What Happened on the Way to the Opera: January 14, 1858

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


Emperor though he was, Napoleon III had to keep up the appearance of republican government in France. Officially, he did not rule France alone, but with the Legislative Body, whose members were elected by universal suffrage. Yet, the Legislative Body had no real power. Elections of its members, too, were mostly a sham; those who ran against official government candidates backed by the emperor could be charged with treason, imprisoned or deported, just because they opposed Napoleon’s policies. Even local governments came under the control of Napoleon’s enormous bureaucracy in Paris. The emperor established a network of police to detect and arrest anyone who might be planning “sedition” against the government.


Napoleon III, Emperor of the French

Yet, dictator though he was, Emperor Napoleon III had Liberal goals. He was not a republican, to be sure, but neither was he a divine right monarchist. Napoleon III saw himself as the true representative of the French people—of the French democracy. His role, as he saw it, was to unite all French people and guide them toward justice at home and peace with other nations. A follower of the socialist ideas of Saint-Simon, Napoleon III dreamed of a prosperous, industrialized France, directed by a benevolent emperor and a group of scientific experts. He hoped, as emperor, to bring about a new order in Europe. European states, he dreamed, would become industrialized and be bound together by common treaties and periodic congresses, like the Congress of Vienna.


And, under Napoleon III, France prospered for many years. By the advice of his Saint-Simonian advisors, Napoleon established banks to lend money for mortgages and for funding business enterprises. With more money in their pockets, the French bourgeoisie did not miss their political liberties too much. And Napoleon’s star continued to rise. His marriage in 1853 to the Spanish countess Eugénie de Montijo was blessed with the birth of a son, Eugène Louis Jean Joseph, on March 16, 1856. Napoleon III now had an heir to carry on his line.


Napoleon III was even successful in war—or, successful enough. Disputes between France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire had induced Tsar Nikolai I to send an army into the Ottoman provinces on the Danube. The sultan responded by declaring war on Russia in October 1853. After Nikolai’s warships destroyed Ottoman ships in the Battle of Sinop on November 30, 1853, France, Great Britain, and Piedmont-Sardinia declared war on Russia.


The French capture a Russian position at Sevastopol in the Crimean War

The Crimean War (so named because it was fought on the peninsula of Crimea) ended in a Russian defeat. On March 30, 1856, Tsar Aleksandr II (who had succeeded his father, Nikolai I, in 1855) signed a peace treaty in Paris with France, Great Britain, Piedmont-Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. According to the treaty, the European powers agreed not to take any Ottoman lands, while Russia lost the right to send warships onto the Black Sea. Napoleon III had won new glory for France; he had humbled the Russians.


Felice Orsini

The French emperor’s glory, however, was almost cut short on the evening of January 14, 1858, when an Italian revolutionary named Felice Orsini and his companions threw three bombs at the imperial carriage carrying Napoleon and Empress Eugénie to the opera. Though several died from the blast and over a hundred were wounded, the emperor and empress were unharmed.


Orsini had tried to assassinate Napoleon III because, by keeping French troops in Rome to protect the pope, he was hindering attempts to unify Italy. Now from prison, Orsini wrote Napoleon a letter, asking him to champion the cause of Italian independence. Napoleon had long cherished the idea of an independent Italy, and—what Orsini did not know—it had recently been on the emperor’s mind. Indeed, in the months before Orsini threw his bomb, Napoleon III was seriously making plans to intervene in Italy.


A Dance in Hell


The year 1858 saw the first production in Paris of Jacques Offenbach's operetta, Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), a comic parody of the tragic Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The operetta, thought by some to be a veiled attack on the court of Napoleon III, features the famous music of The Infernal Gallop, which occurs in Act 2. We present a version of the music and dance here.



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