On the South Atlantic island of St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte breathed his last sigh on 5 May 1821, exiled but not forgotten. It took almost exactly two months for news of his death to reach Europe. Legend has it that Napoleon’s sometime foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, upon hearing this, commented pithily, ‘It is no longer an event, it’s just a piece of news.’ The Italian Romantic poet Alessandro Manzoni could not have disagreed more intensely. This death inflamed his imagination and in his epic poem ‘Il 5 Maggio’ he mused on Napoleon’s legacy and how the French emperor had shaped the age in which he lived. According to the poet, ‘two centuries armed against each other had turned to [Napoleon] for their fate.’ He also wondered: ‘Was it true glory?’ Since 1821, scores of biographers have tried to answer Manzoni’s question. Some, most recently Andrew Roberts, have chosen hagiography, while others, such as Charles Esdaile, have given fresh life to the Napoleonic black legend, according to which the French emperor was a proto-Hitlerian dictator.
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