Napoleon and the Rebel: A Story of Brotherhood, Passion, and Power

Napoleon and the Rebel: A Story of Brotherhood, Passion, and Power

by Marcello Simonetta, Noga Arikha

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Lucien was the most talented of the Bonaparte brothers, who not only can be credited for helping Napoleon seize power, but who also had a promising political career of his own. He was a romantic, an idealist, and an anti-monarchist whose love for Alexandrine, the woman he married in spite of Napoleon's objections, caused him to fall out of favor with his powerful


Lucien was the most talented of the Bonaparte brothers, who not only can be credited for helping Napoleon seize power, but who also had a promising political career of his own. He was a romantic, an idealist, and an anti-monarchist whose love for Alexandrine, the woman he married in spite of Napoleon's objections, caused him to fall out of favor with his powerful brother. Here, authors Simonetta and Arikha draw from a massive trove of first-hand documents, allowing them to present a rare, detailed portrait of this remarkable dynasty that reveals Emperor Napoleon and his family at their most intimate and vulnerable moments. The turbulent relationship between Napoleon and his favorite brother, Lucien, of whom the emperor said, "of all my siblings, he was the most gifted, and the one who hurt me most," creates the perfect springboard to illustrate the bloody power struggles, romantic idealism, and corruption that characterized nineteenth-century Europe, as well as the rise and fall of the French empire.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Husband-and-wife historians Simonetta (The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded) and Arikha (Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours) offer a biography of Napoleon's younger brother, Lucien Bonaparte (1775–1840). Lucien had only a brief public life, first aiding Napoleon in becoming First Consul in 1799 and, in 1804, emperor. Lucien also served as minister of the interior and ambassador to Spain. But Simonetta and Arikha's central narrative concerns the estrangement of the brothers when Lucien married his mistress, Alexandrine, rather than the woman Napoleon had chosen for him. Furious, Napoleon tried to get Lucien to divorce her and join the other siblings in ruling the empire. Instead, Lucien, Alexandrine, and their seven children spent most of their lives in exile in Italy. The authors hew too closely to the fraternal drama, often giving short shrift to the larger historical picture; they devote only one sentence to Lucien's active role in negotiating the 1801 Concordat between Napoleon and the pope. The authors portray Lucien as a gifted and principled man with republican sympathies, an art collector, and a poet praised by Byron, but the book downplays his significance as anything other than the emperor's rebel brother. (June)
From the Publisher

“A delightful read.” —Times Literary Supplement

“A highly enjoyable portrait of a remarkable clan… The book contains wonderful details.” —Caroline Moorehead, The New York Review of Books.

“The authors' tenacity has been rewarded by discovering new documents that illuminate Lucien's personality…Their book offers a passionate adventure.” —Benedetta Cravieri, La Repubblica

“Simonetta and Arikha admirably draw on several primary sources to provide a revealing portrait of a man less-renowned but more virtuous than his older sibling.” —Booklist

“Napoleon's recalcitrant, republican younger brother has his say in this lively reconstruction of the Bonaparte family's accession to power...A fresh piece of turbulent French history.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Simonetta and Arikha have let the younger Bonaparte tell his side of the remarkable story… insightful and engaging.” —Library Journal

Napoleon and the Rebel is first and foremost a gripping piece of detective work by two outstanding historians. Overturning everything we knew about Lucien Bonaparte, Simonetta and Arikha have written an entirely fresh and absorbing account about the brother who helped Napoleon to power only to be cast aside by him and obliterated from history.” —Amanda Foreman, author of The Duchess

“Based on documents suppressed and forgotten for over a century, "Napoleon and the Rebel" reveals at last the fascinating story of the most independent, misunderstood, and oddly idealistic of Napoleon's siblings. Lucien Bonaparte vaulted older brother Napoleon to supreme political [leadership] in France--and then spent the rest of his life chafing against his absolute power. [Lucien's] life unfolds in a series of passions, intrigues, and acts of fraternal rebellion that reveal the underbelly of a dazzling empire that was very much a family affair.” —Tom Reiss, author of The Orientalist

“Lucien was the brightest and most talented of the Bonaparte brood, and the only one with the guts to stand up to Napoleon. The epic confrontation with his tyrannical older brother over the woman he loved - the beautiful and tender Alexandrine - ranks as the mother of all Corsican family feuds. Kudos to Marcello Simonetta and Noga Arikha for telling this riveting story of sibling rivalry with immediacy, vividness and writerly panache. And for bringing Lucien out of the shadow of the Imperial Bully at last.” —Andrea di Robilant, author of A Venetian Affair

