Twice in the Dust

Two hundred years ago, the death of one of the most beloved (and most controversial) characters in history

May 5, 1821. Napoleon Bonaparte dies on the island of St. Helena, where he has been in exile for six years. He is not even 52, and has been sent into exile twice: “twice in the dust”, as a famous Italian poem recites, “twice on the altar”. In his short life, he turned the fortunes of Europe and the world upside down. Napoleon, considered the greatest military strategist in history, was at the head of a huge empire. He conquered countries, boosted economies, wrote laws that are still the basis of the modern codes in Europe. Probably he was also a victim of his own impetus: the Russian campaign marks the beginning of his decline.

In May 1814 he is exiled to the island of Elba so that he can no longer be a threat. But he returns to France after only ten months, regaining power in a hundred days and clashing once again with the opponent. He is exiled again to the island of Saint Helena, in the middle of the Atlantic: a place chosen by the English, to have the certainty that he would never come back. And in fact it happened so.

Someone even feared that he could rise again after death. And in a certain sense this has also happened: 200 years after his death, Napoleon is the most Googled character after Jesus Christ, and no other historical figure has generated a comparable phenomenon, made of books, objects, fans, re-enactments and emulators.

(reportage produced in collaboration with Ornella D’Alessio)