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By Frank McLynn
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2003 Frank McLynn
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Napoleon Bonaparte was born at Ajaccio, Corsica, on 15 August 1769. Such a bald, even banal statement is necessary when we consider that every aspect of the man's life has been turned into the stuff of legend. In 1919 Archbishop Whateley tried to push beyond legend into myth by suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, in his Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonoparte, that Napoleon had never existed, that his was a proper name falsely attributed to the French people collectively. The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, while accepting the reality of Napoleon's existence, argued that his significance was wholly collective and not individual: that he represented the resurgence from the depths of the French unconscious of the savage and irrational forces the Revolution had tried to suppress through the cult of Reason (Déesse Raison).
Even those who accepted the importance of Napoleon the individual argued about his origins and his date of birth. There has in some quarters been a curious reluctance to accept that he was a Corsican at all, even though born on the island. Some have asserted that he was descended from the Greeks, the Carthaginians or the Bretons. Others, remarking his'Oriental complex' (of which more later), and noting that in the ninth century the Arab invaders of Europe reached Corsica, claim an Arab, Berber or Moorish strain in his provenance; hence (on this view) his excessive superstition, his belief in ghosts, Destiny and his own star, and his preference for Islam over Christianity. The historian and critic Taine traced his descent to an Italian condottiere, while Disraeli, on the grounds that Corsica had once been peopled by African Semites, claimed Napoleon as a Jew (presumably, given Napoleon's later antipathy to the Jews, an anti-semitic one). Kings of England, the Comneni, the Paleologues, and even the Julian tribe have been pressed into service as Napoleon's forebears. The prize for the most absurd candidate as Napoleonic ancestor must go to the Man in the Iron Mask and for the most unlikely parents to the footman and goat girl, proposed by his most scurrilous enemies.
At another level of mythmaking, Napoleon's champions claimed that he emerged from his mother's womb a born warrior because she gave birth to him immediately after a hazardous 'flight in the heather' retreating through the maquis with Corsican forces after being defeated by the French. And the French writer Chateaubriand, who knew Napoleon well and worked for him as a diplomat, argued that the true date of his birth was 5 February 1768; according to this theory, it was Napoleon's brother Joseph who was born on 15 August 1769 and Napoleon was the eldest son.
The sober facts are less sensational. On 2 June 1764 Carlo Buonaparte of Ajaccio, an eighteen-year-old law student, married the fourteen-year-old Marie-Letizia Ramolino, also of Ajaccio. Both families were descended from Italian mercenaries in Genoese pay who settled in Corsica at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Buonapartes came originally from Tuscany and could trace their lineage to the soldier of fortune Ugo Buonaparte, documented as a henchman of the Duke of Swabia in 1122. Ugo was a veteran of the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines and a devoted supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor in his conflict with the Pope. The loser in a Florentine power struggle, Ugo spent his last days in the seaport of Sarzana, and it was from there in the early sixteenth century that his descendant Francesco Buonaparte emigrated to Corsica.
Such at any rate was the Buonaparte family tradition; their surname was said to denote Ugo's Imperialist affiliations. The earliest unimpeachable record shows a member of the Buonaparte family, a lawyer, as a member of the Council of Ancients in Ajaccio in 1616; several more Buonaparte lawyers served on this council in the eighteenth century. The Buonapartes like the Ramolinos were part of the Corsican nobility, but it must be remembered that Corsican 'nobles' were as common as 'princes' in Czarist Russia. Carlo Buonaparte, born on 27 March 1746, had been studying law at Pisa University but left to marry Letizia without taking his degree. The romancers have seized on this fact to build up a coup de foudre love affair between Carlo and Letizia, but the match was certainly dynastic, even though some sections of the Ramolino clan objected to the marriage.
The Ramolinos were a cadet branch of the distinguished Collalto family, well entrenched in Lombardy since the fourteenth century; the Ramolinos themselves had been established in Corsica for 250 years. Where the Buonapartes were a family of lawyers, with the Ramolinos the tradition was military: Letizia's father was an army officer with expertise in civil engineering, who commanded the Ajaccio garrison and held the sinecure office of Inspector-General of Roads and Bridges. Both the Buonapartes and the Ramolinos specialized in intermarriage with ancient families of Italian origin, so a dynastic match made sense. There was just one peculiarity: both the newly-weds' fathers had died young. Carlo's father, a lawyer, died in 1760 when his son was fourteen, which meant that Carlo could bring into the marriage the family house in the Via Malerba, two of the best vineyards in Ajaccio, some pasture and arable land, and also his claims to another estate.
