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Sunday, February 19, 2012

History: Napoleon And A Tree On Isola Bella



This is the view from my plane as we descended into Malpensa airport. A northern Italy still covered in snow. Although the temperatures have lifted now, there is still a bit of a feeling of hibernation. And so, on this sleepy winter day, I'll give you a little history and a poem for your Sunday reading. It is a story and a poem about Napoleon Bonaparte, and I came across this piece of trivia while researching the other Napoleon, Napoleon III, to write this blog post, about the Pedum, the "Head of Napoleon" mountain.

The poem is about a long-forgotten tree in the palace gardens on Isola Bella. It is well known that Napolean liked the island and its gardens very much. It is said, and there are several historical accounts to back it up, that Napoleon carved a word into this tree while here, just a few days before the Battle of Marengo, which took place on June 14, 1800, near Alessandria, in Piemonte. The poem was written by Lord Lytton, who wrote also these opening words:

In the Isola Bella, upon the Lago Maggiore, where the richest vegetation of the tropics grows in the vicinity of the Alps, there is a lofty laurel-tree (the bay), tall as the tallest oak, on which, a few days before the battle of Marengo, Napoleon carved the word “Battaglia.” The bark has fallen away from the inscription, most of the letters are gone, and the few left are nearly effaced.

In 1822, the Duchess of Devonshire writes of it to a friend: 

"We went to Isola Bella, and there saw (but faintly) what Napolean had written on a tree --- 'Batalia'. It was the first time he went to Milan, and whilst still only General, and is carved on the rind of the largest laurel I ever saw --- quite a tree, like a good siz'd elm tree. Was it an omen of his future glory, and did he so chuse it as great was his glory --- and great his downfall? --- never was greater moral lesson given to man."  (the spelling is her original.)

This is a painting I found, by Francois Flameng, of Napolean at Isola Bella. There is the unicorn in the background....  I like to think that it could be one of those trees behind the group on which he carved. If the tree still exists now then any trace of the mark will be long gone. But I wonder if the tree still stands. It is another little mystery to discover one day.



Napolean at Isola Bella
Lord Lytton (1803-1873)

O FAIRY island of a fairy sea,
  Wherein Calypso might have spelled the Greek,
Or Flora piled her fragrant treasury,
  Culled from each shore her zephyr’s wings could seek,—
        From rocks where aloes blow,
        
Tier upon tier, Hesperian fruits arise;
  The hanging bowers of this soft Babylon;
An India mellows in the Lombard skies,
  And changelings, stolen from the Lybian sun,
        Smile to yon Alps of snow.
        
Amid this gentlest dreamland of the wave
  Arrested, stood the wondrous Corsican;
As if one glimpse the better angel gave
  Of the bright garden-life vouchsafed to man
        Ere blood defiled the world.
        
He stood,—that grand Sesostris of the North,—
  While paused the car to which were harnessed kings;
And in the airs, that lovingly sighed forth
  The balms of Araby, his eagle-wings
        Their sullen thunder furled
        
And o’er the marble hush of those large brows
  Dread with the awe of the Olympian nod,
A giant laurel spread its breathless boughs,
  The prophet-tree of the dark Pythian god,
        Shadowing the doom of thrones!
        
What, in such hour of rest and scene of joy,
  Stirs in the cells of that unfathomed brain?
Comes back one memory of the musing boy,
  Lone gazing at the yet unmeasured main,
        Whose waifs are human bones?
        
Write on the sacred bark such native prayer,
  As the mild power may grant in coming years,
Some word to make thy memory gentle there;
  More than renown, kind thought for men endears
        A hero to mankind.
        
Slow moved the mighty hand,—a tremor shook
  The leaves, and hoarse winds groaned along the wood;
The Pythian tree the damning sentence took,
  And to the sun the battle-word of blood
        Glared from the gashing rind.
        
So thou hast writ the word, and signed thy doom:
  Farewell, and pass upon thy gory way.
The direful skein the pausing Fates resume!
  Let not the Elysian grove thy steps delay
        From thy Promethean goal.
        
The fatal tree the abhorrent word retained
  Till the last battle on its bloody strand
Flung what were nobler had no life remained,—
  The crownless front, and the disarm├ęd hand,
        And the foiled Titan soul;
        
Now, year by year, the warrior’s iron mark
  Crumbles away from the majestic tree,
The indignant life-sap ebbing from the bark
  Where the grim death-word to humanity
        Profaned the Lord of Day.
        
High o’er the pomp of blooms, as greenly still,
  Aspires that tree,—the archetype of fame,
The stem rejects all chronicle of ill,
  The bark shrinks back,—the tree survives the same,
        The record rots away.



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