorated, with brick walls on either side made of large bricks.

There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.

Napoléon Bonaparte in Le Mémorial [5]

Whereas during the French Revolution local administrations possessed a certain autonomy and elected officials, Napoleon preferred a top-down system with appointed administrators accountable to the central government. Apart from its longevity, a remarkable aspect of the law of 1800 regarding the administrative division of France is its impact on Continental Europe. French institutions were frequently exported to, and imposed on, vassal states and conquered territories to facilitate their integration into the Empire. 

Right at the base of the Napoleonic administrative pyramid were the communes or municipalities, recognising that it is at this level that one has to work on in order to improve the acceptance of the Nation as a whole. Mayors functioned as both representatives of the communes and agents of the State.

Creation of the Bank of France

In 1800, Napoleon created the Bank of France to help the country to recover from a heavy economic and financial crisis. He introduced a currency of constant value and established an institution that should not serve as a fund to the state but to promote its businesses. The very young Banque de France settled in the Hôtel de Toulouse, rue de la Vrillière in Paris. Soon, the Bank of France was the only bank authorised to issue monetary values hence its name 'central bank'. The main clients of the bank were ordinary banks, whose business was to lend money to individuals and businesses. The amount of money increased in the country and allowed commerce and industry. The increasing value of taxes levied by the state allowed the country to get rich and to finance his army.

Education as a social ladder

a water colour of inside the court yard of the primary school Lycée Bonaparte

The French Revolution promoted free primary education for all at the expense of the State. Napoleon developed the concept of the secondary school with the creation of high schools (1802), which aimed to prepare students for university and train the future ruling class of the country. This was also a cultural revolution: education was encouraged through scholarships for those worthy, making it possible to climb the social ladder.

Previously considered one of the guarantors of social order, Napoleon believed that religion was useful to society but should be subservient to the state and fulfilled only a spiritual role. He therefore limited its power, especially in education. Religious orders were suppressed, churches and convents were destroyed or turned into public buildings (convents were often used as barracks, such as the monastery of San Romano in Lucca). Art treasures, books and archives belonging to churches and convents were confiscated to enrich Napoleon's museums and institutions. Church property was sold to replenish the practically empty state coffers.

With the Napoleonic wars, the French lycée model was exported to the continent and influenced the educational systems of Italy, Holland, Spain and the Duchy of Warsaw. From 1806, it merged with the German system, where the Gymnasium and the University of Berlin already existed. Each department had its own high school, established in old convents, abbeys or colleges, many of which already housed the central schools.

Health system reform

Born under the Revolution, urban hygiene was developed under Napoleon through a series of measures on water and the general systems of the city. The need for a reform of the health system was driven by a twofold objective: the reduction of illnesses and hospitalizations, while maintaining a good level of care.

By 1810, religious orders were suppressed, but a specific decree regulating the pharmaceutical activities of convents opted to maintain these activities and not to interrupt them because they were essential to the city. Medical laboratories were separated from ecclesiastical management and became autonomous. Religious facilities, such as convents, were restructured to host hospitals.

Urban restructuring took place both from a hygienic point of view and from a desire to make the presence of the Empire felt and took place with a certain magnitude and grandeur. The emergence of new hospitals in Piombino, Italy, located in a disadvantaged area of the city, also had an important social impact on the population. Specialised hospitals were also developed, and Napoleon’s time saw for example the emergence of the first pediatric hospital in the Western world, the Hôpital des enfants malades (1801) in Paris, France.