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A drawing room suite from Napoleon’s uncle, by the Santi brothers

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About the artwork

Napoleon’s uncle Joseph Fesch was born in Ajaccio in Corsica in 1763. He went into the priesthood at the age of 22. When the French Revolution broke out, it became dangerous to be a priest, so he became a storekeeper for the army. Napoleon’s rapid rise to power changed his uncle’s life for ever. First he appointed him quartermaster for the Italian campaign, then he had him promoted in the Church. In 1802 he was made Archbishop of Lyon and in the following year Cardinal and ambassador to the Vatican. His most important job was persuading the Pope to come to Paris to crown Napoleon as Emperor of France and in this he succeeded. Fesch stayed in Rome until 1806 and it was the high point of his career. During this time he commissioned an enormous suite of furniture numbering at least seventy pieces. About a third of this suite has ended up at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

The suite was designed and made in Rome by the brothers Dionisio and Lorenzo Santi. An original drawn design for it, signed by them, is in the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. A sketch of one of the armchairs was also made by another artist who was visiting Rome from Siena, a man with the wonderful name Agostino Fantastici. He very helpfully put the date on the drawing in his sketchbook – 1806. The chair was then brand new and he probably saw it in the workshop of the Santi brothers. At this time Fesch was spending huge sums not only on interior décor but also on Renaissance paintings including work by Leonardo, Raphael and Mantegna.

By 1809 Cardinal Fesch was back in France, but his career was heading downhill. Napoleon was trying to limit the power of the Pope over the Church in France. Fesch sided with the Pope against his own nephew. When Napoleon fell from power, Fesch fled back to Rome but had to leave most of his art – and all of his furniture – behind. There was a big auction on the premises at his house in Paris in 1816. Many British and Prussian collectors, who had the good fortune to be on the winning side against Napoleon, picked up the spoils.