Category Archives: Corsica

Corsica The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte, A True Corsican?

Above the entrance to the Bonaparte house in Ajaccio, Corsica

A belated happy birthday to Napoleon Bonaparte who was born 246 years ago, on August 15, 1769, in this house on the island of Corsica.


corsica_mapThat lightly-populated island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean led to its repeated conquest and colonization, starting with the Phoenicians in 565 BCE. Over the next two millennia, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Barbary pirates, Greeks, and various Italians followed.

In a fascinating coincidence of history, one year before Napoleon’s birth, the Treaty of Versailles ended four hundred years of Genoese rule and transferred the island to France. The Corsicans, who had waged rebellion against Genoa for decades, rose up against the invading French. Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, numbered among the rebels. On May 8, 1769, just two months before the future French emperor was born, the Corsicans surrendered. Still, his parents named their second son Napoleon after an uncle who had died in the last major battle for Corsican independence.

Thus, with the thinnest of margins, Napoleon Bonaparte was born a French citizen. Nine years later, due to the support of Corsica’s French military governor the Comte de Marbeuf, young Napoleon entered French military school in Brienne, France. In 1785, sixteen-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte became a commissioned officer in the French Army he was later to lead into both glory and defeat.

Angry drummers during parade in Ajaccio on August 18,  2011. To celebrate the Virgin Mary, patron saint of CorsicaBut how much of his Corsican roots did Napoleon retain? The proud, rebellious Corsicans have long held a reputation for ruthless violence in the name of honor. The concept of “vendetta”—in strict definition, an honor feud between two families in which the slaying of a member of one family results in the murder of a member of the murderer’s family which in its own turn is revenged and so and on and on—comes from Corsican practices that continued into the twentieth century. Where Frenchmen might challenge you to a duel, a Corsican was more likely to slit your throat—or your brother’s—while you slept. At least that was the Corsican reputation.

As it turns out, it still is. A recent Atlantic magazine featured an article about French license plates, all of which bear a symbol indicating a region of France. Originally, the symbol on the plate was the area where the vehicle’s owner resided. In recent years, an owner has been able to choose any region they would like to display. Now there’s a huge demand for plates with the Corsican Moor’s Head, apparently because it tells other drivers that this is a vehicle owned by a tough guy, “not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed.”

By Jerry "Woody" from Edmonton, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, for all Emperor Napoleon’s overvaulting ambition, for all General Napoleon’s cold-hearted ability to send troops into bloody battle, he was surprisingly forgiving on a personal level. When his wife Josephine was unfaithful, when his brothers turned on him, when his generals, friends and subordinates betrayed him, he forgave them, often multiple times for repeated offenses.

Sometimes he was being expedient to his own needs, as when he accepted Marshal Ney back to his side in 1815. On the other hand, when after his first abdication his second wife Marie Louise deserted him for another man, he refused to even acknowledge that her perfidy had happened. He could express his anger when Tsar Alexander broke a treaty or when the malicious Talleyrand maneuvered in Europe’s courts against him, but when those he held dear betrayed him, he forgave or turned his head so as not to see. How very un-Corsican.


Corsica Miscellany Paris Saint Helena Sources The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte FACE-to-FACE

During my travels to do research on Napoleon Bonaparte, I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of Napoleonic sites, art, memorabilia, and related objects. I’ve learned a lot about about military campaigns, geopolitics, and daily life in his times. I’ve become fascinated (and distracted by) the countless characters who surrounded Napoleon, from his birth in Corsica through his time in power to his death on St Helena. And I’ve enjoyed new friendships with many people, particularly members of the Napoleonic Historical Society, who share my enthusiasm for The Man and his times. But the biggest challenge has been coming to terms with who that man, Napoleon Bonaparte, really was.

In his time, without photography, video or voice recordings, it was easier that it is today to be opaque. On one hand, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first modern celebrity so everything from the sleeve of a discarded coat to his camp toilet was scrupulously preserved. There must be thousands of images of his face. Until recently, however, I thought those images so varied that it was impossible to know what he really looked like. Then my husband Bert and I gathered together seventy-three photographs into the slide show featured above. Certainly Napoleon’s appearance changes as he ages, but these photos helped me to come face to face with the man I’ve been trying to understand. Bert and I hope you enjoy them! 


Corsica Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon on Camelback in the Musée Fesch

After seeing the photo of me riding an elephant, one of this blog’s readers asked if Napoleon had ridden a camel during his Egyptian Campaign (1798). Yes, Melanie! Here’s a photo I took of a small bronze statue of the Man himself on camelback. It’s displayed in the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio, Corsica, Napoleon’s hometown.

The Musée Fesch is named after Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, who was his mother’s half-brother. A great collector of art and artifacts, the wily Cardinal acquired considerable wealth during Napoleon’s reign.

