Bonaparte, Letizia (1750–1836)
Bonaparte, Letizia (1750–1836)
Corsican mother of Napoleon I. Name variations: Marie-Letizia Bonaparte or Buonaparte; Letitia or Lætitia; Letizia Ramolino; known as Madame Mère. Born Maria Lætitia or Letizia Ramolino at Ajaccio, Corsica, on August 24, 1750; died in Rome on February 2, 1836; daughter of Jean-Jérôme (a town official) and Angèle-Maria Ramolino; married Carlo Bonaparte, on June 2, 1764; children: twelve, of whom eight survived, including Joseph (Giuseppe, 1768–1844); Napoleon (Napoleone, 1769–1821), emperor of France (r. 1804–1815); Lucien (Lucciano, 1775–1840); Elisa (Maria-Anna, 1777–1820); Louis (Luigi, 1778–1846); Pauline (Maria-Paola, 1780–1825); Carolina (Maria-Annunziata, 1782–1839); Jérôme (Girolamo, 1784–1860).
Letizia Bonaparte was the mother of three kings, a queen, two princesses, and Napoleon I during a century of tumultuous European history, from the reign of King Louis XV to the year prior to Queen Victoria 's ascension to the throne of England. Born into obscurity, married at 13, and widowed at 34 with eight children, Letizia became the center of her remarkable, eccentric family, binding them to their Corsican roots and struggling to maintain peace and unity among their ranks. Her pride in Napoleon was tempered with constant fear for his safety and foreboding that his meteoric rise to power would be followed by an equally sensational fall from grace.
Little is known of her early childhood. Like most of her countrywomen, Letizia had little schooling and was barely literate. Her father died when she was six, and her mother quickly remarried a handsome captain in a Swiss regiment named Franz Fesch. Around the time of the birth of her half-brother Joseph, who would later become her economic and spiritual advisor, plans were under way for the 13-year-old town beauty to marry. The chosen groom was a charming, self-indulgent, 18-year-old law student named Carlo Bonaparte, described in colorful terms by one biographer as "a foppish ne'erdo-well who attitudinized all day and fornicated all night." A marriage contract was signed on June 2, 1764.
Letizia's devotion to Carlo would endure his philandering and his passion for risky business enterprises that compromised the family fortune. Early on, he aligned himself with the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli to fight for Corsica's independence, often with Letizia by his side. After the French Conquest in 1769, he became loyal to France and later represented Corsica at the Court of Louis XVI. Detractors have argued that his greatest contribution to his marriage was to see that his children were educated at public expense.
For 20 years, Letizia devoted herself to childbearing, with intermittent medical complications. Puerperal adynamo-ataxia caused two years of constant fevers accompanied by a loss of feeling down the right side of her body. Initially pregnant at 14, she lost her first two babies, a son and a daughter. These tragedies cut deeply, especially in a country where a woman's worth was measured by the number of children, especially sons, she produced for her husband. Letizia faced her losses stoically, considering her youth, and found solace in religion. In 1768, she gave birth to Joseph, the first child to survive infancy. Her second son Napoleon, born nine days before her 19th birthday, was described as a puny baby, but none the worse for his mother's perilous journeys on horseback over the Corsican battlefields during her pregnancy.
By 1778, Letizia had given birth to three more children: Lucien, Elisa , and Louis. As she approached 30, she had her tenth child, Pauline , and 15 months later, her eleventh, Carolina . The household was filled with children, a number of relatives, and a nurse. Letizia's memoirs describe a large room set aside for the children to play in on rainy days, where they could be wild, noisy, and even write on walls without interference. The boys were taught to horseback ride from an early age, and Letizia encouraged them to be adventuresome but to face failure stoically. In the manner of the day, she also provided the discipline, counteracting the indulgent nature of her husband and mother-in-law.
Letizia's greatest distress was likely over family finances. Historians only recently unearthed information that Carlo, in his never-ending search for ready cash, actually sued the Ramolinos—his wife's family—for a portion of Letizia's dowry that had not been entirely paid over. His lawsuit, seemingly a dismal display of greed and insensitivity, resulted in an order by
the Royal Courts of Ajaccio demanding that the Ramolino trustee sell off the family's remaining possessions, mostly furniture, to pay the back debt. Although, according to custom, Letizia was not consulted in this matter and remained silent, it undoubtedly put a tremendous strain on her household.
Her last child Jérôme was born ten days after her husband left Corsica for consultation on a prolonged illness (probably stomach cancer, which afflicted many of the Bonapartes). She would not see Carlo again. Only 39, he died just after New Years', 1785, leaving Letizia with eight children to support, five of them still under ten years of age. Though her eldest son Joseph hurried home to manage the family property, it was 15-year-old Napoleon, the only child trained for a profession, who would determine the family's future.