“Lucien Bonaparte is not a character who figures very strongly in most discussions of the Bonaparte family. As well as being an enjoyable read, Napoleon and the Rebel is therefore an interesting addition to the literature.” —Charles Esdaile, author of Napoleon's Wars

“The authors have brought to light valuable new material on this fascinating member of this supremely fascinating family.” —David A. Bell, author of The First Total War

Library Journal
While Lucien Bonaparte played a critical role in Napoléon's coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire, he later fell from his elder brother's favor over his choice of Alexandrine de Bleschamp for marriage. Owing to his uncompromising independence from his increasingly authoritarian brother, Lucien lived the life of an exile in Italy and England. Using accounts from Lucien's own Mémoires and recently uncovered documents, Simonetta (Italian & medieval studies, Wesleyan Univ.; The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded) and Arikha (fellow, Italian Acad. for Advanced Studies, Columbia Univ.; Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours) have let the younger Bonaparte tell his side of the remarkable story. Central moments of this narrative have Lucien valiantly standing up to Napoléon's demands that he divorce his wife and accept his role within the imperial dynasty. Ultimately, however, the historical accuracy of an account based solely on the less-than-reputable Lucien's own version of the conflict has to be recognized as a slanted history. VERDICT An overall insightful and engaging peek behind the stately curtain; readers with an interest in the personal lives of the Bonaparte clan will enjoy this sibling rivalry on an imperial scale.—Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL
Kirkus Reviews

Napoleon's recalcitrant,republican younger brother has his say in this lively reconstruction of the Bonaparte family's accession to power.

Simonetta (The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded, 2008) and Arikha (Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, 2007) acquired unpublished correspondence and notebooks belonging to Lucien Bonaparte and his wife, Alexandrine, that were spared the purge by Napoleon III's revisionists. Much of their work here revisits Lucien's Memoirs, with expurgated passages restored involving telling scenes between the brothers as well as details about Lucien's relationship with Alexandrine, his lovely second wife who was vilified by Napoleon mostly because the First Consul wanted his brother to make an astute political match rather than marry for love. The authors "take [Lucien] at his word," allowing the dialogue he recorded seemingly verbatim to remain intact and jump off the page—namely, when Napoleon informs his brothers Joseph and Lucien while reclining in the bathtub of his precipitous decision to sell the vast Louisiana territories to the Americans, the same territory Lucien had skillfully and very recently negotiated from the Spanish. Napoleon had often been away in military school during Lucien's youth, and the relationship between them was respectful but never warm. Lucien had studied in seminary before becoming a political activist and speaker; he was deeply imbued with republican ideals and early on expressed his suspicions about his older brother's despotic ambitions. If Napoleon were king, Lucien wrote to Joseph, "his name would be a terror to posterity and to sensitive patriots." Nonetheless, Napoleon relied on Lucien's diplomacy and cool-headedness to help stage his coup amid the Council of the Five Hundred in November 1799, and used him as a diplomatic tool until Lucien's forced exileover hismarriage to Alexandrine.

A fresh piece of turbulent French history.

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Napoleon and the Rebel

A Story of Brotherhood, Passion, and Power

By Marcello Simonetta, Noga Arikha

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2011 Marcello Simonetta Noga Arikha
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-12052-5




There is yet one country in Europe, capable of legislation; and that is the island of Corsica. The valour and constancy with which that brave people hath recovered and defended its liberty would well deserve that some wise man should teach them how to preserve it. I have some presentiment that one day that little island will astonish Europe.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract


November 10, 1799 (19 Brumaire, year VIII in the calendar of the Revolution)

Dark and slender, Lucien Bonaparte, president of the Council of the Five- Hundred, sat in the crowded chamber at St. Cloud. He wore the attire of the office—a red toga over his suit and a revolutionary scarf wrapped and knotted around his waist. He was intently watching the heated debate among the Council's members. Earlier that afternoon, the twenty-five-year-old Lucien had provoked this debate when he announced the resignation of Paul Barras, the head of the Directory, which had been governing France with increasing ineptitude since 1795. Barras's official letter of resignation, so remarkably restrained for a man whose raw ambition was notorious, had been met with dismay and disbelief by the members of the Council.

Speakers were jostling to hold the floor, passions were strong and voices high-pitched. The many arguments Lucien heard were contradictory, and the session was stalling. He was hoping for a quick vote on the resolution that would hand governing powers to his older brother, Général Napoleon Bonaparte. After a decade of bloody coups and terrorizing bloodshed, despotic rule and internal instability, massive deprivation and brutal war, the brilliant military leader would take over and ensure that France was properly, justly governed at last. The plan had been long gestated and was unfolding now, albeit more slowly than predicted.

