My destination was Lodi, for something special happened to Napoleon there. It is a quiet town; a stone bridge has replaced the wooden one of Napoleon’s time. Below it, fishermen with 20-foot poles seek the barbi and cavedani that break the surface.
Napoleon reached here early in the cam¬paign, desperate for a decisive victory. He found the Austrian rear guard across that bridge. He wanted that bridge. He rode into the center of the fighting, personally sited 24 cannon, and then with a stirring speech sent a column of grenadiers charging across the bridge into the mouths of the Austrian can¬non. The Austrians broke and fled.
The battle established Napoleon with his troops: They dubbed him “le petit caporal,” since generals rarely fought alongside their men. By such courage, by winning, and by attention to his men, Napoleon bound them to him; without this, they would never have met his extraordinary demands.
Afterward the young general said to one officer: “They have seen nothing yet. . . . In our days no one has conceived any¬thing great; it is for me to set the example.” Those fantasies of glory every schoolboy has—they could be made real!
In only a year Napoleon had driven the Austrians out of northern Italy and to within sight of Vienna. They sued for peace. Napo¬leon sent back to Paris cargoes of treasure from Italy, including its art: Caravaggios, Botticellis, Giottos, Tintorettos, even the four bronze horses from Venice’s Basilica of San Marco. He returned there himself, the man of the hour.
THE YOUNG GENERAL now sought a new field for action. He chose Egypt. To seize it would crip¬ple British interests in the Mediter¬ranean, provide a stepping-stone to India. Surely he remembered those schoolbooks describing Alexander the Great; like Alex¬ander, he took with him scholars and scien¬tists. His Egyptian expedition would begin the study of Egyptology, bring a new Egyp¬tian fashion to the salons of Paris. Its impact on Egypt would be even greater.
Cairo had changed in the years since I had seen it last. It seemed to bulge with swirling tides of people, honking cars. Helmeted sol¬diers with bayoneted weapons seemed ev¬erywhere. Some things endured: the dust and special smells, the evening breeze off the Nile, the sun dropping like a great orange coin into some slot in the earth.