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‘The hero of a tragedy, in order to interest us, should be neither
wholly guilty nor wholly innocent ... All weakness and all
contradictions are unhappily in the heart of man, and present a
colouring eminently tragic.’
Napoleon, on François-Just-Marie
Raynouard’s play The Templars
‘The reading of history very soon made me feel that I was cap‑ able of achieving as much as the men who are placed in the highest ranks of our annals.’ Napoleon to the Marquis de Caulaincourt Napoleone di Buonaparte, as he signed himself until manhood, was born in Ajaccio, one of the larger towns on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, just before noon on Tuesday, August 15, 1769. ‘She was on her way home from church when she felt labour pains,’ he would later say of his mother, Letizia, ‘and had only time to get into the house, when I was born, not on a bed, but on a heap of tapestry.’1 The name his parents chose was unusual but not unknown, appearing in Machiavelli’s history of Florence, and, more immediately, being the name of one of his great-uncles.
The Buona Parte family were originally landowners living between Florence and Livorno – a Florentine first took the surname in 1261.
While the senior line remained in Italy, Francesco Buonaparte emigrated to Corsica in 1529, where for the next two and a half centuries his descendants generally pursued the gentlemanly callings of the law, academia and the Church.2 By the time of Napoleon’s birth the family occupied that social penumbra encompassing the haute bourgeoisie and the very minor nobility.
9781846140273_NapoleonTheGreat_TXT_1-269.indd 3 12/09/14 1:40 PM 4 N a p o l e on th e Great After he came to power in France, when people attempted to trace his family’s descent from the thirteenth-century emperors of Trebizond, Napoleon told them that his dynasty in fact dated back only to the time of his military coup d’état. ‘There are genealogists who would date my
reality after he won the battle of Pedicoste in 1763. The man the Corsicans nicknamed Il Babbù (Daddy) quickly set about reforming the island’s financial, legal and educational systems, built roads, started a printing press and brought something approaching harmony between the island’s competing clans of powerful families. The young Napoleon grew up revering Paoli as a lawgiver, reformer and genuinely benevolent dictator.
Genoa had no appetite for the fight that she knew would be required to reassert her authority over Corsica, and reluctantly sold the island to King Louis XV of France for 40 million francs in January 1768. The French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul, appointed the Corsican Matteo Buttafuoco to rule the island. Paoli naturally opposed this, so the French sent a force of 30,000 men under the command of the harsh Comte de Vaux with the task of putting down the rebellion and soon replaced Buttafuoco with a Frenchman, the Comte de Marbeuf.
Carlo Bonaparte, Napoleon’s father, and his pretty young wife Letizia supported Paoli and were campaigning in the mountains when Letizia became pregnant with Napoleon. Carlo acted as Paoli’s private secretary and aide-de-camp, but when Vaux smashed the Corsican forces at the battle of Ponte Nuovo on May 8, 1769, Carlo and the by now heavily pregnant Letizia refused to go into exile with Paoli and 340 other irreconcilables.6 Instead, at a meeting between Marbeuf and the Corsican gentry, Carlo took an oath of loyalty to Louis XV, as a result of which he was able to retain his positions of responsibility on the island: assessor of the Ajaccio court of justice and superintendent of the island’s forestry school. Within two months of Ponte Nuovo, Carlo had dined with the Comte de Vaux, something that was held against him by his former compatriots whose resistance to French rule continued. Hundreds would die over the next two decades in sporadic anti-French guerrilla actions, although major incidents were rare after the mid-1770s.7 ‘He became a good Frenchman,’ Joseph Bonaparte wrote of their father, ‘seeing the huge advantages his country was taking from its union with France.’8 Carlo was appointed to represent the Corsican nobility in Paris in 1777, a position that saw him visit Louis XVI at Versailles twice.
It is often alleged that Napoleon, who proclaimed a fierce Corsican nationalism throughout his adolescence, despised his father for switching his loyalties, but there is no proof of this beyond the bitter outpourings of his classmate and private secretary Louis Antoine de Bourrienne, whom he twice had to dismiss for gross peculation. In 1789 Napoleon
Letizia had thirteen children between 1765 and 1786, eight of whom survived infancy, a not untypical ratio for the day; they were eventually to number an emperor, three kings, a queen and two sovereign princesses. Although Napoleon didn’t much like it when his mother beat him for being naughty – on one occasion for mimicking his grandmother – corporal punishment was normal practice in those days and he only ever spoke of her with genuine love and admiration. ‘My mother was a superb woman, a woman of ability and courage,’ he told General Gourgaud, near the end of his life. ‘Her tenderness was severe;
here was the head of a man on the body of a woman.’ This, from Napoleon, was high praise. ‘She was a matriarch,’ he added. ‘She had plenty of brains!’14 Once he came to power, Napoleon was generous to his mother, buying her the Château de Pont on the Seine and giving her an annual income of 1 million francs, most of which she squirrelled away.