Marie-Letizia Ramolino (born either in late 1749 or early 1750) was in a more complicated situation. Her father died when she was five, after which her mother Angela Maria turned for consolation to François (or Franz) Fesch, a Swiss captain in the French garrison forces at Ajaccio. Angela Maria married Fesch in 1757 and persuaded him to convert to Catholicism, but his father, a banker in Basle, responded by disinheriting him. From the union of Fesch and Letizia's mother came Joseph (born 1763), the future cardinal and Napoleon's uncle, though only six years his senior. The unfortunate Fesch, who died in 1770, gave Letizia away; her dowry comprised thirty-one acres of land, a mill, and an oven for baking bread.
The marriage of Carlo and Letizia was a solid, down-to-earth marriage of convenience. There is even reason to believe that Carlo hedged his bets by not marrying in the Church in 1764, or ever. It was well known that Corsicans took an idiosyncratic, eclectic attitude to the Catholic Church, which was why legal marriage on the island consisted in the agreement of the two male heads of families, the signature of a dotal contract, and the act of consummation. The likelihood is that Carlo simply refused to go through with a religious ceremony, and for reasons of pride and saving face the two clans kept quiet about it.
Again, contrary to the mythmaking, it is untrue that some of the Ramolinos opposed the match for political reasons, allegedly on the grounds that they supported the Genoese masters of the island while the Buonapartes backed the independence movement under Pasquale Paoli. Almost certainly, they simply had doubts that this was the very best dynastic bargain they could strike while, as for political ideology, both the Buonapartes and Ramolinos were notorious trimmers who made obeisance to whichever party in Corsica had the most power.
Carlo, a tall young man with a prominent nose, sensual lips and almond-shaped eyes, was a hedonist and sensualist. Cunning, self-regarding, unrefined, unscrupulous, he made it clear that his marriage was no love match by declaring a preference for a girl of the Forcioli family. The romancers claim that he was bowled over by Letizia's beauty, but portraits reveal a woman whose mouth was too small, whose nose was too long and whose face was too austere for a claim to real beauty to be advanced. It was true that she was petite (5'1"), with rich dark-brown hair and slender white hands; and what she had, incontestably and by common consent, were large, lustrous, deep-set eyes. As was normal at the time, Letizia was wholly uneducated and trained in nothing but domestic skills.
Letizia fulfilled the essential requirement of women of the time, which was to be an efficient childbearer. She gave birth to thirteen children in all, of whom eight survived. A son, named Napoleon, was born and died in 1765. Pregnant again almost immediately, Letizia next brought forth a girl who also died. Then came a mysterious interlude of about two years. Allegedly Paoli sent the twenty-year-old Carlo as his envoy to Rome, to appease the Pope when he launched his planned attack on the Genoese island of Capraia (Capraia and Genoa had originally been deeded to Genoa by papal gift), but the best evidence shows Carlo becoming a Paolista while he was in Italy. Carlo's time in Rome seems to have been spent in cohabitation with a married woman. His own story was that he returned from Rome after running out of funds, but a stronger tradition has it that he seduced a virgin and was run out of town. On his return to Corsica he again impregnated Letizia, who this time bore him a lusty son in the shape of Joseph (originally named Giuseppe), who was born on 7 July 1768.
Another prevalent myth about Napoleon's background was that he was born into indigence. The property brought into the marriage by Carlo and Letizia seems to have been nicely calculated, since Letizia's dowry was valued at 6,750 livres and Carlo's assets at about 7,000 livres. The joint capital generated an annual income of about 670 livres or about £9,000 a year in today's money. In addition, there was the money earned by Carlo. Pasquale Paoli employed the young man as his secretary on account of his unusually neat and clear handwriting. Carlo also worked as a procureur approximately equivalent to a British solicitor. Letizia employed two servants and a wet-nurse hardly badges of poverty.
What Carlo and Letizia suffered from was not poverty but relative deprivation. The Buonapartes and their great rivals, the Pozzo di Borgos, were among the richest families in Ajaccio, but they were aware that they were big fish in a very small pond. Across the water, in mainland France, their wealth would have counted for nothing and their pretensions to nobility would have been laughed at. The Buonapartes wanted to be as rich as the richest nobles in France and, since they could not be, they created a compensatory myth of dire poverty. Economic conditions in Corsica and their own pretensions worked against them. A sharecropping economy based on vineyards and a primitive barter system meant there were few opportunities for generating a surplus, hence no possibility for profits and making money. Even if there had been, Carlo Buonaparte's aspirations to noble status stood in the way, for to a noble the Church, the Law and the Army were the only acceptable professions, and even the lower reaches of the Law, such as Carlo's position as procureur, were essentially beyond the aristocratic pale.
Napoleon was often, to his fury, called 'the Corsican'. He always denied that his birthplace had any significance, but no human being can slough off early environmental and geographical influences just by say-so. The restlessness in Napoleon's later character must owe something to the confused and chaotic politics of the island, which he imbibed with his mother's milk, or rather that of his wet-nurse. As Dorothy Carrington has written: 'defeat, resistance, betrayal, heroism, torture, execution and conspiracy were the topics of the first conversations he overheard. Conversations that left a permanent imprint on his mind.'
