Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself





According to the most exact documents, Napoleon was born on August 13, 1769, in Ajaccio, in Corsica, in a house that a fire completely destroyed.  By a singularity which history seems to have wanted to justify, Napoleon had for his first swaddling an old cloth laid out with the haste, which showed those heroes of Homer that he was to exceed one day.

He was baptized two years after his birth, on July 21, 1771. The true orthography of the names Napoleon Bonaparte is often discussed.  It appears that the members of his family, who had risen from obscurity to the highest situation, had not attached any importance so that Buonaparte was written with or without an u because it is seen that in his baptism certificate, in Italian, the priestly scribe wrote three times this patronymic name without an u, while the head of the household signed with this vowel.  The same variation is noticed in his marriage contract with Josephine, written however in Paris, and twenty-five years later.  In this piece, Napoleon signed Buonaparte and even Napolione.  It was only with his advent to the consulate that he adopted a more modern orthography, or, if you would have it, more French, by removing the u from his surname and by changing the i into e in his first name, likewise in cutting off the e which is at the end. From this moment, he invariably wrote Napoleon Bonaparte.

When the least clear-sighted could predict his future of glory and power, he soon had, within a totally republican army, the flatterers and a court.  Generals, statesmen, poets and artists, drawn by the superiority that he exerted on those around him, are reflected in the pull of his fortune.  The genealogists were not the last to greet the new star; the successors of Hosier and of Chérin worked feverishly to raise with the new consul a family tree whose top was lost in the antiquity of the centuries.  One claimed that he descended from former kings of Nord; the other proved that his family had had alliances with the oldest houses of Europe.  More than once Napoleon repressed these stupid and ridiculously slavish flatteries. What is certain is, that the Bonaparte family, registered on the Gold Book in Bologna, patrician of Florence, allied to the greatest houses of Tuscany, the same as the Medici, had given sovereigns to Treviso.  Several

Bonaparte had been distinguished in arms, sciences and the letters, in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Even the first name of Napoleon, this first name, which he made so grand, had remained in his family only the same as of one its members, Napolione Nordius Buonaparte, who had been noted for his military talents in 1272, and had received, as rewards for his services, the Cross of the Order of Gaudenti.  The Counts de Montfort and de Montmorenci, at the same time in France , were likewise decorated.

The name of Bonaparte does not shine any less brightly in the record of the Italian diplomacy.  The mother of Pope Paul V was a Bonaparte.  The General Clarke, who was a Minister of War under the Empire, bought in Paris, at the gallery of the Medici, the portrait of a Jean Buonaparte who had
married a daughter of Prince Attaventi.  Lastly, Mr. de Cetto, Ambassador of Bavaria in France , attested that the files of Munich contained a great number of Italian works, which proved the illustriousness of this family.

In an interview of Napoleon with the Austrian Emperor, in Dresden, in May 1812, this last believed to flatter his son-in-law so much by teaching him that his family had been sovereign in Treviso, and that he had some claim to the authentic titles; but Napoleon answered his father-in-law while smiling:

     You are mistaken: my nobility dates only from Marengo.

This day the Austrian ministers presented to him, by order of their Master, their documents extracted from the files of the various towns of Italy .  Napoleon took them and threw them into a fire, while saying:

—  Sirs, understand, once and for all, that I hear that my nobility goes back only to me.  Then he added, with a kind of pride and by raising the voice: And that I only want to hold my titles from the people of France !

The ancestors of Napoleon had fought under the banner of the Gibelins.  They were banished by the victorious Guelfes, and were obliged, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, to come search for a refuge in Sarzanne, then in Corsica.  They fixed their residence in Ajaccio.  There, they soon became, by marriages, the allies of the first families of the island and those of the Genoese nobility, such as Colona, Bozzi and Durazzo.  Their properties were located at Talavo, not far from the bourough of Bocaguano. They enjoyed a great influence among the neighboring populations.

Charles Bonaparte, father of Napoleon, had studied in Rome and

Pisa.  He was a distinguished man by all accounts; with a sharp and penetrating spirit, a cordial and persuasive eloquence, and completely devoted to the cause of his country, he had deployed talent and courage in the war against Genoese; he was held in the very highest esteem of his compatriots, and especially in that of famous Paoli, of whom he had obtained the confidence and the friendship.  He was in the middle of the civil discords that he married the widow Lœtizia Ramolino, one of the most beautiful people of the island, and endowed with completely virile qualities.  Madame Bonaparte shared the dangers of her husband, by accompanying him, on horse, in several military expeditions, a short time after the birth of Napoleon.  She was mother of eight children, including five boys and three girls, who all survived their father, and were born French, because their birth was after the union of Corsica with France , which had taken place in 1762.



