On Napoleon’s mother and her life in the Eternal City.
Under the rule of the new Committee of Public Safety, coronavirus cut short the debut season of the restored Palazzo Bonaparte, a Roman beauty long hidden in plain sight at the end of the Corso on the Piazza Venezia. The Palazzo’s new owner, the Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali, began renovations in 2017 and reopened for Christmas in 2019 with an exhibition of “Secret Impressionist” paintings pulled from private collections. For Christmas tourists in Rome, Caillebotte and Pissarro were refreshing peppermints on the tongue after a week of garlic Baroque. During construction in 1677 under the architect Giovanni Antonio de’ Rossi, the Palazzo was regarded among the finest new buildings in Rome. Crowned by a gazebo observatory called a specola, four walls of windows offer a commanding view in all directions. In 1818, Madame Letizia Bonaparte purchased the Palazzo for 27,000 gold piastres and announced her arrival with the name of BONAPARTE set in colossal letters under the cornice. Visitors can now walk where the mother of Napoleon mourned the emperor in exile on St. Helena.
Madame Bonaparte occupied the piano nobile, guests and her children stayed on the second floor, and servants lived on the third. During her residency, the walls were filled with an enviable art collection curated by her half-brother Cardinal Fesch, including Titian’s masterpiece Diana and Actaeon (1556–59), Raphael’s Madonna dei Candelabri (ca. 1513), Michelangelo’s The Entombment of Christ (ca. 1500–01), Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents (ca. 1629), and works by Rubens and da Vinci. In addition to several ancient marbles, the collection also held Canova’s Venus Italica (1802). A plaster copy of Canova’s enormous Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802–06) still greets visitors. Letizia was surrounded in her saloon by busts of her children. She hung David’s portrait of Napoleon in her bedroom. More than the masterpieces listed above she treasured a bust of her grandson bequeathed to her by the exiled Emperor. She drew comfort from the knowledge that it was the final object his eyes studied from his camp bed before dying on St. Helena.
With perfect posture, long eyelashes, coal black hair curled on her forehead, and a clear olive complexion, Letizia Ramolino was the most beautiful young woman on the island of Corsica. Belloc writes that her eyes held “glints of fire” and her mouth was “a bow—perfect, exquisitely curved, with some touch of irony but more of gravity and self-possession.” A contemporary said that she resembled Raphael’s St. Anne. “Cathedral gossips said that her presence at Mass was ‘more effective than an anchorite’s virtue’ in obtaining conversions,” writes the biographer Monica Stirling.
After marrying Carlo Bonaparte, she birthed an empire. She desired twenty children, but Carlo’s death halted her one-woman army at thirteen. On the morning of Napoleon’s birth, she left her house to go to Mass on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to whom she had consecrated her unborn son. She turned back from the cathedral’s altar rail with urgent labor pains and delivered him comfortably at home. Letizia later scoffed at the sycophants who claimed he was born on a tapestry depicting a scene from the Iliad or a carpet with the face of Julius Caesar.
Eight children survived into adulthood, including the Emperor, three kings, a queen, a grand duchess, and a princess. “My favorite child is always the one who is in trouble,” she told Napoleon. Ignoring any conflict between their conduct and her morality, she always took their side against libelous journalists, political rivals, and misbehaving spouses. When Napoleon’s second wife Marie-Louise said that she hoped to remain in Letizia’s good graces, Letizia replied plainly: “That will depend on you and your future conduct.”
She first arrived in Rome when her son was First Consul and her half-brother, Cardinal Fesch, served as Envoy from the French Republic to the papacy. Napoleon always listened to his mother’s advice. She was a woman of practical judgment. “Here was the head of a man on the body of a woman,” Napoleon told General Gourgoud. “She was a maîtresse femme [a matriarch]. She had plenty of brains!” From Napoleon, she received the title of Son Altesse Impériale Madame la Mère de l’Empereur and an appointment as Protectress of the Hospital Sisters and the Sisters of Charity. When Napoleon made his brothers Joseph, Louis, and Jérôme kings of Naples, Holland, and Westphalia, respectively, she was called Mater Regum—Mother of Kings.
At his first cabinet council meeting, Napoleon found before him a bankrupt Republic. Debts, deficits, and inflation climaxed with the treasury minister counting as assets the uncertain spoils of war France expected from future military victories. “As patriotism it was sublime; as finance it was deadly,” writes Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder of Cornell University. When asked his intentions, Napoleon declared, “I will pay cash.” After stabilizing French finances, he could afford to give his mother a household allowance of one million francs, but “no prosperity could raise, no adversity could depress her calm, indomitable spirit,” writes William Hazlitt in The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. She spent little of her fortune and Napoleon overheard court gossip about his miserly mother. He encouraged her to fill out her retinue and host a salon. “Above all, you are not to be laying away money,” he chided her; “you must spend every franc you have.”
