Stop 10: The Bonaparte family ‘the pure type of Corsican’



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Stop 10: The Bonaparte family – ‘the pure type of Corsican’.

The Bonaparte family comprised a formidable group of personalities – one can imagine that meeting them en masse could be a potentially overwhelming experience. In this stop, I will introduce you to Napoleon’s seven siblings. You will find objects depicting or having belonged to most of them in this section of the exhibition.

But, first, let us once again acknowledge Letizia Bonaparte – or Madame Mère as she was customarily called – as the head of this rambunctious clan. Over her twenty years of marriage, Madame Mère had 12 children, 8 of whom survived infancy. She suffered the death of two infants before the birth of Joseph, the eldest. Joseph was loyal to Napoleon and was rewarded by being made King of Naples and, later, King of Spain.

Sibling rivalry really emerged, however, with Lucien who was six years younger than Napoleon. Initially, Lucien had been crucial to Napoleon’s meteoric rise. It was Lucien who had assisted the coup d'état in 1799 that made Napoleon one of France’s three ruling Consuls. He had galvanised support at that time by pointing a sword at Napoleon and declaring to the crowd that he would injure his brother should he ever betray the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Yet, over time, serious conflicts developed between them.



Louis was Napoleon’s favourite brother. He suffered from poor mental health at times, which led to allegations of lunacy. Napoleon arranged a marriage between Louis and Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage, Hortense. Hortense was never really in favour and, unfortunately, it was a desperately unhappy marriage. Napoleon was in the practice of installing his family members as rulers over different provinces, and he made Louis and Hortense King and Queen of Holland.

Jérôme was the youngest and the most wayward brother. At 19-years of age he visited the United States and – without the consent of his family – married Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore. Napoleon was furious. He refused to allow Elizabeth entry to France and declared the marriage null. ‘As for your affair with your little girl’ he told Jerome, ‘I do not regard it.’ Jerome eventually capitulated and after marrying a German princess was made King of Westphalia. He was forever in debt.

Of Napoleon’s sisters, Elisa was the eldest. She was an intelligent woman who proved to be a gifted administrator and a person committed to public life. She enacted strong reforms, instituted charitable measures and was a great patron of the arts, first in first in Lucca in Italy but later in Florence as the Grand Duchess of Tuscany.



Caroline was the youngest and the most treacherous sister. She married Napoleon’s companion Joachim Murat, a soldier celebrated for his debonair clothing and fiery character. In 1813, Caroline convinced Murat to undertake an act of great treachery towards Napoleon. In the hope of retaining their Kingdom of Naples, they signed treaties with England and Austria against France. This would breach their relationship with Napoleon forever.

Pauline was Napoleon’s favourite. A beautiful but also mischievous girl, she behaved sufficiently badly towards Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise, that he banished her from court. He tired of her gossip and her proclivity for poking her tongue out at the new Empress. Pauline was also at the centre of an artistic cause célèbre. When the artist Canova produced a life-size sculpture of her as Venus Victrix, he presented her semi-nude and reclining on a daybed.

This scantily clad depiction of royalty sent shockwaves across Rome and Paris. Pauline naughtily fanned the fires of scandal: when asked why she was wearing so little she quipped that there was a stove in the studio that kept her warm. Yet Pauline was loyal to Napoleon. She liquidated her assets when her brother needed funds and was also the only sibling to visit him in exile on Elba.












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