VENICE (AFP).- After a century of neglect, a magnificent palace built by Napoleon in Venice has re-opened its doors to the public on the island city's famous St Mark's Square thanks to a French restoration effort.
The reasons for the long abandonment are easily explained -- Venice is not Napoleon's biggest fan.
Nor do canal residents have fond memories of the Royal Palace's most famous resident -- 19th-century Austrian empress Elisabeth or "Sisi" -- a symbol of the city's imperial domination.
"In popular consciousness, Napoleon is primarily the man who ended the glorious republic of Venice (697-1797)," said Andrea Bellieni, director of the Correr Museum which oversees the Royal Palace.
A group called French Committee for Safeguarding Venice has financed the restoration of this sumptuous palace, which was in a pitiful state.
With a budget of 2.5 million euros ($3.2 million) from private donors, the committee has restored the main halls and the empress's apartment to its old-time splendour when a 19-year-old "Sisi" and her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I, stayed there.
The furniture decorating the restored chambers is in the same neo-Baroque style popular at the imperial court in Vienna at the time.
The empress's boudoir is a highlight with its images of feminine allegories and flowery garlands.
Napoleon proclaimed himself King of Italy in 1805 and ordered the palace built in 1807 in front of the iconic St Mark's Basilica after visiting Venice, but never actually lived in it.
Built in six years and decorated by French-inspired painter Giuseppe Borsato, the structure is now the only neo-Classical royal palace in Italy.
"We came across it by accident but we were pleasantly surprised," said Marc and Marie, a couple of 30-somethings visiting from Nimes in France.
"We thought it would just be a museum with paintings but the ballroom is very, very beautiful," they said.
Bellieni said he hoped it could rehabilitate Napoleon's image.
"It's true that Napoleon took a number of artifacts that were part of the history of Venice and sent them to the Louvre, starting with the horse statues on St Mark's Square," he said.
"But it's also thanks to him that many artworks were saved."
"Sisi" is also a candidate for rehabilitation.
"She was an extraordinary woman, not just beautiful but also very sensitive and it was here that she managed to convince her husband to liberate political prisoners," said Jerome Zieseniss, director of the French restoration committee.
The empress visited the palace one last time in 1895 for tea with Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita during a sailing stop on her way to Corfu.
The palace's most notorious guests were dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who held their first meeting in Venice in June 1934.
The last king of Italy, Umberto II, also visited in 1946 before leaving for exile in Portugal after the country voted to become a republic.
After restoring nine rooms of the palace and opening them to the public this summer, Zieseniss now wants to tackler the emperor's apartment: four rooms which will cost 800,000 euros to rehabilitate.
A Russian oligarch and a luxury company have agreed to donate the money and Zieseniss said he hopes to complete at least two rooms by spring 2013.
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