All of a sudden, the doors at the far end of the Council chamber were thrown open. Lucien was seriously myopic, and at this distance, in the dim November light, he could just make out the silhouettes of four uniformed grenadiers escorting a short man toward the rostrum. He heard angry shouts and shrieks directed at the intruder: "Down with the tyrant! Down with the dictator!"

The short man was Général Bonaparte. The session had been dragging on for too long: He had felt the urge to cut short the useless debates and take over as planned. But the Council chamber was no battlefield, and armed soldiers were not allowed in the hall. Napoleon tried to make his way to the podium but encountered stubborn resistance. The Council members shouted at him with increasing intensity. Some men approached him with their knives drawn, one even ripping a grenadier's coat. The rabble threw punches at the general and pushed him. Napoleon opted for a slow retreat, walking backward toward the exit, apparently bruised, some blood running on his left cheek. His was an egregious tactical mistake, likely to break momentum and favor the Bonapartes' enemies. Moments before, victory had seemed within reach. Now a spectacular defeat loomed. As soon as the unwelcome intruder left the hall, the mood of the Council switched dramatically.

There were louder chants now: "Outlaw him! Motion to outlaw!" Lucien knew very well the meaning of such revolutionary language: It was a call for immediate imprisonment and capital punishment. In a matter of minutes, everything seemed to have collapsed. After weeks of painstaking preparations, Napoleon's untimely appearance was turning him into a dishonorable scapegoat. And by a tragic irony, Lucien found himself in the position of having to put to a vote the death sentence for his own brother, so clamorously demanded by the furious crowd.

Lucien reluctantly rose to his feet and slowly started walking toward the podium, where he was preceded by some verbose orators. He needed to delay the vote on his brother's capital sentence. The only way out was to exercise his right to speak as member of the Council, not as its president. Eventually, among jeers and threats, he took the stand and spoke thus: "I am going to oppose this motion. Suspicions raised so lightly lead to mad excesses. A small, even if formally faulty, irregularity cannot erase so many triumphs, so many services given to our homeland."

A rumbling of murmurs and protests interrupted him: "Time is running out! Let's vote the proposition!"

Lucien tried to continue his speech, but his famous eloquence was no match for the chaotic Council. Since his appeal to silence passions failed, he took off his toga and left it theatrically on the podium, saying: "There is no liberty left in here. Your President, in sign of public mourning, is abandoning the symbols of the popular magistracy."

This one gesture had an effect greater than any of his words. Many representatives invited him to take his seat back. Instead, fearing for his life in that mayhem, Lucien walked down the podium toward the middle of the room, where he spotted a group of friends and supporters. A dozen of soldiers headed by Général Frégeville surrounded and shielded Lucien. Some Council members cried: "Let's follow our president!" Others shouted back: "Liberty has been violated!"

While waiting to take the stand, Lucien had managed to tell the general that soon he no longer would be able to answer for the situation in the Council and that Napoleon should send someone to rescue him within the next ten minutes. Now Lucien was able to step out into the courtyard where troops were gathered, waiting for orders, and where his brother was saddling up. Lucien also mounted the horse of a dragoon and requested a drumroll. When the drums stopped, a deep silence fell and, in the looming dusk, in a strong, animated voice, Lucien addressed the soldiers:

CITIZENS! The majority of that Council is at this moment held in terror by a few representatives of the people, who are armed with knives, and are surrounding the tribune, threatening their colleagues with death and proposing the most awful deliberations.

I declare to you that these audacious brigands, who are doubtless inspired by the fatal genius of the English government, have risen in rebellion against the Council, demanding that the General charged with the execution of the Council's decree be outlawed, as if the word "outlaw" were still to be regarded as the death-warrant of persons most beloved by their country.

I declare to you that this small number of enraged people have outlawed themselves by their attacks upon the liberty of the Council. In the name of those who, for so many years, have been victims or the plaything of those miserable children of Terror, I consign to the soldiers the charge of rescuing the majority of their representatives; so that, protected against daggers by bayonets, we might be able to deliberate on the fate of the Republic.

Général, and you, soldiers, and you, citizens, you will acknowledge as deputies of France only those who come to join you with their President. As for those who remain in the Orangerie to vote for outlaws, let force expel them! They are no longer the representatives of the people, but the representatives of the dagger.

Vive la République!

After this harangue, the troops cried "Vive Bonaparte!" but hesitated to act. It was evident that they were not fully prepared to turn their bayonets against the national representatives.

