Echoes of Napoleon

A museum dedicated to the Emperor Napoleon, in communist Cuba?

I walked up Calle San Miguel to this unexpected collection in a town house overlooking historic Havana. The Museo Napoleónico is replete with relics, belongings and artistic representations of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, including a magnificent library of works about the Corsican conqueror. Apparently there are some 7,000 separate items, many collected by Orestes Ferrara, a colourful character who, according to the Rough Guide to Cuba (3rd edition, 2005, p.165) was an anarchist in Italy before moving to Cuba and fighting as a colonel in the independence war against Spain at the end of the 19th century. Orestes later became Cuban ambassador to France, where he must have spent a substantial portion of his time amassing this vast collection and shipping it back to Havana, to his elegant four-story home.

Not all the contents belonged to Orestes Ferrara; some were the property of Julio Lobo, president of the National Bank of Cuba before the Revolution. The house and its current contents were all appropriated by the Cuban state after the Revolution.

I could have spent hours in the library, with its 4,000 or so books. I wonder how much they are consulted now, in the book desert that is Havana? Only three other visitors were there at the same time as me, a man from Brazil (who was astounded at the quality of the collection) and a Cuban couple.

The second-floor bedroom and first-floor dining room are full of furniture and art that I would imagine the French would love to display in France.  I noted a bronze of Napoleon in exile on the island of Saint Helena, slumped in an armchair looking defeated, holding a map. It is by Vicenzo Vela (1820-91). An oil of Napoleon on horseback, by Jean Berne-Bellecour (1838-1910) was painted in 1910 right at the end of Berne-Bellecour’s life. The horse has a Roman nose and reminded me of the photos of cavalry horses in the 1914-18 world war. An earlier portrait, of exiled Napoleon on Elba, painted by Robert Lefevre (1756-1830) in 1814 shows the captured leader already looking morose. There is his death mask, too, taken by Dr Francesco Antonmarchi in 1821. Napoleon had died after nearly six years of exile on the remote British colony of Saint Helena, an island of 122 sq km in the South Atlantic. He was 51 or 52 years old (sources vary).

Sitting in the shady garden, I saw that the water feature was turned off.

Later I asked Alfredo, a retired doctor, what he thought of the museum, and he admitted he had never been there, although he lived just ten  minutes’ walk away.

From the museum I walked to the Malecon, the road along the shore of Havana Bay, and stopped for a coffee in a café undergoing restoration. The drink was almost cold, and just a thimbleful.

Humidity is high and tiring. I fell over at roadworks where Neptuno meets Infanta, because I was not paying enough attention to the potholes.

There are lots of mini enterprises now, as staff cuts in government service force people into newly legitimised self-employment. There are hallways and front rooms turned into tiny shops selling second-hand books and clothes, DVDs, snacks, make-do-and-mend items, but not large numbers of customers, a trickle rather than a flood. The streets are dirtier than I remember in 2006.  I imagine that the state has cut back on street sweepers.

Most of the pre-1959 American cars now seem to be private taxis. In 2006 private taxis existed, but illegally. Now taxi driving is among the permitted occupations for self-employment.  The exhaust smoke from the ancient American motors is often black and looks lethal.

I saw a dead cat on the pavement, near a live but scabby dog. Habaneros like dogs but the animals have to fend for themselves a great deal, given the absence of anything so bourgeois as pet food, or pet health products.

In the famous Callejon de Hamel, between Aramburu and Hospital, an artist called Salvador González Escalona has painted buildings in vivid colours.

Painted buildings, Callejon de Hamel, Centro Habana.

The callejon, or alley, has a Santeria shrine. Santeria is the animism of the Yoruba people of West Africa  overlain with the worship of saints that Catholicism introduced. I read that devout followers of Santeria wear white, and I saw several white-clad ones, mainly women. The white for women includes a sort of turban, and a skirt, which distinguishes them from the Damas de Blanco, the human rights group also clad in white, but often wearing trousers and t-shirts.

I couldn’t stop in the Callejon de Hamel without people asking me for money, so kept walking, to the Edificio Solimar in Calle Soledad, a curving Art Deco apartment building of great style, built in 1944 and among the least rickety of Centro’s tatterdemalion dwellings.

Edificio Solimar, a notable Art Deco apartment building, Centro Habana.


4 Comments on “Echoes of Napoleon”

  1. Liliana Ruiz Sabin says:

    I came from Cuba in 1960. I am now 76 years old and retired. I live in Miami with my husband, a Spaniard that I met in 1966. I lived in Edificio Solimar, apt. 401 with my parents from the age of 9 (1945) to the age of 15, when we moved to the FOCSA Bldg. in 17 & M, Vedado. My father stayed at Solimar since he had his dental office there. I am very happy I could read your blog and hope to continue getting more information.

    • Very happy to hear from you, Liliana. I thought the Edificio Solimar has great style, but as you know, all around in Centro the buildings are crumbling. My last visit to Cuba, in November and December last year, was sad because the situation seemed far worse than when I was there in 2006 and 2007. The water supply was cut off for 21 hours a day. Generally the water flowed between 4pm and 7pm, when everyone rushed to fill up their buckets, bowls and barrels. Also, dengue seems to be a bigger problem than is admitted publicly. I don’t expect to return this year, but probably within the next 2 or 3 years.

      • Liliana Ruiz Sabin says:

        I sincerely hope that in three years the situation would change, however, all of those who came to the USA early (1959 and 60’s) are disappointed that, as well as Castro did, there has not been an insurrection from within to change the the politics, etc. I did not want to return, even though I was encouraged, because I feel the money we spend in Cuba goes directly to the government. My father, mother, to sum it up, all of my family died with the hope that they would see a free Cuba. I know most of those who came early hope to be able to enjoy the beautiful Cuba that we left behind very soon. If you can, please send me photos of Varadero and playa Ancon close to Trinidad. Trinidad is the town where my husbands parents lived in. Please let me if the internet has access to Cuba. Best Regards. Lily

      • I will look through my photos and select some of Playa Ancon — I was there in December. They may not be very good photos, though! Unfortunately I have never been to Varadero. I think Trinidad is my favourite place in Cuba. Internet access is still very difficult in Cuba as most people are not allowed to have a connection. The few public access points are incredibly expensive.

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