Saturday 24 August 2013

Letizia Buonaparte: The Life of Madame Mère

Maria Letizia Buonaparte née Ramolino (Corsica, 24th August 1750 – Rome, Italy, 2nd February 1836)

Portrait of Letizia Buonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, 1813
Letizia Buonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, 1813

Well, it's time to shout huzzah, crack open the best gin, get the pheasant on the spit and take a turn around the dance floor because today is Madame Gilflurt's birthday! Such an auspicious occasion doesn't seem suited for more tales of the guillotine and when I was rifling through my drawers in search of some gossip today, I came across the name of Maria Lerizia Romilino. She may not be a lady you're familiar with, but I'll wager you've heard of her boy, a somewhat notorious chap by the name of Napoleon.

Born in Corsica, Letizia was the daughter of Angela Maria Pietrasanta and Giovanni Geronimo Ramolino, a Captain in the Army of the Republic of Genoa. Somewhere a long way along the Ramolino family tree her father could claim link to a family of low rank Genoan nobles and Letizia grew up aware of her position in the world, a smart and intelligent girl despite having no formal education.

When his daughter was five years old Giovanni died but Angela wouldn't be single for long. Sticking with the military theme she married Franz Fesch, a naval officer of considerably higher birth than his predecessor had been. Moving in more affluent circles now, Letizia was in her early teens when she met Carlo Buonaparte, a Corsican law student of noble birth who liked the look of the girl's more than generous dowery.

Portrait of Carlo Buonaparte
Carlo Buonaparte

When the couple married in June 1764 the bride and groom were aged 14 and 17 respectively and would remain together for just over two decades until Carlo died of cancer. Their first child, named Napoleone, was born within the first twelve months of marriage, though he would not live for more than a year, with twelve more children following. Eight of the Buonaparte children survived infancy and the majority were awarded high office in the wake of Napoleon's military successes.

Brave, dedicated and fiercely loyal, Letizia joined Carlo when he fought against invading French forces. She was pregnant with her most famous child at the time and was eventually forced to flee the fighting over treacherous terrain, giving birth soon after her return. She toiled tirelessly at her husband's side and cared little for the feminine niceties of the nobility, preferring the outdoors and the excitement that came from being at the centre of the action. However, once she became a mother Letizia left her wild days behind, dedicating her every moment to her children.

Letizia was a strict disciplinarian but encouraged expression and ambition among her young ones, particularly Napoleon. Her relationship from her husband was not always rosy and the couple suffered periods of financial strain thanks to Carlo's love of gambling and his propensity for entering into poor business arrangements. In fact, when Carlo died he left his family with a mountain of debt, Letizia relying first on inheritances and then on Napoleon for financial support.

Letizia Buonaparte by François Gérard, 1803

In 1805 Letizia was awarded the title "Madam, the Mother of His Majesty the Emperor" (Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l'Empereur), an honour that left her utterly outraged when her children were being made kings and emperors. Smarting from the perceived slight she nevertheless threw herself into life as mother of the Emperor and exercised great influence over her powerful children, taking a leading role in the charitable doings of their respective states and acting as the unofficial governor of Corsica.

When Napoleon was exiled to Elba she went with him, encouraging him to take back the offices and lands that she believed were rightfully his. Following his defeat at Waterloo, Madame Mère retained a generous pension and took refuge at the Palazzo D'Aste-Bonaparte in piazza Venezia with her brother, Joseph Fesch.

Drawing of Letizia Buonaparte

She devoted her days to religious observances and petitioning fruitlessly for the release of her son. Here she grew old, infirm and unhappy, retreating into seclusion until she died at the age of 85, many of her children having predeceased her.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)


Unknown said...

This is mind boggling! Napoleaon Bonaparte had such a colourful childhood and coming from a mixed up heritage of Genoa and Corsica shares some of the ambiguity of AH's claim to be able to lead the German master race to supremacy! Really interesting to see a piece about his mother, for a change. Typically, in the fashion only a mother knows how, it seems that dear old Boney found it hard to please her! LOL!

Catherine Curzon said...

Yes, she was a bit of a stage mother!

Unknown said...

Happy Birthday!

Gem Twitcher said...

Madame! Your humble servant will be taking the liberty of raising his glass to you tonight in the tavern on your birthday! May I take the impertinence to state that my own birthday is but a few days to come-and I'm sure recognise in you all the best qualities of an Aquarian! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Catherine Curzon said...

I wish I could accept you felicitations but I am afraid this is an old post that was originally published on my birthday so today is, alas, not the day of celebration. However, since there should always be an excuse to raise a glass, I shall declare today my *unofficial* birthday instead. Huzzah!

Catherine Curzon said...

I wish I could accept you felicitations but I am afraid this is an old post that was originally published on my birthday so today is, alas, not the day of celebration. I shall store the good wishes up for the summer though, huzzah!

Alanna Lucas said...

Happy *unofficial* Birthday! As always, a wonderful post.

Catherine Curzon said...


Antoine Vanner said...

I understand that during family gatherings - with Emperor, various Kings, princesses etc of her brood and their spouses - she was wont to say "Enjoy it while you can - this won't last!"

Her brother, Joseph Fesch, became a cardinal.

Catherine Curzon said...

The life and soul of the party!

Mari Christian said...

A remarkable woman, indeed. I wonder what she thought of her son, Napoleon's marriages.

Catherine Curzon said...

There might be a blog in that...