Deathly pale and uncertain before the angry crowd, but astride his horse, Napoleon cried: "If anyone resists, kill, kill, kill! Yes, follow me, follow me, I am the god of battles!" It was an ineffective cry at best. From his own horse, Lucien promptly hissed: "Will you hold your tongue, for God's sake? You're not talking to your Mamelukes!" With that, Lucien bent over, grabbed his brother's sword, and drew it, exclaiming loudly: "I swear that I will stab my own brother to the heart if he ever attempts anything against the liberty of Frenchmen."

Upon hearing this rousing promise from Lucien, the soldiers marched into the Orangerie and chased away all the protesters, some of whom escaped by jumping out of the windows. By nightfall, Lucien had passed all the necessary resolutions, and Napoleon Bonaparte became first consul of the French Republic.


The words Lucien uttered and the gesture he made were brilliantly timed; the rhetoric could not have been more effective. They also appear, in retrospect, to have been sincere: Lucien saw himself and his brother as the defenders of republican liberty, those who would stand as the bulwark both against the Revolution's bloody excesses and against the return to monarchy, so fresh still in the memory of the nation.

On that day in November, the first consul-to-be was battered, silent, as if paralyzed, his face slightly bloodied, his strategic genius on hold, while his fiery and fearless brother roused the revolutionary troops, swearing that his elder brother would pay with his life if ever he were to harm the freedom of France. If Napoleon was able to take power on that day, it was thanks to his brother Lucien.

But it was hard for Napoleon to feel gratitude. The competition between these two siblings started early. Lucien was nine years old when, in 1784, he entered the military school in Brienne. Upon his arrival, he was given a full physical examination, and Napoleon, who was six years older and had spent the last five years there, meticulously reported the information about his younger brother in a letter to one of their uncles: "He is three feet, eleven inches and six lines in stature." Such careful attention to a brother's height might seem excessive, and one cannot but wonder whether Napoleon had already become self-conscious about his short stature and afraid that even his younger brother would surpass him. The report went on: "He is in the sixth class in Latin, and is to learn the different branches of instruction. He shows much talent and good will, and we have reason to hope that something good can be made of him. He is healthy, strong, quick and rash, and he gives satisfaction in the beginning. He is very familiar with French, and has entirely forgotten Italian. He will write a postscript to my letter. I will not help him, that you may note his progress. I hope he will write to you more frequently than he did at Autun."

The praise, though generous enough, was paternalistic, even professorial, and somewhat impersonal. According to Lucien, Napoleon did not welcome him at Brienne with much warmth. Napoleon inspired fear in Lucien as well as in his schoolmates. His presence was vaguely threatening, his manner serious and unappealing. He was decidedly unpopular at the school. In contrast, Lucien was a tender boy, capable of deep affection. Later in life Lucien grew convinced that the lack of tenderness in his older brother must have contributed to his own reluctance as an adult to bend before him.

The brothers overlapped only for a few months at Brienne, and in October 1784, Napoleon left for the Royal Military School in Paris. Four months later, the boys' father, Charles Bonaparte—a well-respected, middle-class, Tuscanbred Corsican patriot—died in France (in Montpellier, where he had sought medical treatment). He left behind eight children (five boys and three girls) and their mother, the iron-willed, thirty-two-year-old Letizia. She could not continue to afford the best education Charles had always insisted their children receive—going almost bankrupt in the process—other than by sending Lucien to the seminary. Moreover, by becoming a priest, Lucien would eventually provide the stable income they all needed now; the plan was for him to succeed to the canonship of an uncle in San Miniato, in Tuscany. So it was that in 1786, Lucien entered the seminary in Aix-en-Provence.

Lucien had not been consulted on this decision and was deeply unhappy about it. But in Aix he was delighted to be reunited with his beloved uncle, the priest Joseph Fesch—his mother's half-brother—with whom he was to study. In 1781, Fesch had accompanied the then seven-year-old Lucien on the sea voyage from Ajaccio, Corsica's capital, to Marseille, on the way to his first college in the town of Autun. The boy had been constantly seasick, and arrived at destination pale and skinny, in sharp contrast to the rosy Fesch, a bon vivant who tried to initiate his young nephew into the pleasures of wine. It was perhaps a little too much too early: Lucien was so put off that he would never touch wine again.

In 1786, eleven-year-old Lucien knew immediately that the seminary was no place for him. Soon after his nephew's arrival, Fesch left Aix for Lyon, in pursuit of more lucrative employment. Once he had worn out the uniform he had brought from Brienne, Lucien had no compunction displaying his unhappiness at having to wear a priest's clothing, swiftly turning it to rags. Teachers reprimanded him, calling him a "little devil, a real little devil who breaks everything." Lucien would remain fundamentally bored and friendless for three years, until Joseph, the eldest of the Bonaparte siblings, came to see him.