“Then you must give me two millions instead of one,” she replied; “for I must save, it is my nature.” To other critics of her thrift, she replied, “Who knows, one day I may have to find bread for all these kings I’ve borne.” She avoided all frivolity and ostentation. She never forgot their early life. “We Corsicans are familiar with revolutions,” she remarked. “All this may come to an end, and then what will happen to children whose imprudent generosity makes them give with both hands, without thought of past or future? When that happens, I shall be there, and it is better they turn to their mother, rather than those who may betray or abandon them.”
While she traveled to Rome in 1804, the pope hosted her en route at the papal palace in Loreto. He welcomed her to Rome at the Quirinal Palace and offered special seating at the Easter High Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Within twenty-four hours of her arrival, every cardinal in Rome called on her.
Later with Napoleon on the isle of Elba and her imperial allowance terminated, she planned to settle in the Eternal City after selling her house in the Rue Saint-Dominique. She economized by shipping her expensive furniture to Rome in 1814. From Rome, she set out for a month on Elba with her flamboyant daughter Pauline. The Princess Borghese amused Napoleon in exile by curtsying to him, harmlessly flirting with all the village tradesmen, and hosting balls. On the night of February 16, 1815, Napoleon smiled, drew his mother close, and told her that he was leaving for Paris. He asked her for advice. She gave it: “Go, my son, fulfill your destiny, you were not made to die on this island.”
The Hundred Days ended with his surrender on HMS Bellerophon and she saw him for the last time when he left for another island exile. She said goodbye in Italian, “Addio, figlio mio.” He answered in French, “Adieu, ma mere.” She wrote to him: “I am very old to make a journey of two thousand leagues. Perhaps I should die on the voyage; but no matter. I should then die nearer to you.”
She traveled from Paris to Rome in 1815. The pope welcomed her without reservation, but spies remained paranoid. She informed the nervous French ambassador: “If I possessed the fortune charitably attributed to me, I should not use it to foment trouble in Corsica, nor to obtain partisans for my son in France—he has plenty of those already—but to arm a fleet to rescue the Emperor from St. Helena.”
She had enough to purchase the former Palazzo Rinuccini, changed then forever to the Palazzo Bonaparte. Her youngest son Jérôme writes that “everything in her palace revealed that one was in the presence of great sorrow, of august memories slowly being transformed into mute and proud resignation.” She ordered Pauline to name her own Roman house Villa Paolina, arguing that a small garden villa was unworthy of the great name of Bonaparte.
Always an excellent judge of character, she had often detected traitors in the imperial court and kept a tiny trusted entourage about her. Her half-brother was her close friend for seventy years. Cardinal Fesch was a good-hearted, zealous papist. When Marie-Louise Bonaparte asked if she could eat meat at the Emperor’s table on fast days, his eminence barked, “Throw your plate at his head, rather than eat meat on fast days!” She remained loyal to a woman named Saveria who served the family and adored the future emperor as a boy in Corsica. Madame de Fontanges was “a Creole, indolent, handsome, and inoffensive.” Madame de Fleurier was an expert on etiquette and never stopped talking about it. Madame de Brissac was the social glue of the household. Only four feet tall and deaf, always coquettishly dressed, and “extremely lively,” her devotion to her husband was legendary. While she was a lady-in-waiting, “he offered himself to another,” she explained, “but I waited—yes, waited patiently until she died.” Due to her deafness, she prepared to meet Napoleon by rehearsing responses to common questions. When he asked if she had any children, she replied with shining confidence and gave her age: “Fifty-two!”
Always dressed in a mournful black merino dress and Empire-style turban, Letizia enjoyed strolling through the Forum or riding out to the Roman campagna. Every day she walked out of the cavernous portone topped with a marble eagle to hear Mass at Santa Maria in Portico or San Lorenzo in Lucina. She was devoted to the singing of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart atop the Spanish Steps at the Church of the Trinita dei Monti, which remains on French state property today.
She occasionally lent money to the pope and used her influence for a papal appeal to the English government. She wanted the English to permit a Catholic priest to visit Napoleon in exile. “I am indeed the mother of sorrows, and the only consolation I have is to know that the Holy Father forgets the past, and only remembers the affection with which he has always honored us,” she wrote to Cardinal Consalvi, Secretary of State for the Papal States. Through Consalvi, Pope Pius VII wrote to King George IV about her request. “We recall to you that it was, under God, the Emperor who principally restored Christianity in the great kingdom of France,” His Holiness wrote to His Royal Highness. “The pious and courageous initiative he took in 1801 is ever present to us, obliterating from our mind the bitter remembrance of Savona and Fontainebleau,” wrote forgivingly the Holy Father of his imprisonment by Napoleon. “These were errors of judgment, the consequence of worldly ambition, which the Concordat, as a most Christian and heroic act has wiped out.” Letizia’s appeal succeeded. A doctor and priest were sent to her son on May 5, 1821.
