Napoleon's Marengo Gets a Facelift

Napoleon's Marengo Gets a Facelift

Marengo is now back in his display at the National Army Museum, portraying the true battle horse he was, Bernucci said.

Photo: Courtesy of the U.K. Natural History Museum

The horse that helped shape European history has just gotten reshaped himself. Or, his skeleton has, anyway. Nearly 200 years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Marengo has received a full skeletal makeover by scientists at the U.K.’s Natural History Museum.

“He was in a static pose and starting to slump over time, so we wanted to give him something more dynamic,” said Arianna Bernucci, MSc, MA, conservator at the Natural History Museum, in London.

Originally prepared through a “secretive process” by early 19th century preparators, the Arabian stallion’s bones were mounted on a metal frame for display. Over time, some of the bones fused to the metal, while others—mainly the sternum—cracked, Bernucci said.

“I cleaned them in the least invasive way possible, with just a vacuum, dry brush, and smoke sponge,” she said. The skeleton has been on display at the National Army Museum in London since the 1960s. The museum entrusted the scientists of the National History Museum with Marengo’s renovation project.

Some of the bones were covered with an unknown substance that darkened them. Analyses using infrared spectroscopy revealed that the substance was organic and apparently harmless. “It might have been an oily residue that dripped onto it, or even put on it on purpose for some reason,” Bernucci said. “Since it wasn’t harming anything, we decided to not remove it.” Maintaining the substance preserves their history, including their scientific conservation history, she added.

Once Bernucci had finished cleaning the bones, she began the reposition project with Derek Bell, expert prop modeler at Glueworks Studio in Suffolk. “We really needed to change his position, but we knew we’d be limited in what we could do by the state of the bones, and whether we could pull them away from the metal frame or not,” she said.

While much of the body had fused to the metal, Bernucci said they were able to separate three legs and his head. This allowed them to give him a more “active” position.

“Marengo was Napoleon’s horse and we wanted to present him as such: proud and regal,” said Sophie Stathi, PhD, curator of the National Army Museum. “He was one of the most loved objects in the old museum, but every time I came into the gallery I always thought there was something sad about him. And the peculiar, stiff position of the legs made him look more like a mule. He was a remarkable animal, and he deserved for us to do better by him.”

Working with a committee of experts, Bernucci and Bell proposed several positions that they could give the horse. Without professional experience with horses, the scientists turned to research and other scientists to ensure they gave the horse a realistic pose, she said.

Over the next few months, the team faced the biggest challenge of the project—disarticulating the bones and reconnecting them in their new position. “It was quite risky,” Bernucci said. “But we were able to be quite creative with the pose without harming the bones, fortunately.”

The new, “active” Marengo is now back in his display at the National Army Museum, portraying the true battle horse he was, Bernucci said.

Napoleon bought the 14.1-hand gray stallion from Egypt in 1799 and named him after a victorious battle in Marengo, Italy. He carried the French emperor through numerous battles between 1800 and 1815 and was wounded eight times, with bullets embedded in his tail until his death. Records indicate the horse could gallop five hours straight under Napoleon, covering 80 miles. When Napoleon surrendered at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium in 1815, he gave up his horse to the British.

“Thoroughbreds were favored by most military leaders, but Napoleon had a preference for small Arab horses like Marengo,” Stathi said. “Marengo was reliable, obedient, and calm, and he could gallop for long periods of time. These were traits that Napoleon favored in his horses.”

Marengo lived in England as a riding horse and occasionally as a breeding stallion until his death in 1831 at the age of 38. His skeleton is on permanent display at the National Army Museum, where visitors can view him free of charge.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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