After Napoleon’s fall, he retired to Rome with his sister, Madame Mère, as Letizia Bonaparte was known. There the two fell under the spell of an Austrian clairvoyant. The woman convinced them that angels had rescued Napoleon from exile in St Helena and were holding him in safety until time came for him to rise into power again. I’ve often wondered if the clairvoyant was an Austrian spy charged with keeping Napoleon’s mother and uncle from promoting plots for Napoleon’s escape from St Helena.

All of which proves (at least to me) that there is almost no end to the interesting stories about Napoleon and his family.

Corsica Saint Helena The Man

Bonaparte or Buonaparte?

As far back as Corsican records go, Napoleon’s family signed their name “Bonaparte.” In 1759, Napoleon’s father, Carlo, in his quest to establish hereditary links to Tuscan nobility, changed to the Italian “Buonoparte” form. Ten years later, his second son, Napoleon, was born under that surname.

Because Carlo had succeeded in establishing the family’s noble rank, young Napoleon was accepted as an eligible student in the French king’s military school. Seventeen years later, on March 9, 1796, twenty-six-year-old Napoleon signed his name Buonaparte for the last time—on documents marrying him to Josephine Beauharnais. From that date forward he reverted to “Bonaparte,” which appeared more French. Some claim that’s when he made a final break with his Corsican roots.

In later years, British propaganda used the foreign sounding “Buonaparte” to undermine his legitimacy as a French ruler.  That’s why the Englishman in this 1803 cartoon is gobbling “Buonaparté pie.” On St Helena, when the British refused to acknowledge the defeated Emperor’s imperial rights, they insisted everyone call him “General Buonaparte.”

Today, we see this same trick used in our own country when those who wish to diminish Barack Obama—a strange enough sounding name in its own right—call him “Barack Hussein Obama.” It’s in our genes to fear “the other,” but one can hope someday we’ll learn to rise above the instinct.

Corsica Sources The Man

Bonapartes banished from Corsica and France

As I wrote in an earlier post, the Corsican assembly, in 1793, voted unanimously “to inflict on the individuals making up [the family] Bonaparte an eternal brand that renders their name and their memory detestable to [all Corsican] patriots.” Six years later, however, during a stopover on Napoleon’s return from the Egyptian campaign, the Corsicans welcomed him as a hero.

France, too, banned the Bonaparte clan. In 1815, following the defeat at Waterloo and Napoleon’s second abdication, the French assembly, in support of the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII, issued the following order:

“The ancestors and descendants of Napoleon Buonaparte, his uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, brothers, their wives and children, his sisters and their husbands are excluded from the Kingdom in perpetuity, and are directed to leave it within a month, under pain of the penalty detailed in article 91 of the Penal Code [which included death].”*

When the French ban went into effect, Napoleon was a captive of the British, his brother Joseph was on his way to America, and his son was in  Austrian hands. Madame Mère and her brother Cardinal Fesch were en route to Rome. The rest of the family scattered across Europe.

But this “perpetual” ban, like Corsica’s “eternal” one, was short-lived.  In fact, its proposer, the Comte de Corbière lived to see Napoleon’s nephew crowned as Emperor Napoleon III in 1852.

* Quoted from Madame Mère Napoleon’s Mother, by Gilbert Martineau, John Murray Publishers, London, 1978

Corsica The Man

Happy Birthday, Emperor Napoleon

On August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica, the Archdeacon Lucien Buonaparte celebrated the festival of the Virgin Mary, the town’s patron saint.  Young Letizia Buonaparte, interrupting her devotions, hurried home to give birth to her second son. The boy was named Napoleon after an uncle who had died several months earlier while fighting in vain for Corsica’s independence from the French. Only thirty years later, the French nation itself was happily in thrall to Corsican-born Napoleon.

For my own recent birthday, my brother gave me a bottle of Napoleon’s favorite Chambertin wine. I also received several tongue-in-cheek Napoleonic gifts: hard candy stamped with his image, a jigsaw puzzle of his coronation painting, a hoodie printed with David’s famous Crossing of the Alps painting, and, most amusing of all, a Napoleon bobble head.

Few other figures from two hundred years ago are so recognizable today. Napoleon might not approve of the bobble head, but I think he’d be pleased to be remembered.

Corsica Saint Helena The Man

Bonapartes Branded Corsican Outcasts

In exile on St Helena, Napoleon regretted not enriching Corsica when, as French emperor, he easily could have. Having developed an idyllic memory of his youth, he dictated to his secretary Las Cases that, “the Bonaparte family had retired [from Corsica] to Nice [in mainland France].”

Napoleon’s last visit to Corsica was a quick stopover in 1799 on the way back from Egypt. Soon to be First Consul, he was already the war hero of Toulon and the Italian Campaign. The Corsicans feted him as a famous returning son, but that wasn’t how he had left six years before.