The legend of the Palazzo Bonaparte was born the same day. She was in her drawing room when a stranger in a cloak asked the porter to be admitted with urgent news from St. Helena. Her ladies-in-waiting left the room. When they were alone, he spoke to her. “The Emperor is freed from his sufferings. Kiss the image of the Redeemer,” he said offering a crucifix. “You will rejoin him who is the source of such profound sorrow to you.” Then he revealed his face to her—it appeared to be Napoleon himself!
Mrs. Hugh Fraser, an expatriate raised in Rome and the sister of the novelist Francis Marion Crawford, best records what happened next:
“In a flash of memory, the occasion of his last escape came back to her—the day of his flight from Elba in 1815—and she took it for granted that he had contrived a similar escape from St. Helena, and had presented himself thus to her to ask for a temporary shelter on his way to some rendezvous in France. But the awful chill of a contact with other than human forces fell upon her, when, for all answer to her cry of greeting, the man before her, regarding her with an air of poignant solemnity, spoke these words, “The Fifth of May, Eighteen Hundred and Twenty-one—today!”
He disappeared through the open door. Searching every room, servants swore that no one was seen leaving the Palazzo Bonaparte. For two months she pondered the mystery. In July she learned the truth. A scream escaped her lips. She clung to his bust. She fainted. On the Fifth of May, the emperor had died.
Later that year Lady Blessington, the Irish novelist, met her in the Colosseum, introduced formally like characters in Daisy Miller:
“In a low and tremulous voice she greeted those presented to her, and her eyes grew dim when she spoke of her great son whom she hoped ‘soon to join in that better world where no tears were shed.’ She added ‘I thought I should have done so long ago, but God sees what is best for us.’”
She kept the Palazzo Bonaparte clean, comfortable, and elegant beyond the standards of Roman society at the time. She made it conspicuously dark when the emperor of Austria, her son’s nemesis, visited Rome and saw every other palace illuminated in his honor. Guides marched their little groups of tourists past the Palazzo Bonaparte. While she rejected with imperial dignity her children’s desire to sue the French government for their unpaid pensions, her sly porter let visitors peek in at her for a tip of one scudo. One day she was returning to the palazzo when two Austrian military officers gawked at her through the window of her carriage. “What, gentlemen, do you want?” she snapped. “If it is to see the mother of the Emperor, behold me!” They bowed deeply and made their retreat. This was unusual. She had saintly patience for all except the English, whom she scorned in burning fury as “the murderers of my son.”
Princess Pauline died four years later. Without her flirtations and laughter, visitors to the Palazzo Bonaparte were now “aware of mighty shadows passing,” writes Letizia’s grandson. “A singular solemnity dominated an atmosphere that was at the same time domestic and epic, one walked on tiptoe and spoke in a low voice.” Then she lost her grandson and granddaughter, children of Lucien Bonaparte. The old family nurse Saveria followed them. “No one in the world has spanked so many kings and queens as I have,” she joked during better days. Nor had any mother buried as many.
Pope Pius VIII knew of her suffering and often visited her at the Palazzo when he was merely papabile. She impressed him with her acceptance of God’s will. “Napoleon wasn’t infallible. Napoleon wasn’t like Jesus, the Son of Mary. He was only the son of Letizia,” she often said. The pontiff judged that she “deserves the veneration of all earthly princes.”
After she broke her hip walking in the gardens of the Villa Borghese, she desired a place to knit and watch the street traffic. She added to the Palazzo the green corner balcony that still hovers above the Corso. On January 27, 1836, hip-hobbled and half-blind, she contracted a fever. As a courtesy, Romans extinguished the fireworks of Carnevale in the Piazza Venezia. Doctors were called. She knew better and called a priest. Her brother Cardinal Fesch closed her eyes in the Palazzo Bonaparte on the evening of Candlemas, February 2, 1836.
Fearing a revival of Le Bonapartisme, the pope refused a large public funeral. Without pomp, a ribbon on the catafalque read: “MATER NapoleonIS.” A small procession followed Letizia on her final trip to mass at Santa Maria in Via Lata one block up the Corso from the Palazzo Bonaparte. The confetti of Carnevale fell on the coffin of the Mother of Kings.
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