Amid growing political chaos in Corsica, the family faced economic struggle. Although still beautiful and pursued by a number of admiring men, Letizia remained single-minded in her devotion to her family. Napoleon, now a young lieutenant, was of great comfort to her, often taking leave of his regiment to visit, as well as providing her with money. In 1793, when the Bonapartes were labeled personae nongratae by the Nationalists, Letizia fled with her family to France, where she lived in poverty and exile, a humiliating experience that was to leave a lasting impression. While she suffered in economic despair, Napoleon was on the brink of greatness. After a successful defense of Toulon, he was made brigadier general and given command of the Army of Italy. By age 30, he was the ruler of France.
When Napoleon became emperor in 1804, he not only bestowed wealth upon his family, but elevated them to positions of authority, for which they had little aptitude. Given to greed, sexual escapades, and internal squabbling, the Bonapartes have been described as "a peculiarly unpleasant set of people." Napoleon himself lamented: "I do not believe that any man in the world is more unfortunate in his family than I am." Given his Corsican loyalties, however, in 1905 he made Elisa princess of Piombino, a position for which she, as an exception, seemed well suited. In the months that followed, Joseph was named king of Naples; Louis, king of Holland; and Jérôme (now married to his second wife, Princess Catherine of Wurttemberg ), king of Westphalia.
Now bearing the weighty title Madame la Mére de l'Empereur and charged as Protectress of the Hospital Sisters and of the Sisters of Charity throughout the empire, Letizia impressed the courts of Europe with her grace and dignity. Doubting the future, she wisely invested her new found wealth and turned her attention to the formidable job of unifying her unruly family. There were a host of unfortunate marriages to keep her eyes on, not the least of which was Napoleon's own disastrous union with Joséphine de Beauharnais , whose inability to produce a male heir led to a heart-wrenching divorce and brought on another daughter-in-law, Marie Louise of Austria (1791–1847). Lucien's hotly contested second marriage to Alexandrine in 1803, had caused a rift between him and Napoleon that would take Letizia 20 years to resolve. There were Pauline's numerous amours and Louis' illnesses, in addition to political intrigues and quibbling over a successor, which, before Marie Louise settled the problem with a son in 1811, resulted in yet another unlikely union between Napoleon's brother Louis and Joséphine de Beauharnais' daughter by her first marriage, Hortense de Beauharnais .
With the logistics of her family, it is not surprising that the happiest times of Letizia's life were reportedly during her months at Elba, where she joined Napoleon in his first exile. For the first time in years, she was able to provide companionship and moral support for her offspring in an atmosphere relatively free of worry. Such was not to last, however, as Napoleon made his way back to Paris for his final 100 days. One last family dinner before the debacle at Waterloo was attended by all of Letizia's children with the exception of Louis. The poignant goodbye between Napoleon and Letizia was described by the actor Talma, an old family friend, in his memoirs. "Oh what a beautiful and tragic scene was I a witness. What a spectacle, this separation of Madame Mère and her son! Although it forced no outward sign of emotion from the Emperor, yet the expression of his fine features, and his attitude and unspoken thoughts were eloquent." This was one of only six occasions on which Letizia openly wept.
Who knows whether all these kings won't some day come to me begging for bread?
In 1818, Letizia purchased a 17th-century palace in Italy for her own retirement. Except for visits from children and grandchildren, her life was pious and introspective, as she waited despairingly for word of Napoleon, who was now exiled at St. Helena. Numerous appeals regarding the fate of her son went unanswered. After news of his death reached her on July 22, 1821, she surrounded herself with a "museum of memories," including the campbed Napoleon used on his campaigns, as well as numerous portraits and busts of her children. Her all-consuming grief was to be further deepened by the untimely deaths of Elisa and Pauline, as well as several of her grandchildren. Six months before her own death at 87, nearly blind but remarkably clear-minded, she dictated her memoirs—a brief six pages—in which she admonished her children for succumbing to "grandeurs and flattery at Court," and said of her own final years, "My life came to an end with the downfall of the Emperor. From that moment, I gave up everything for ever."
Letizia Bonaparte died in Rome on February 2, 1836, and was buried in an obscure spot in the convent church of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, at Corneto. She left 1,700,000 francs to be divided among her children, although her estate was probably worth at least double that amount. By some accounts, in a codicil to her will, she left her heart to the town of Ajaccio. Her brother, who died in 1839, provided money for a mortuary chapel there, which was finally built by Napoleon III. Letizia Bonaparte's body was moved to Ajaccio in 1851 and into the Imperial Chapel in 1860.
Decaux, Alain. Napoleon's Mother. London: The Cresset Press, 1961.
Seward, Desmond. Napoleon's Family. NY: Viking, 1986.
Stacton, David. The Bonapartes. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1966.
Stirling, Monica. Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon's Mother. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1961.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts