“[Napoleon Bonaparte was] an enlightened despot who laid the foundations of modern Europe or, instead, a megalomaniac who wrought greater misery than any man before the coming of [Adolf] Hitler.” Said Max Hastings, British author and journalist.1 While Napoleon Bonaparte, known officially as Napoleon I of the French Empire, continues to be one of Europe’s greatest conquerors, so little known are the women who surrounded him. For that reason alone, today I am beginning a new series called The Women of the Bonaparte Dynasty, to recognize and honor the women who played a part in his life.
On the day of August 24th in the year of 1750, Maria Letizia Ramolino was born to Nobile Giovanni Geronimo Ramolino and Angela Maria Pietrasanta in Ajaccio, Corsica. Belonging to the rank of lower nobility, Giovanni Ramolino was a Captain of Corsican Regiments of Chivalry and Infantry in the Army of the Republic of Genoa. As was the common practice for young women growing up in the 18th century, Letizia received her education at home. When she was only five-years-old in 1755, her father passed away and her mother was soon remarried to Franz Fesch, a Swiss naval officer and captain who served the Republic of Genoa. Angela Maria Pietrsanta and her new husband produced two children, one who would go on to become Joseph Fesch, a Roman Catholic Cardinal.
Marriage and Children
In June of 1764 at the age of 13, young Letizia married Carlo Bonaparte, a trainee attorney who was four years her senior. Bonaparte was descended from minor Italian nobility of Tuscan origin who had come to Corsica from Liguria in the 1500’s. The two Bonapartes are sometimes seen to have a marriage of economic convenience with Letizia possessing a dowry of thirty-one acres (including a mill and bakery that produced a sizeable income).
Not long after her marriage, she became pregnant with her first child, Napoleone, who was born and died on 17th August 1765. During her marriage, she produced a total of 13 children (8 of who lived to adulthood), her most famous child being Napoleon Bonaparte. Her children were: Napoleone, Maria Anna (died young), Joseph (who went on to become King of Naples, Sicily, and Spain), Napoleon (Emperor of the French), Maria Anna (named for her older sister, died young), Maria Anna (named for her two older sisters, died young), still-born son (without a name), Lucien (who went on to become Prince of Musignano and Canino), Maria Anna “Elisa” (who became Grand Duchess of Tuscany), Louis (who became King of Holland), Pauline (who was Sovereign Princess and Duchess of Guastalla), Caroline (who became Duchess of Jülich-Cleves-Berg and Queen Consort of Naples), and Jérôme (who was King of Westphalia).
In the year of her eldest son, Joseph’s birth (1768), the French invaded and conquered Corsica, a traditionally Italian locale. Carlo Bonaparte, who initially supported Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican patriot leader, soon shifted his allegiance to the French and accepted their rule. Letizia’s husband would eventually raise high in the favor of the French to serve as the Corsican Representative to King Louis XVI of France.
The Bonapartes were good friends of Monsieur Charles Louis de Marbeuf, the Governor of Corsica and the Intendant, Claude-François Bertrand de Boucheporn. De Boucheporn’s wife, Madame de Boucheporn was the godmother of Louis (while Monsieur de Marbeuf was the godfather) and a close friend of Letizia. According to Anatole Durand, author of Éloge Historique de Monsieur de Boucheporn, “[Monsieur de Boucheporn] helped by his credence and perhaps even his purse the young Napoleon to be admitted to the Brienne cadet school.”2
Motherhood and Widowhood
Letizia was not one to coddle her children and she insisted that they bathe daily, especially in a time where children sometimes bathed once a month. Some considered her to down-to-earth and tough on her children. Despite her husband’s high rank at the French Court, Letizia never actually learned French and only spoke Italian and Corsican.
In 1782, Carlo Bonaparte began to grow weak and travelled to Montepellier accordingly to receive medical care. Finally at the age of 35, Carlo died on 24 February 1785 from what was believed to be stomach cancer. His youngest son Jérôme was born just three months before Carlo passed away thus he never really knew his father. Carlo left the entire family penniless due to his horrid spending habits and the Bonapartes barely had anything to live on.
As her third-born son, Napoleon rose to prominence in France and was an impressive military leader throughout all Europe, Letizia was granted the title “Madame Mère de l’Empereur” or “Madam, the Mother of His Imperial Majesty The Emperor.” This occurred between the 18th of May in the year 1804 and the 23rd of March in 1805. When her son Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais, an old widow with two children, she was far from pleased. The truth is that the Bonaparte women felt clumsy and unsophisticated in the presence of the beautiful and polished Josephine which bred hostility and resentment.
When her son Napoleon was exiled to Elba in 1814, she stayed with her son but moved to Palazzo D’Aste-Bonaparte in Rome the following year. Letizia was known to live out the rest of her life at the Palazzo D’Aste-Bonaparte with her younger brother, the Cardinal Joseph Fesch. Blind later in her life, she barely saw any of her other family members and was scarcely parted from her brother. On the 2nd of February in 1836, Letizia Bonaparte passed away, having mothered many children and lived a long, full life. She was 85-years-old.
- Max Hastings, “Everything is Owed Glory”, The Wall Street Journal. October 31, 2014.
- Anatole Durand, Éloge Historique de Monsieur de Boucheporn. Metz, 1866.