When she was teased for her notorious parsimoniousness she replied:
‘Who knows, one day I may have to find bread for all these kings I’ve borne.’15 Two children died in infancy before Napoleon was born, and the girl who came immediately after him, Maria-Anna, lived to only five. His elder brother, Giuseppe (who later Frenchified his name as Joseph), was born in January 1768. After Napoleon came Luciano (Lucien) in March 1775, a sister Maria-Anna (Elisa) in January 1777, Louis – significantly, the name of the kings of France – in September 1778, Maria-Paola (Pauline) in October 1780, Maria-Annunziata (Caroline) in March 1782, and Girolamo (Jérôme) in November 1784. Letizia stopped having children at thirty-three when Carlo died at thirty-eight, but Napoleon speculated that if his father had lived longer she would have had twenty.16 One of the features that emerges strongly from Napoleon’s correspondence is his deep and constant concern for his family. Whether it was his mother’s property on Corsica, the education of his brothers or the marriage prospects of his sisters, he was endlessly seeking to protect and promote the Bonaparte clan. ‘You are the only man on earth for whom I have a true and constant love’, he once wrote to his brother Joseph.17 His persistent tendency to promote his family would later significantly damage his own interests.
Napoleon’s background as a Corsican of Italian extraction later invited endless abuse from detractors. One of his earliest British biographers, William Burdon, said of his Italian ancestry: ‘To this may be
Ancient history provided him with an encyclopaedia of military and political tactics and quotations that he would draw on throughout his life. This inspiration was so profound that when posing for paintings he would sometimes put his hand into his waistcoat in imitation of the toga-wearing Romans.
Napoleon’s native language was Corsican, an idiomatic dialect not unlike Genoese. He was taught to read and write in Italian at school and was nearly ten before he learned French, which he always spoke with a heavy Corsican accent, with ‘ou’ for ‘eu’ or ‘u’, inviting all manner of teasing at school and in the army. The architect Pierre Fontaine, who decorated and refurbished many of the Napoleonic palaces, thought it ‘incredible in a man of his position’ that he should speak with such a thick accent.26 Napoleon was not very proficient in French grammar or spelling, though in the era before standardized spelling this mattered little and he never had any difficulty making himself understood. Throughout his life his handwriting, though strong and decisive, was pretty much a scrawl.
Napoleon’s childhood has often been portrayed as a maelstrom of anxieties, but his first nine years in Ajaccio were uncomplicated and happy, surrounded by family, friends and a few domestic servants.
In later life he was generous to his illiterate nursemaid, Camilla Illari.27 It was only when he was sent away to France – ‘the continent’ as Corsicans called it – to become a French officer and gentleman that complications arose.
As part of his active policy of Gallicization of the island’s elite, in 1770 Marbeuf issued an edict declaring that all Corsicans who could prove two centuries of nobility would be allowed to enjoy the extensive privileges of the French noblesse. Carlo’s father, Joseph, had been officially recognized as noble by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and subsequently obtained recognition from the archbishop of Pisa as ‘a patrician of Florence’.28 Although titles had little purchase in Corsica, where there was no feudalism, Carlo applied for the right of the Bonapartes to be recognized as one of the island’s seventy-eight noble families, and on September 13, 1771 the Corsican Superior Council, having traced the family back to its Florentine roots, declared its official admission into the noblesse.29 Carlo could now legally sign himself ‘de Buonaparte’ for the first time and sit in the Corsican assembly. He could also apply for royal bursaries for his sons, whom he was hard put to educate on his income.
as ‘M. Neapoleonne de Bonnaparte’. His headmaster, the Abbé Chardon, recalled him as ‘a thoughtful and gloomy character. He had no playmate and walked about by himself ... He had ability and learned quickly ... If I scolded him, he answered in a cold, almost imperious tone: “Sir, I know it.” ’32 It took Chardon only three months to teach this intelligent and determined lad, with a will to learn, to speak and read French, and even to write short passages.
Having mastered the requisite French at Autun, in April 1779, four months shy of his tenth birthday, Napoleon was admitted to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Château, near Troyes in the Champagne region. His father left the next day, and as there were no school holidays they were not to see each other again for three years. Napoleon was taught by the Minim order of Franciscan monks as one of fifty royal scholars among 110 pupils. Despite being a military academy, Brienne was administered by the monks, although the martial side of studies were conducted by outside instructors. Conditions were spartan: students had a straw mattress and one blanket each, though they weren’t beaten. When his parents did visit, in June 1782, Letizia expressed concern at how thin he had become.
Although Brienne was not considered one of the most socially desirable of the twelve royal military schools founded by Louis XVI in 1776, it provided Napoleon with a fine education. His eight hours of study a day included mathematics, Latin, history, French, German, geography, physics, fortifications, weaponry, fencing, dancing and music (the last three an indication that Brienne was also in part a finishing school for the noblesse).33 Physically tough and intellectually demanding, the school turned out a number of very distinguished generals besides Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas Davout, Étienne Nansouty, Antoine Phélippeaux and Jean-Joseph d’Hautpoul. Charles Pichegru, the future conqueror of Holland and royalist plotter, was one of the school’s instructors.