On graduation from French military school in 1785, sixteen-year-old Napoleon received his commission as a second lieutenant. He spent the next eight years shuttling between stints in the army and long leaves in Corsica. This period, encompassing the turbulent years of the French Revolution, was an equally unsettled time in Corsica. Local factions vied for power and argued for either independence, integration in the French republic, or alliance with Britain. After a struggle that makes today’s partisanship seem tame, Napoleon and his brother Joseph were rejected politically and personally.

In May, 1793, the Corsican assembly voted unanimously “to inflict on the individuals making up [the family] Bonaparte an eternal brand that renders their name and their memory detestable to [all Corsican] patriots.” Napoleon went underground, hiding out for a time at the 16th century Tour de la Parata until his own faction rescued him. He in turn rescued the rest of the family.

On St Helena, Napoleon recalled that the British had ransacked the family home in Ajaccio. In reality, it was his fellow Corsicans.

Corsica The Man

Napoleon’s Corsican Grotto

Young Napoleon, growing up in a household in which his mother seemed always to be pregnant, sought out solitary refuges. One was a wooden lean-to on the family porch, another was a grotto on the outskirts of Ajaccio. Legend says he was hiding in this second spot, when his father and the Count de Marbeuf (then the French governor of the island) came to tell him his scholarship at military school in France had been approved.

The illustration of Charles Bonaparte and Marbeuf visiting Napoleon at his grotto comes from a beautiful new edition of Napoléon Bonaparte Une Jeunesse Corse (A Corsican Youth) written by Jean-Baptiste Marcaggi (1866-1933), a Napoleon scholar from Corsica. I picked up a copy last spring at the Château de Malmaison, Napoleon and Josephine’s home outside of Paris.  In addition to the link above, the publishers have a Facebook page for this charming book.

Today, Ajaccio’s villas and apartment houses surround Napoleon’s refuge. One of the town’s monuments to its famous son abuts the granite boulders. The imposing monument itself towers above a soccer field. When my husband and I visited last March, we cleaned candy wrappers and a Coke bottle from the cave. Despite the encroaching development, I could easily imagine the young boy scurrying a couple kilometers from his home to his cave in the countryside. There, Napoleon said, his “dreams [for his future] were limited only by his imagination.” Now a statue of himself as Emperor overlooks it.

Corsica The Man

A Corsican in France, A Frenchman in Corsica

In 1778, nine-year-old Napoleon left Ajaccio, Corsica to attend French military academy. In France, his fellow students mocked his foreign accent and chip-on-the-shoulder Corsican patriotism.  Eight years later, when he returned home for the first time, the locals thought him “Frenchified.” He struggled to relearn his childhood language and sought out old friends and places, no doubt trying as I am to “Find Napoleon.”

For several years, he vacillated between loyalty to Corsica’s independence movement and his new duty as a French army officer. In 1793, Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican leader who had been his childhood hero, declared him an outcast.  Age twenty-four, destitute, he fled to France with his entire family. After that, he returned to the island only once: in 1799, as a heroic French general on his way home to Paris after invading Egypt. Throughout his life, regardless of his successes, enemies and supporters mocked his accent.

Today, in Corsica, Ajaccio proudly promotes itself as Napoleon’s hometown. Here’s a slide show from my March 2011 visit when I got a real sense of Napoleon’s childhood.

Corsica The Man

Sea and Sky

I arrived in Corsica believing Napoleon had grown up poor within limiting confines.  At twenty-six, how could he have dared to whisk an army across the snowcapped Alps? How could anyone with few worldly experiences have sailed off blithely to conquer Egypt? I wondered, as so many have, how this island boy of narrow prospects could have aspired to rule the world.

His hometown of Ajaccio on a clear day removed my blinkers.

Two short blocks from Napoleon’s home, he encountered the citadel and its intriguing foreign soldiers.  A few steps more and he’d be at the docks, where stoic fishermen and gambling traders set out to win their fortunes on the wide-open sea.  When he raised his eyes, he faced the vast, snowcapped mountains that form the backbone of Corsica.

If he took off in the other direction away from town, he could run for miles along a wind-swept shore.  In his time, Corsica may have been remote, but it was not a narrow world topographically.  As I myself stood in Ajaccio harbor,  savoring the windy salt air and the radiant mountains, a rising optimism filled my heart.  The whole world lay before me, all of it within grasp.

Ambition and a sense of the possible can grow out of geography.  That alone accounts for much of my own country’s greatness.  Americans’ thoughts can be expansive because our land is.  Early in life, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Corsican homeland accustomed him to the opportunity variety offers.  It taught him to be at ease with the unknown.

When you can see a wide horizon, you can dream.  If you are also born with a fearless nature, you explore, and, with a little luck, conquer.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg