In the Musée de l’Armée, the army museum in central Paris, there is a display of Napoleon’s last horse, Vizir. The taxidermied remains of Vizir are on display behind a glass cabinet for all to see. At 200 years old, Vizir has had an incredible history of epic battles, exile, and even being smuggled overseas in a trunk after his death. Now a beloved artefact of France’s imperial days, Vizir has undergone extensive restorations from public donations to keep him around for people to admire.
The Life of Napoleon’s Horse Vizir
Vizir was a war hero, carrying Napoleon into several battles during his service. The grey and white Arabian stallion was given to Napoleon in 1802 by Selim III, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, as a friendship gift. Le Vizir translates to the Vizier, a title of a high ranking official in the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan’s last words to Vizir were apparently “Go, my dear Vizir. Go for Mahomet, go for your Sultan and become Napoleon’s most famous horse.”
Vizir took Napoleon into battle in 1806 for the battle of Iena, and again in 1807 for the battle of Eylau, in Napoleon’s successful Prussian campaign. Vizir appears in paintings of Napoleon during his campaign, such as Jean Louis Auguste Ernest Meissonier’s portrait 1814, as well as a solo portrait by Pierre Martinet. In 1815, Vizir followed Napoleon into exile on the island of Elba. While Napoleon eventually escaped Elba, Vizir returned to mainland France, but luckily was not put back into service. Napoleon was decisively defeated at Waterloo shortly after and was re-exiled on St Helena, where he died in 1821. Vizir, however, lived a further 5 years, dying at age 33.
Taxidermy of Vizir and Smuggling to England
After his death, Vizir’s remains were preserved by taxidermists in 1826. Léon de Chanlaire, the stable officer in charge of Vizir, oversaw Vizir’s posthumous care. But in the midst of anti-Napoleon sympathies, de Chanlaire sold Vizir to an English buyer, William Clark, who was living in northern France. Mr. Clark helped smuggle Vizir to England in 1839, safely away from anti-imperialists. The stuffing was taken out, the pelt packed into a large trunk, and Vizir was soon past customs officials and across the channel by sea.
Upon reaching England, the taxidermied stallion was restored, and displayed in the Manchester Museum in 1843. After several years, Vizir then returned to France, ending up being stored in The Louvre for almost 30 years. When Vizir was eventually rediscovered from storage, he was moved to his (now) home, the Musée de l’Armée.
Conservation of Vizir
Vizir didn’t have a particularly glamorous display in the museum, acting as a display in a section of hallway with other war remnant items. His condition had deteriorated over the years; the skin was dusty, dehydrated and shrunken, the skin colour faded, and cracks and tears on the hide were forming, including a massive tear in the shoulder. Unsightly stitches made him look less than presentable.
200 years after his military days were over, a campaign was launched in 2015, named Sauvons Vizir (Let’s save Vizir), aiming to raise a target of 15,000 Euros to fund his restoration. There was a lot of love for Vizir, as it turns out, with over 20,000 Euros raised in total. In addition to the restoration works by two skilled taxidermists, Vizir was moved into a special climate-controlled glass display case in the museum, to prevent further degradation.
Napoleon rose nearly 130 different horses during his military campaigns, and only a handful were considered notable enough to have their names recorded in history, or their portraits painted. Vizir, Napoleon’s faithful horse which saw out his final days, is one of his best remembered steeds. Thanks to the dedication of those who wished to preserve his legacy, from Napoleonic stable officers, foreign buyers, museum donors, and skilled taxidermists, we can keep Vizir in a place of honour, close to his former master in the Musée de l’Armée.