The relationship between Lucien and Joseph was as warm as Lucien's relationship with Napoleon was cold. Joseph had been the only family member by their father's deathbed in Montpellier and had subsequently cut short his military studies, which had become unaffordable, and returned home to Ajaccio. As the firstborn, Joseph had promised Charles that he would assume the role of pater familias after his father's death. He excelled in this paternal role, lavishing affection and attention on Lucien. Quickly realizing that the priesthood was not the boy's calling, Joseph took him back home.

Their mother welcomed them, as did their two younger brothers, Louis and Jérôme, and two younger sisters: Pauline, a charming, dark-haired eight-year-old, and little Caroline. Napoleon was there too, on a short leave from the military. Their sister Elisa, eldest of the girls, was at the Royal College of Saint-Cyr on the continent. Eight children, no father: It was a heavy burden for Letizia. Her elderly brother-in-law, the archdeacon Lucien, after whom the third son had been named, helped with the administration of their finances. He was bedridden but nevertheless wielded extraordinary authority. He had always been highly respected by Corsicans, especially since he was close to their exiled leader, Pasquale Paoli, author of the 1755 constitution that freed Corsica from Genoese rule and turned it into a representative republic. Paoli was living in England, having fled there in 1769 after the French crown had secretly bought the rights to the mostly Italian-speaking Corsica from the Genoese. Joseph himself soon left for Tuscany to attend university at Pisa, where he studied law. There he also befriended Pasquale's brother Clemente Paoli and became deeply involved in the Corsican independence movement.

The day soon arrived for Napoleon to leave and return to his regiment. He embraced a tearful Lucien, but when he advised him to study his Latin well since he was to be a priest, the boy's tears quickly dried up. Napoleon knew perfectly well that Lucien had no interest whatsoever for the priesthood. There was nothing to say. The affectionate moment had not lasted long.

In the absence of his older brothers, fourteen-year-old Lucien suddenly found himself the eldest child, and by right the head of the family. This is not a role one takes on lightly in a Corsican clan. He was old enough now, he thought, to choose a career for himself. The canonship his mother was relying on for future income, which would make him the richest man in the family, could very well be passed on to Louis or to Jérôme if Louis didn't care for it either. But since Letizia was not happy with Lucien's dislike of the priestly state, the boy wanted to hide his feelings from her. Instead, he hatched a plan that settled the question once and for all.

Using the scissors of his faithful nanny Saveria, he cut up his priest's robe and chopped up his round priest's hat, which he threw out of a window. Saveria was horrified; Letizia was outraged. As punishment for this doubly sacrilegious act, she ordered her son to stay in his room, putting him on a diet of bread and water, while measurements were taken for a new, secular outfit. Clearly his punishment was to last only for as long as it took to make the clothing. His nanny and nine-year-old sister Pauline did not have the heart to have the boy stick to the harsh regime. Pauline snuck him sweets, especially a Corsican pastry called palcotelle (today called falculelle) that Lucien would crave for the rest of his life.

Regardless of the punishment, this act of rebellion was Lucien's first taste of liberty from oppressive rules. And its upshot was a beautiful, brand-new green suit, a source of joy and a cause for gratitude toward his forgiving mother. His will to study followed—including Latin, as he promised Letizia—and from then on he spent hours in the well- stocked family library, reading the Roman historians, the Italian epic poets, and the Enlightenment philosophers with increasing pleasure and excitement.


Excerpted from Napoleon and the Rebel by Marcello Simonetta, Noga Arikha. Copyright © 2011 Marcello Simonetta Noga Arikha. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author

Marcello Simonetta has a PhD in Italian literature and history from Yale. His first book, The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded, solves one of the most scandalous crimes of the Renaissance: the attempted assassination of the celebrated Medici brothers. He lives in New York.

Noga Arikha has a PhD in history and philosophy from the Warburg Institute. She has taught at Bard College and the Bard Graduate Center. Her first book, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and one of the The Washington Post's Best Nonfiction Books of 2007. She lives in New York.

Marcello Simonetta has a PhD in Italian literature and history from Yale. His first book, The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded, solves one of the most scandalous crimes of the Renaissance: the attempted assassination of the celebrated Medici brothers. He lives in New York.
Noga Arikha has a PhD in history and philosophy from the Warburg Institute. She has taught at Bard College and the Bard Graduate Center. Her first book, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and one of The Washington Post’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2007. She lives in New York.

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