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Napoleon’s sister led a life of “Bacchanalian promiscuity”

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Pauline Bonaparte apparently sat naked for this sculpture of Venus by Italian artist Antonio Canova.
Pauline Bonaparte apparently sat naked for this sculpture of Venus by Italian artist Antonio Canova.
Photo: Leemage/UIG (Getty Images)

This week’s entry: Pauline Bonaparte

What it’s about: Napoleon’s little sister. Her story was brought to our attention by the wonderful Twitter feed @WhoresofYore, devoted to telling tales of scandalously free-spirited women from throughout history. Bonaparte was one such woman, as Wikipedia describes her reputation for “Bacchanalian promiscuity,” despite a life ruled by illness and fortunes that rapidly changed alongside those of the men in her life.

Biggest controversy: Surprisingly, it wasn’t her constantly cheating on her husbands, it was a sculpture. Bonaparte’s second husband, Italian nobleman Camillo Borghese, commissioned sculptor Antonio Canova to portray his new bride as a Roman goddess, as there was an ancient Roman artistic tradition of casting powerful mortals in the role of deities in art (though this was far from common practice in the 1800s). Borghese suggested Pauline model Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, but Pauline laughed and said nobody would believe her as a virgin. Instead, the sculptor went with a reclining, nude Venus—though the body is a nonspecific idealized female form, Bonaparte insisted she posed nude, claiming that the room was too warm to keep her clothes on.


Wikipedia doesn’t say this, but @WhoresofYore tells us that Borghese was appalled by the sculpture, stashed it in an attic, and that Bonaparte left him soon after. Wikipedia does tell us what happened to the statue’s plaster cast; it was decapitated in a bombing during WWI, fully restored in 2004, and then earlier this year some idiot broke its toes off while taking a selfie.

Strangest fact: Pauline locked horns with her brother over both of her weddings. As a teenager, she fell in love with Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, the proconsul of Marseille. Her mother objected to the match, so Napoleon arranged a marriage with one of his generals, Charles Leclerc, who he then named commander-in-chief of the Italian branch of the French army. When he resigned due to poor health, he was transferred to Brittany, and Pauline stayed behind in Paris. A few years later, Leclerc was assigned to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti, more on that later) and his wife accompanied him, but despite both of them catching yellow fever, Pauline managed to find time for “numerous lovers, including several of her husband’s soldiers.” However, when Leclerc died from the disease soon after, she wrote to her brother, “Pity poor Pauline, who is truly unhappy.”


She, however, wasn’t so unhappy that she didn’t rush into her next marriage. After failing to fix her up with Italy’s vice president, Napoleon arranged a marriage with Borghese (again, the bride seemed to have little say), and yet she still managed to anger her brother by going ahead with the marriage he arranged just nine months after Leclerc’s death. Napoleon would have preferred she had waited a year. She also continued in her campaign of adultery, with violinist Niccolò Paganini among her lovers.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Even while he was alive, Leclerc’s assignment in Haiti was a failure. Napoleon sent him to reassert French authority over what had been a French colony, but had been in open revolt for a full decade. Leclerc arrived with 20,000 men, but within a few months, yellow fever had claimed most of them; Leclerc was one of 25 generals who died on the island. While the French won a few military encounters, a year after Leclerc’s death the Haitians defeated the French at the Battle of Vertières and gained full independence.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Even apart from the yellow fever that killed her husband, Bonaparte and her family were plagued by health problems. She and Leclerc had a son, Dermide, who traveled with his parents to Haiti, and contracted yellow fever alongside his parents. While he recovered, he remained in poor health, and in 1804, two years after his father died, Dermide died “after a violent fever and convulsions.”

After Waterloo in 1815, Bonaparte moved to Rome with her mother and other family members, but not her second husband, who moved to Florence. After a decade (in which Borghese had a steady mistress), Pauline appealed to the Pope, who convinced the couple to reconcile, but their happiness was short-lived; Pauline died from pulmonary tuberculosis three months later.


Pauline also likely suffered from salpingitis, an infection of the fallopian tubes. Wikipedia doesn’t elaborate, but @WhoresofYore does. The infection caused her significant pain, and her physician suggested the cause was “sexual overindulgence.” Another doctor was consulted, who concurred she was suffering from “furor uterinus”—an abused cervix and vagina. While “too much boning” shouldn’t be considered a legitimate medical diagnosis in any era, it seems unlikely any doctor in 19th-century France would have correctly sussed out the true cause of her ailment.

Also noteworthy: While Pauline and Napoleon clashed over her marriages, she was fiercely loyal to her brother. When he was exiled to Elba, she sold her home and liquidated her assets to move to the island with him. (None of their other siblings so much as visited.)


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The Napoleon dynasty is still alive and well in France (and laid out in detail in a sidebar). The Corsican himself had only one child, Napoleon II, who his father tried (and failed) to place on the throne at age 3 when Napoleon I abdicated in 1814. He died of pneumonia and tuberculosis at 21, the last direct descendent of the French emperor. But his cousin, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, was the first president of the Second Republic, and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III rather than step down due to term limits. After a disastrous and ill-advised war with Prussia, III was dethroned and relocated to England with his only child, Louis-Napoleon, who monarchists proclaimed Napoleon IV.

IV also died young—he enlisted in the British army and was killed at age 23 in the Anglo-Zulu War. He had no children, but supporters of the Bonaparte dynasty seized on Victor Bonaparte, whose grandfather was Napoleon I’s brother Jérôme. Despite being a relatively distant relation, he was considered next in line for the no-longer-occupied throne. He had two children, Marie-Clotilde, who married a French count and had 10 children; and Louis, also known as Napoleon VI, who lived until 1997, dying at the age of 83. It was his dying wish that his grandson become head of the family, so a dispute rages on whether his son Charles or his grandson Jean-Christophe should rightfully be considered Napoleon VII. The elder Napoleon, now 69 years old, kept the family name alive in politics, serving as city councilman and deputy mayor of Ajaccio in Corsica, Napoleon I’s birthplace. The son works for a private equity firm in London. He has no children, but in 2019 married Countess Olympia von und zu Arco-Zinneberg, descendent of the last king and queen of Bavaria, so there may be another would-be emperor in the family one of these days.


Further down the Wormhole: When Bonaparte moved to Elba, her home was purchased by the British Government and used to house Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, and then just to rub salt in the wound, was named ambassador to France. (The house is still used by British ambassadors to France to this day.) Wellington had previously thwarted Napoleon in the Peninsular War, the front of the Napoleonic Wars fought in Spain and Portugal. That war got the Hollywood treatment in 1957’s The Pride And The Passion, starring Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, and Frank Sinatra. While Ol’ Blue Eyes had a successful career as a movie star, it was a side gig, as he was also one of the most popular singers of the 20th century. He has a number of signature songs, but chief among them is “My Way,” a Paul Anka-penned tune (based on the melody of an older French song, “Comme d’habitude”), which, more than 50 years after its release, people still feel passionate enough about to commit murder over. We’ll look at the My Way killings next week.