Peter Tucci points to the far walls of the Pennington School’s Silva Gallery and says, “That’s the space for the empire-style chest,” a defining object for the exhibition he is mounting, “From Waterloo to New Jersey,” opening with a reception and symposium on Saturday, October 17.
The exhibition’s title is less about place and more about an individual who on one hand connects the famous 1815 Netherlands battlefield to central New Jersey and on the other has taken command over a portion of Tucci’s life: Joseph Bonaparte — former King of Spain, big brother to Napoleon, and, as a longtime Bordentown resident, a more than unusual New Jersey transplant.
The imposing gilded chest Tucci is talking about was part of Bonaparte’s Garden State estate and is now a prominent part of the Tucci collection of letters and objects that belonged to the man who once was king.
“The original auction catalog note says that the chest came from his palace in France,” says Tucci, who, in addition to being an attorney for Fox Rothschild in Philadelphia, has more than a passing connection to the Pennington School: Class of 1979, chair of the school’s board of trustees, and father of two current students, Marissa and Sabrina. “I got (the chest) at a small auction house outside Philadelphia. People know that I’ve been collecting (Bonaparte objects) for 20 years, and I get contacted when objects come up for auction. Alexandra Kirtley (curator of American decorative arts) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art notified me. It was a January auction, cold and snowy, and two hours outside Philadelphia, a good day because of the lack of competition. The chest has fossilized marble on the top and is unique. I had a conservator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art look at it, and his jaw dropped. He thought it was gold plated. It looks royal, so a reproduction of the painting ‘Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain,’ will be right by it,” says Tucci, a New Hope resident.
Tucci — like others infatuated by the stranger-than-fiction reality of European royalty going Jersey — would be quick to tell anyone that Joseph Bonaparte was born in 1768, with Napoleon arriving about two years later, and that the two poor Corsicans were able to rise in a France throwing off the aristocracy and embracing “liberty, fraternity, and equality.” While Joseph studied law and legal rights, Napoleon went to military school and studied might, eventually becoming the commander of the army of the interior. After quelling internal conflicts and leading successful campaigns against neighboring nations, Napoleon consolidated power and named himself French emperor. Joseph in turn was named king of three conquered regions: Naples and Sicily (1806 to 1808) and Spain (from 1808 through 1813).
Another expert provides more details. “Joseph Bonaparte fled from Europe following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (in 1815) and sought refuge in America,” writes the exhibition’s co-curator, Monmouth University archaeologist Richard Veit. “Joseph would reside in North America from 1815 until 1839. He divided his time between a townhouse he rented in Philadelphia and his country estate, Point Breeze in Bordentown, New Jersey. At Point Breeze, he constructed one of the first picturesque gardens in the U.S., a pair of grand houses, as well as numerous outbuildings.
“During his American sojourn, Joseph, who styled himself the Count de Survilliers, also became a major figure in the cultural life of the Delaware Valley,” notes Veit who is exhibiting objects collected during archaeological digs at the Pointe Breeze site — where Bonaparte possessed the most distinguished collection of European art in the United States. When the count returned to Europe, many of his works of art and furniture became part of regional public and private collections. The mansion was the victim of fire and neglect, and today only the building’s foundation and the gardener’s house remain.
During his exhibition preparation visit to the gallery, Tucci — who needs to sit because of complications related to a spider bite to the knee — says his “odd hobby” of collecting materials connected to New Jersey’s royal resident began with a “huh?” moment. “I lived in Philadelphia and was reading Philadelphia Magazine. There was a blurb that said, ‘Did you know that Napoleon’s brother lived in Philadelphia?’ I didn’t believe it. Then I got into it. At one point I almost bought his house (at 9th and Spruce streets), but my wife, Lisa, was pregnant. She’s a nurse and said it wasn’t going to work with children.”
Dismissing his Bonaparte collecting with, “Some guys collect beer bottles,” Tucci then settles back and talks about his collection of more than 60 objects: 40 documents, 15 coins from Spain and Naples, a travel library (25 volumes), the chest, a chair, and more. “The first thing I bought was a letter. Then I brought some more letters. The furniture doesn’t come on the market very often. You’re talking about things coming from one house, 200 years ago. The interesting thing is that collecting this is not like stamp collecting. It’s paintings, coins, documents. It’s very broad. I learn about different areas I never knew about.”
To illustrate his point, Tucci talks about a Bonaparte-owned chair in the exhibition. “It was made by Michael Bouvier. He was the great-great grandfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. There are only 15 documented Bouvier chairs. His furniture making company was based in Philadelphia. That’s how the Bouviers became wealthy. And it all started with this private at Waterloo escaping to the United States.” He points out that during Jackie Kennedy’s 1962 television tour of the White House, the first lady mentions a table once owned by Joseph Bonaparte and probably made by her illustrious ancestor, whom she never mentions.
Tucci then mentions two objects connected with Bonaparte’s unsuccessful Spanish reign and their historical significance. The first is a broadside — a poster that announces events — that proclaims Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain. “It was the twitter of its day,” he says. The other is one of his favorite pieces in the collection. “It’s a tiny button about a half inch in diameter. It has a portrait of Ferdinand, the king of Spain who was deposed. His supporters wore it as a subtle political protest.”
Tucci becomes animated, rises, and limps across the gallery floor, and describes the exhibition with a series of gestures. “We start with Corsica there, move to the French Revolution, and then the kingdoms of Naples and Spain. This side alcove is Point Breeze, and over there are the artifacts from Point Breeze. I want to make it easy for people to understand.”
He then embellishes. “I bought a painting at an auction in Philadelphia. It’s by (noted Bordentown artist and painter of Point Breeze) Charles Lawrence. He painted it in 1830. Whoever sold it didn’t know what it was. I was little giddy at the auction. It’s a beautiful painting itself.”
With his finger darting in different directions he continues, “We’re going to have different flags: French, Naples, Spain, and an American flag from 1815. I have a map of Napoleon’s empire with arrows that point out locations. Another map is one of Naples where Joseph was the king of my ancestors.” An aural background of period music and a New Jersey Network video on Joseph Bonaparte are also part of the exhibition.
Prompted to explain his interest deeper, Tucci says with a verbal shrug, “It was just from studying French at Pennington.” But of course there is more. The son of a textile chemist and a dental hygienist who relocated from New England to Yardley, Pennsylvania, Tucci and his older brother attended Pennington School, where French and the attraction of world travel engaged his imagination. “Pennington always had a lot of international students, so I got interested in international affairs,” he says. After learning that Georgetown University was a leader in that field, he enrolled in its School of Foreign Service and remained to study law. He then continued studies at the University of Dijon, France, and the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.
Tucci’s Fox Rothschild online biography says his practice “incorporates a wide variety of international and corporate matters” with “a particular focus on advising European companies on entering the United States market.” It also notes Tucci was a former partner with the global law organization DLA Piper, serves as president of the Philadelphia chapter of the French-American Chamber of Commerce, and is a member of the Pennsylvania Advisory Board of HSBC Bank USA.
The French connection heightens when you learn that Tucci has the largest private collection of Joseph Bonaparte objects in the world, and in 2005 “the President of the Republic of France, Jacques Chirac, bestowed upon Peter the title of Chevalier (Knight) of the French Legion of Honor. The French Legion of Honor, which was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, recognizes eminent service to the Republic of France and is the country’s most prestigious award.” The award announcement cites Tucci’s “commitment to upholding French interests, especially in the French-American Chamber of Commerce.”
Although Tucci says, “When I travel and go to places, I do research on Joseph Bonaparte,” the statement is only partially correct. Trips often reflect other interests, such as this past summer’s journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, a charity founded and headed by the NBA Hall of Famer and former Philadelphia 76ers basketball player. It was there that Tucci, a board member of the foundation, received the spider bite.
Other trips, however, are go-directly-to-Bonaparte and include visits to the overthrown king’s former chateaus. “I went to Prangins, Switzerland, and Mortefontaine (about 20 miles outside of Paris). Point Breeze looked the same as those mansions,” he says.
About the estimated cost of the collection kept in a private study in his home, Tucci gives an evasive smile and says, “I’ll have to get back with you on that.” But there are track records for anyone with a computer and calculator: a New York Times article on the current 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo mentions Tucci’s collection and reports the mahogany and marble chest trimmed in gilded swans sold for $5,000. And starting bids on Internet auction sites list $1,250 for a chair attributed to Bouvier and $175 for a Joseph Bonaparte letter.
Tucci does say it will be relief to see his collection finally on display. “I think this will be first exhibit of Joseph Bonaparte in the U.S. A lot of people talked about one, but it never happened. I have been thinking about it for some time. I have been waiting for it to get done. Other institutions wanted to do one and borrow objects from my collection, but it hasn’t happened.”
“From Waterloo to New Jersey” opens to the public on Saturday, October 17, with extended viewing hours set from noon to 5 p.m., and a symposium led by Tucci and Veit, “Laying Out some of the Spoils of Europe in an Elegant Mansion and Grounds: Monmouth University’s Archaeological Excavations at Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze Estate,” at 1:30 p.m. In January the exhibition moves to Monmouth University and is then slated to travel to the Napoleonic Institute at Florida State University. Tucci says he is also in discussions to take his collection to the Swiss National Museum, located in Bonaparte’s former chateau in Prangins.
After Tucci says he did not realize how difficult it was to curate an exhibition, gallery director Dolores Eaton arrives with the mockup of the large exhibition banner and unfolds it across the tables. Their nods and smiles disappear when they discover “Waterloo” is missing a letter.
Yet unlike Napoleon, they are not defeated and have the time to make the change before the opening. Now sitting back and gazing at the exhibition space, Tucci says with his thoughts seemingly on the present and future, “I understand it’s an odd hobby. But I am going to keep collecting. It keeps taking me down different alleys.”
From Waterloo to New Jersey, Silva Gallery, Pennington School 112 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington. Opens Saturday, October 17, noon to 5 p.m., and including a 1:30 p.m. symposium with co-curators Peter Tucci and Richard Veit, “Laying Out some of the Spoils of Europe in an Elegant Mansion and Grounds.” On view through Friday, November 20, by appointment during school hours and Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m., starting Monday, October 19. Contact gallery director Dolores Eaton at email@example.com or 609-737-4133. Free.