Pauline Bonaparte, younger sister to Napoleon, was her brother’s favorite of their seven siblings. She was the only one who took no part in his political power plays. While her siblings were placed on thrones all over Europe, Pauline was quoted as saying: “I do not care for crowns. If I had wished for one, I should have had it; but I left that taste to my relations.”
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Born in Ajaccio, Corsica, on October 20, 1780, she was the sixth of the eight children of lawyer Charles-Marie Bonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. Pauline opted for a life of amorous adventure rather than reshaping the political map of Europe. She used her beauty and boldness to conquer a long train of lovers and, despite scandals, won the admiration of the European beau monde as an icon of style.
“Few women have savored more the pleasure of being beautiful,” the French general Louis Stanislas de Girardin wrote of her. For Napoleon himself, she was “the best living creature” and “the only one who never asks for anything.” Though often frivolous and feckless, Pauline had a loyal and courageous side too. She was the only one of his siblings to visit Napoleon (and to help him financially) when he was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814 after his failed military campaign in Russia. During his second banishment, to St. Helena, after his defeat at Waterloo, Pauline even requested to spend time with him on the remote island in the southern Atlantic.
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Despite the death of her father when she was five, Pauline grew up in the bosom of a comfortable family until her early teens. Then, in 1793, times got harder: Her brother Lucien became embroiled in a political controversy, forcing the family to flee Corsica for the French mainland. Once in Marseille, they lived in straitened circumstances. That same year, Napoleon first made his name militarily, starting an ascent that would vastly improve his family’s fortunes.
Pauline never had the formal education that women of high social standing were expected to have to secure a wealthy husband. At age 15, her beauty was enough to catch the eye of her brother’s military comrades. After a dalliance or two, she fell for the veteran French revolutionary Stanislas Fréron. Entangled with another mistress (and 26 years Pauline’s senior), he was rejected by her mother. No end of suitors appeared. Napoleon told one aspirant, “You have nothing. She has nothing. What does that total? Nothing.” In the end, her brother persuaded her to consider Charles Leclerc. They married in 1797, and a year later the couple’s only son, Dermide, was born.
Wife, widow, princess
In 1801, to quell an ongoing revolution in Saint-Domingue (in what is Haiti today) and protect France’s sugar income from its colony, Napoleon (now first consul) sent Pauline’s husband to the Caribbean to lead 23,000 French soldiers. Pauline and her son followed in 1802. Leclerc achieved initial victories against the rebels, led by Toussaint L’ouverture.
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Leclerc’s successes were short-lived. Renewed fighting coincided with an outbreak of yellow fever that began to decimate the French troops. Amid declining morale, Pauline provided social diversion, with herself at the center, by hosting balls and fetes. She also turned the family’s mansion into a field hospital. Leclerc urged his wife to return to France, but she refused. Leclerc wrote to Napoleon that she chose to follow her husband’s fortunes for “good or ill.” In November 1802, Leclerc died from yellow fever, and Pauline and her son returned to France.
While genuinely grieving her husband’s death, Pauline soon took up romantic liaisons. Her love life would always generate gossip, but it was frequently seized on and exaggerated by Napoleon’s royalist enemies. "Pauline was often singled out by Bourbon sympathizers as a nymphomaniac who cared not whether her partner or partners were men or women, or, when in Haiti with Leclerc, whether they were his officers or Haitians who opposed the French Army,” says Flora Fraser, author of Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire. “The object was always to damage, by extension, her brother’s reputation.”
Napoleon had his sights set on imperial power and knew that his reputation must be beyond reproach. His sister’s image was bound closely to his, and so, once again, he sought out a new husband for Pauline: The very rich, well-connected Prince Camillo Borghese, whose presence in the family would help Napoleon reinforce ties with French-occupied Italy. They married in June 1803.
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Fit for a princess
Initially, Pauline approved of the 28-year-old prince’s Mediterranean good looks, not to mention the title of princess, a generous annuity, property, and the use of the celebrated Borghese jewels. But Pauline soon grew disillusioned, and the marriage deteriorated. Among other gibes, she took to calling him “His Serene Idiot.”
Pauline’s health had begun to trouble her. In 1804, Prince Borghese took Pauline to the baths of Pisa to recover, but he didn’t allow her to bring along her son. While she was away, the six-year-old contracted a fever and died. Pauline blamed the prince. Their ill-suited match now ruptured, she persuaded Napoleon to allow her to return to Paris, rather than to Rome with Prince Borghese. Despising her husband, she once again took refuge in love affairs.
Shortly after their marriage, Borghese had commissioned Antonio Canova, the greatest neoclassical sculptor of the time, to portray his new wife. The artist wanted a mythological theme, suggesting Diana, the Roman virgin goddess of hunting.
Pauline laughed at such an incongruous idea, opting for Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Titled “Venus Victrix” (“Venus Victorious”), the resulting masterpiece has endured as Pauline’s greatest claim to fame. By having herself depicted as Venus, Pauline’s innate vanity could not be more evident. But, as Fraser notes, it also showed her “disregard for convention, and even an enjoyment in breaking with convention.”
Pauline’s decision to pose nude was notorious at the time for a woman of her station, but the sculpture’s technical virtuosity won widespread admiration when it was completed in 1808. Seen at night by torchlight, as Canova recommended, the figure’s smoothly polished marble seemed like real flesh. Today Pauline’s form continues to amaze visitors to the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
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Napoleon seemed to ignore most of Pauline’s unconventional behavior. This choice contrasts with the man who, when named emperor of France in 1804, emphasized “good morals” and restricted the rights women had gained during the French Revolution. For Napoleon, empire was one thing and family another—and no one exemplified that contrast more than his sister.
Loyal to the last
Pauline’s health problems worsened over the years. She experienced chronic abdominal pain and traveled from spa to spa in search of relief or a cure. She often insisted on being carried in a litter to avoid walking. Her demands became increasingly capricious. She bid her attendants to act as footstools or to lay down their cloaks on the ground so she could rest.
When Napoleon was forced into exile on St. Helena in 1815, Pauline returned to Rome, where she lobbied the British authorities to set her brother free. Five years later, as reports came of Napoleon’s decline, she repeatedly asked for permission to join him and “be there when he breathes his last.” He died in 1821 while she was still awaiting a response.
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Her own health was gradually broken by what is believed to be stomach cancer. In 1825, 20 years after separating from her husband, Pauline returned to live with him in Palazzo Borghese. It was there that she died three months later.