The house of Napoleon
Napoleon Museum, Lake Constance, Switzerland
There’s a house on the shores of Lake Constance in Switzerland that, albeit pretty, is quite unassuming from the outside. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might just mistake it for another residence of a wealthy Swiss citizen – of which there are many. But this house has a history that is revealed once you step through the doors.
It was the refuge of Hortense de Beauharnais, the stepdaughter of Napoleon, who was forced to flee France and marry her stepuncle, Louis Bonaparte, who together were named King and Queen of The Netherlands.
The house is called Arenenberg and in 1906 it became the property of the state. With the space, they created a museum in honour of Napoleon and his family.
The museum has taken many forms in the years since it began but most recently it has been restored to resemble how it would have looked when Hortense lived here with her son, Louis-Napoleon, who would go on to become Emperor Napoleon III in 1852.
The woman behind the current style of the Napoleon Museum is curator Christina Egli, who has been kind enough to offer to show me through the house. From the outside, I would not have expected to find such a rich collection of art, furniture and design on the inside. The photos she allowed me to take (normally it’s prohibited) probably give you a sense of the opulence better than any description I could offer.
I ask Christina how she came to be working here and how she was able to replicate the 19th century house so well.
“Just before I was librarian in the university library in Constance and I studied history and the history of art but the Middle Ages,” she explains.
“It was really a completely different step but I started to work here twenty per cent for the library and that was a new job – and I could get it – and I had to step from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century and it fascinated me.”
“At the beginning we started with special exhibitions to make people come but now we can’t make them anymore – also in Switzerland we have to save money. And that’s why we decided to change the furniture and really to look at all what we had – inventories, pictures and so – to see how to change, how to go back to the estate of the house as it was during the time of Queen Hortense was living here.”
“It was a hard job. I had two helpers in the house, two colleagues, and altogether we were carrying furnitures from one place to the next, from one room to the next and deciding also about the decorations. We did it all together. And now, instead of two floors of normal exhibitions and two floors of special exhibitions, the whole house is complete now and I think you get much more the feeling that Queen Hortense and her son, Louis-Napoleon left for one hour for a walk and they’re coming back afterwards and having tea or coffee or something like that. And that’s what we wanted to have here.”
It took a lot of research to get things just right. Christina had to find old pictures or books that described the house. Arenenberg had been sold to another family to make money during the period Louis-Napoleon was forced to leave Switzerland because of pressure from the French. It was eventually bought back by his wife but much had been changed.
I ask Christina how long she has spent on the project.
“Well, I would say 12 years because we didn’t have all the rooms,” she tells me.
“My office was in the beginning on the second floor and we didn’t have the space to make this exhibitions and to change all that and we took the real decision to change that in this estate with the new furniture last year. And last year I was really studying everything and I make the decision, make the list – “this furniture has to be in this room and this one in this room” – and to change everything.”
The attention to detail is intense and Christina points out every little thing, including replicas of newspapers from the time. I am particularly interested when she shows me the master bedroom and the bed hasn’t been made.
“The bed had been done as a usual bed, closed and neat and everything. And I read about an American journalist who was here visiting the house, it was like a British manor, when the owners weren’t in the house it was possible to visit it, and it was like that beginning with September 1855 and, like that, this American journalist came here and saw the bed and he wrote about it that it was still open. They didn’t remake the bed after the death of Hortense de Beauharnais on 5th October 1837, it has been left in the estate as it was and that’s why I wanted to recreate this situation and the bed is open.”
It’s these small considerations, all through Arenenberg, that make it such an interesting place to visit. Add in the beautiful gardens and the wonderful view across Lake Constance, and it’s the perfect place to spend an hour while exploring this part of Europe.You can find out more information here about the Napoleon Museum at Lake Constance