After 1729 a Corsican independence movement gathered momentum against the Genoese overlords. In 1755 this took a more serious turn when the twenty-nine-year-old Pasquale Paoli put himself at the head of the Corsican guerrillas. Taking advantage of Corsica's mountainous terrain (a chain of high granite sierras runs down Corsica from the northwest to the south-east and the highest peaks are always snowcapped), the Paolistas drove the Genoese out of central Corsica, confining them to the coastal towns of Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi. Regarding himself as the true ruler of Corsica, Paoli brought in a series of much-needed land reforms, which confirmed the ancient customs of the land in defiance of Genoese exploitation. In an early form of mixed economy, Paoli divided land into two categories: in the lowlands there was the piage or public land used for pasture and growing crops; but in the highlands, the vineyards, olive groves, sweet chestnut and other trees were in private hands. Paoli's power base was always the widespread support he enjoyed among the peasantry.
Paoli attracted admirers throughout Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought Corsica, with its tiny population, was the ideal laboratory for the political experiment he outlined in his Social Contract. An early exponent of 'small is beautiful', Rousseau thought that the 'General Will' could emerge in Corsica as the city state. The island was ideal, with a total population of no more than 130,000 and its cities were glorified villages; in the census of 1770 Bastia had 5,286 inhabitants and Ajaccio 3,907. Rousseau actually sketched a constitution for Corsica and announced: 'I have a presentiment that one day this small island will astonish Europe.'
Another admirer who actually visited Corsica and met Paoli was James Boswell, Dr Johnson's faithful companion and biographer. Boswell in his Account of Corsica (1768) famously compared the Corsicans, with their clans and martial traditions, with the Scottish Highlanders before the 1745 Jacobite Rising. The thought had occurred to others: at one time Bonnie Prince Charlie himself was proposed as a possible King of Corsica. So enthusiastic for Paoli was Boswell that Dr Johnson accused him of being a bore on the subject.
But Paoli had scarcely completed the conquest of the interior and introduced his reforms when Corsica once again became a pawn on the international diplomatic chessboard. Just before the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, by treaty arrangement the French poured their troops into Calvi, Ajaccio and St-Florent. They pulled them out again when war broke out, but reintroduced them in 1764. French encroachment reached its apogee the year before Napoleon's birth, in 1768, when Genoa formally ceded the island to France; Paoli and his men learned that they had fought the Genoese only to be delivered to the suzerainty of Louis XV. In fury the Paolistas rose in revolt against the French. They scored a string of minor military successes but were decisively crushed on 8 May 1769 at the battle of Ponte Novo. Among those who fled with Paoli from this disaster were Carlo Buonaparte and his nineteen-year-old wife, now six months pregnant with the future Napoleon.
Napoleonic legend credited the embryonic conqueror with having been present in foetal form at Ponte Novo. What happened was dramatic enough, for Carlo and Letizia fled with the other rebels into the mountains towards Corte; it is therefore true to say that the embryonic Napoleon was literally on the march. When Paoli recognized the inevitable and accepted French surrender terms, Carlo and Letizia returned to Ajaccio by the mountain route; to the end of her life Letizia always remembered carrying Joseph in her arms while staggering and slipping along precipitous paths.
Back in Ajaccio Letizia came to full term. On the feast of the Assumption she was at mass in the cathedral when the labour pains started. Fortunately she was only a minute's walk away from the three-storey Buonaparte family home, and her sister-in-law Geltruda Paravicini helped her to walk the few yards. A curmudgeonly maidservant named Caterina acted as the midwife and laid the newborn infant on a carpet, on which were woven scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The child was weak, with spindly legs and a large head, but sea air and the abundant milk from wet-nurse Camilla Ilari, a sailor's wife, saw him through the perilous early days. Tradition says that a priest came from the cathedral on the day of birth to carry out a perfunctory baptism, but sober history must be content to record that the formal baptism did not take place until 21 July 1771, when it was performed in Ajaccio cathedral by Napoleon's great-uncle Lucien; the records show Lorenzo Giubeca of Calvi, procureur du roi, as the child's godfather. The little boy was christened Napoleone. It was an odd name, and its origin, predictably, is shrouded in controversy. Some claimed it was a name deriving from the Greek and meaning 'lion of the desert'. More plausibly, a Greek saint who suffered martyrdom in Alexandria under Diocletian is cited, but the most likely explanation is the simple and banal one that one of Letizia's uncles, a Paolista who had recently died, bore that name.
Excerpted from Napoleon by Frank McLynn Copyright © 2003 by Frank McLynn. Excerpted by permission.
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