A little while back I wrote to you about violets and promised a second look to examine their political and historic significance. Now that they have withered from the hedgerows let’s examine their eternal symbolism.
There are numerous perfumes on the market today which are associated with Napoleon Bonaparte and his family. Although I was much enthralled by the Emperor when doing my History A levels, I’ve since found the gilt has fallen off the gingerbread: I got extra marks once from a no doubt very bored teacher for remarking in an essay that Bonaparte cheated at cards and kept diamonds sewn in the lining of his coach in case of the need for hasty flight.
“Pourvu que ca dure”, Letizia Buonaparte, “Mme Mere”, kept kibbitzing and krechtzing in her Ajaccio market accent, and no doubt it got her son down and unnerved him. Now my attitude is something between the opinions of his two wives. Josephine’s “Bonaparte est bon a rien” and bouncy Marie Louise’s ingenuous remark on their first meeting, “you’re better looking than your portraits!”
Napoleon took the violet as one of his symbols along with the Imperial Bees and Eagles; but a coded emblem this time, a ciphered encouragement to Bonapartists during his first exile on Elba. The Little Corporal was dubbed “Caporal Violette”, his supporter wore sprigs of the flower and whispered round the double password, “Aimez vous la violette?” “Elle revient le printemps..” And of course he did come back with the violets in the spring of 1815, riddled with the haemorrhoids which lost him Waterloo. When they brought the news to the Empress Marie Louise, the messengers found her more interested in a new pair of shoes than the massacre in Belgium which kept the denture market supplied with the teeth of the fallen for decades to come.
But why the violet? Maybe because a drawing of a stylised flower bears a resemblance to an Imperial Bee, which in turn some said was an inverted Royalist fleurs de lys. Was there an irony to it? The tiny apparently modest violet, clad in imperial purple, who turns out to be the universal conqueror . You can’t help wondering if somewhere there is not a tenuous cross-Channel link with the colloquialism “coming up smelling of violets”. Bonaparte women found the symbolism handy for personal adornment. The botanising Josephine loved violets; after the fall of the Empire Marie Louise propagated them in her Duchy of Parma. Winterhalter’s group portrait of Eugenie, Empress of Napoleon 3rd ( Bonaparte’s nephew and keeper of the flame) shows her in a crinoline in the colours of white and purple violets with a posy of the flowers in her hand, the central focus of the painting.
Maybe Bonaparte was saluting the glory of Ancient Greece in his choice. Violets sprang from the blood of the warrior Ajax; the sweat of Alexander was said to be sweet-smelling as violets; and Athens, the Queen of Greece, was the Violet – Crowned City, thanks to a word-play on the name of her legendary king Ion (“a violet”).
Whether violet-scented or not, Napoleon was a prodigious user of cologne, splashing it around in lieu of a good wash I’m inclined to think, since he certainly preferred his women on the grubby side. (Here Josephine failed him, changing her linen four times a day.) Both 4711 and Roger + Gallet claim a connection; at Les Senteurs we have modern niche perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Eau de Gloire an evocation of the Emperor’s native Corsica. Its pendant portrait is Eau Suave, a souvenir of Josephine’s childhood tropical gardens on Martinique, and the Malmaison Redoute roses of her maturity. Creed of course owed a great debt to the patronage of the Empress Eugenie in the 1850’s and 60’s, though their stupendous oriental violet fragrance Love in Black, had to wait until the 21st century to be born.
Though the most poignant story of all concerning the Bonapartes and flowers is told of not a violet but a tulip. In extreme old age, just after the Great War, the widowed Eugenie revisited Paris and walked in the gardens of her former home, the Tuileries: the palace was long gone, burned fifty years before, but she reached over a railing to pick a tulip only to be checked by an officious park-keeper who failed to recognise his former Empress. “Mme, it is forbidden to pick the flowers”.