Two hundred years ago, “by the tidings, in amaze / the earth is held, and with her gaze / the parting hour doth mutely scan / of this great spirit,” as we read in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Fifth of May. In fact, on May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died in Saint Helena, a British island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
In the whirlwind of the Napoleonic story, historians distinguish three periods: one in which General Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1769, after the victorious Italian campaign and the expedition to Egypt, ascended to the power with the coup d’état of November 9 — indeed of 18 Brumaire, according to the calendar of the French Revolution —, 1799; the other in which the First Consul of the Republic, after great military conquests on the European continent, is proclaimed and crowned Emperor of the French (1804) and King of Italy (1805); the third in which, after the unfortunate Russian campaign (1812), the Emperor declines, first confined to the Island of Elba and then, after the defeat suffered at Waterloo in 1815, exiled to St. Helena.
In what serious affliction European society found itself due to the Napoleonic storm is easy to imagine. The bayonets of the Napoleonic army carried throughout Europe the spirit of 1789, “when the frightening revolution unleashed in France, having overthrown the old civil order, had destroyed the ancient religion everywhere” (Pius X, Duplicem, nostis, September 14, 1904). There was the matter of affliction for two popes, “both of whom were torn violently from their episcopal see and taken to exile” (Benedict XVI, Speech at the Quirinal Palace, October 4, 2008). Pius VI, taken prisoner, died in prison elderly and suffering, in Valence, southeastern France, and the Jacobins wrote the following in the certificate that was sent to the Administrative Director: “Today Gian Angelo Braschi died; his profession was pope, his stage-name was Pius Sixth and the last.” The Servant of God Pius VII, kidnapped and deported to France, immediately after his election had to counter the bullying of the Emperor of the French. Affliction for Rome, which in 1809 was reduced by Napoleon to the second city of the transalpine empire after Paris, the new caput mundi. Affliction for the papal archives, historical memory of the millennial activity of the Church: confiscated by the emperor, the Vatican Secret Archive and other archives of the Roman Curia were transported to Paris in 1810.