The first of these children was Joseph, placed successively, by the emperor, on the thrones of Naples and Spain ;

The second, Napoleon;

The third, Lucien, the most remarkable man of the family, after Napoleon;

The fourth, Louis, distinguished by the breadth from his knowledge, and who preferred to give up the crown of Holland rather than see his subjects constrained, by politics, from all the good that they had the right to expect from him;

The fifth, Jerome, King of Westphalia.

The girls were: Marie-Anne, later Grand-Duchess of Tuscany, under the name Princess Élisa; Marie-Annonciade, who became Pauline, married initially to General Leclerc, who died during the expedition of Santo Domingo, and, in a second marriage, with Prince Camille Borghèse; and finally, Charlotte or Caroline, wife of Murat, King of Naples.

The authors of various contemporary memoirs fell into a strange contradiction, while seeking to prove that, in the childhood of Napoleon, no one detected his genius.  It is certain that he had not win the battle of Austerlitz at ten years old, not that he found a way to the Tuileries in his diapers.  But these same writers lend at the same time strange habits on him for his age; they tell of his early gravity, his pensive mood, his solitary daydreams, his firmness of heart, even his obstinacy, which yielded only in front of the will of his mother.  They also speak about his generosity, of his horror for giving up, which defied the hardest deprivations.  A fault of his brothers was that all suspicion and punishment fell on him first.  He was not defended; he was left condemned to the bread and water for several days, without condescending to confess, without complaining, until the truth was discovered.  It found easier, and nobler especially, to suffer and to keep silent, rather than denounce a brother or a sister.

It is claimed that it is only the malicious one, which likes loneliness.  It is an assertion completely erroneous; two other feelings are forgotten: the sorrow and the consciousness of his superiority.  One still finds, close to Ajaccio, opposite the small island of Sanguiniera, in a garden which belonged to the Fesch family, under a wild rock, a dark retreat where the young Napoleon liked to pass, alone, long hours of daydreaming: it is called today the Napoleon cave.  Who knows which ideas fermented then in this burning head?  One finds also, in Ajaccio, a small gun weighing of 30 pounds, which was then his favorite toy; an innocent prelude to these wars of giants, which he was to undertake one day.

As of the age of five years age, he had been put in a half-day school (demi-pension) whose Master was known by his family.  His small comrades often teased him on what they called his savagery,and joked him on the negligence of his hygiene. Sometimes also they tricked him by hiding his books from him, or concealing the delicacies from him which his mother deposited each morning in his small basket. The young Napoleon young endured all this patiently, and was satisfied by launching a glance of scorn to his school-fellows.

However, when those pushed the joke beyond the allowed limits, oh! then his pride revolted, he defied them en mass; the number did not stop him, he never counted.

He showed, in excess, during this time, more obvious and creditable signs of his courage, his devotion and his presence of mind.  One evening, he had returned from the school, finding a beam had detached from the ceiling of the room where his great-uncle and his brothers were located.  Everyone fled terrified; everyone… except him!  Heeding only an admirable instinct, instead of fleeing, he sprang ahead, tightening his weak arms, and raised it to brace and support the beam, which remained, until one came to support it more firmly.

—  Well! Very good, Napolione! The old man exclaimed after recovering from his fright; you will be the savior of your family!

This great-uncle of Napoleon, Archdeacon of Ajaccio, was the principal teacher of his small nephews. The fortune of Charles Bonaparte, their father, not allowing him to resort to other Masters for his children, and, himself, as fully enlightened as he was, not being able to take care of their
education, he had to entrust the responsibility of their care to the prelate.  Though this last fût was often obliged to keep to bed, because of his great age and his infirmities, his spirit of order and his wise economy reigned abundantly in the house. The family circumstances Bonaparte were therefore rather prosperous, when he had the misfortune to lose this worthy priest, who had not ceased taking care on him with the tenderness and the solicitude of a second father.  It was in this solemn moment, on his deathbed, and in the middle of his great nephews, reclining under his blessing, and listening with a meditating pain to his last rites that he pronounced these memorable words, glimpsing to some extent to a point in the future:

     It is useless to think of the fortune of Napolione: he will do it itself. Joseph, you are the elder one of the family; but your brother Napolione is the head:  never forget this![1]

It is known that events justified this dying premonition!


[1] It is not necessary to confuse the Archdeacon of Ajaccio, this great-uncle of Napoleon, with Bonaparte the Canon who accepted, on July 9, 1796, a receipt from the Grand-Duke of Tuscany, which authorized him to wear the Order of Saint-Etienne, the community in which he had received it.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2007


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