Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Cabildo and Napoleon’s Death Mask

It is no surprise to my friends that New Orleans is probably my favorite city in the world. I have visited and played in the world famous French Quarter hundreds of times over the years and have come to love the history as well as the generous and fun loving people who reside there and bring the place alive with their patience, tolerance, great humor and warm hospitality.

In March of 1983, I was visiting New Orleans for the Saint Patrick’s Day parades and parties when I had a rather profound experience. 

I was touring a building on Jackson Square built in 1799, the Cabildo and now part of the Louisiana State Museum. I suddenly and unexpectedly came face to face with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Death Mask (one of only four known to exist). I was stopped dead in my tracks, transfixed in an almost trance-like state for several minutes as I stared at the face of the Emperor. A warm shiver shot through my body as I felt a sudden familiarity and personal connection with the great man (although to the best of my knowledge there has never been any actual connection, spiritually, genealogically or in any way whatsoever). 

It took me several minutes to tear myself away and continue my little tour. But the image has stayed with me ever since, haunting my memory and always giving me that warm chill, like the happy memory of a beloved friend or relative. Although I have pondered the experience many times, I have never found an explanation for that feeling. I have simply come to accept and enjoy it.

The Cabildo is a very interesting place in its own right. I thought I’d share a little of the old buildings history with you.

As I am sure you know, Louisiana is one of the most mysterious and culturally rich states in America. That it houses a wealth of Napoleonic history would come as a surprise to most.

The Cabildo is a symbol of Louisiana's early history. Completed in 1799, the present structure occupies the site of New Orleans' first official buildings. Those structures (the Cabildo's predecessors, erected in the early 18th century), along with the cathedral of St. Louis and the Presbytere, were built to provide a place in which the essential political functions of the newborn colony could take place. And just as when New Orleans was founded, Jackson Square in the late 18th century (previously the Place d'Armes and the heart of the city) was dominated by these three buildings.

It is named after the "Illustrious Cabildo" or governing body of Spanish Colonial New Orleans which used to meet there, and it entered the history books in December 1803 when ceremonies finalizing the Louisiana Purchase agreement (doubling the size of the United States) took place in the Sala Capitular, or council chamber, in the presence of Pierre Clément de Laussat, William C.C. Claiborne, and General James Wilkinson.

The Cabildo has been the Louisiana State Museum since 1911 and today houses exhibits which recount the State's history from European settlement through the American Civil War and Reconstruction.

One other piece of actual history took place in the Cabildo that I found interesting. On July 18, 1826, a drunken wretch named Zephir Canonge staggered up the stairs to the building’s second floor. As he encountered Judge Gallien Preval, a Creole lawyer and veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, Canonge chose to insult Preval verbally. Exactly what he said isn’t known; the insult rolled off Preval like the proverbial water on the duck’s back. Preval’s 19-year-old son, Theodore, however, took great offense at the slur and, on the Cabildo’s grand, curving staircase, challenged Canonge to a duel. It didn’t end well for the young Preval who died of the resulting wounds and is now buried in New Orleans’s famous "Saint Louis Cemetery No.1".

Today's Reflection:
You might be a Cajun if you take a bite of Texas 5-alarm chilli -and reach for the Tabasco.

Live Long and Prosper...

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