Category Archives: Corsica

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.

Corsica The Man

Ajaccio Cathedral

Ajaccio’s cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built in 1593, is steps from the Bonaparte house.  Tradition says it was here on August 15, 1769, Letizia Bonaparte felt sudden labor pains and rushed home, giving birth to Napoleon on a first floor sofa before she could reach her upstairs bedroom.  The church hasn’t changed much, except back then it reputedly smelled dreadful, due to the local custom of burying the untreated dead beneath its floor—combined with the stench of butcher shops just outside its doors.   Thankfully, the bodies have been removed and, although there’s still a butcher shop nearby, it’s pristine.

A sign over the baptismal font claims Napoleon Bonaparte and his little sister were baptized here in 1771.  Like many Napoleonic legends, that may not be true, as other evidence says he was a sickly infant so, as a precaution, his uncle the Archdeacon baptized him at home shortly after his birth.  I’m not sure either baptism took:  Napoleon, although not an atheist, had little respect for organized religion.

This church reminds me poignantly of the one my Catholic family attended in the south of France when I was a young girl. It has the same wooden chairs, worn cold stone floors, and saints staring down from side chapels.  The shadows exude sacred intimacy and immortal authenticity. Although Napoleon’s cathedral no longer smells of the dead, the scent of its burning candles, always a lure to me as a child, rekindles memories of beliefs I lost long ago.

Corsica The Man

Milelli, Bonaparte Family’s Corsican Country House

The Bonaparte’s country house in Milelli is less famous than the Ajaccio residence but to me more telling.  Located in the hills above  Ajaccio, it sits among rich olive trees, many old enough for Napoleon to have known them.  Here, the family came in the summer months, fleeing the heat and mosquitoes of the coastline.  Away from the narrow town streets, the children could run free, catching lizards, chasing chickens, and perhaps, playing king of the rock on the boulder jutting out from under the stairs.

The building’s rectangular shape and plain outside is typical Genoese style of the time.  The windowless first floor served as a storeroom and probably contained an olive press.  A year’s harvest supplied oil and olives for the Bonapartes and their extended family; they bartered the excess for meat, flour or other goods their own lands didn’t produce.  The house is empty and closed to visitors, but I wandered the orchards and climbed the steps to peer at the original wood lintel over the door.

Common legend claims Napoleon grew up in poverty, yet neither the town home or this country place support that.  When Napoleon was born, the structure in Ajaccio had just two stories to house a large extended family. Napoleon would have witnessed, throughout his youth, the house’s expansion through his relatives’ clever marriages and his father’s risky ventures. The family never had much cash available, but then in many ways, Corsica was not a cash economy.  Instead, Napoleon grew up fed on produce from his family’s property. Years later, on St Helena, he proudly claimed they had never needed to buy food.


Corsica The Man

Maison Bonaparte, Napoleon’s birthplace

In Corsica, the most famous house is the Maison Bonaparte in Ajaccio where Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769.  According to tradition, his mother, Letizia Ramolino was praying in the nearby cathedral when she felt severe labor pains.  She hurried home, only making it to a first floor parlor where she gave birth to her second son, named Napoleon after an uncle who had died in the Corsican struggle for independence.  This is a photo of the parlor but the settee is not the original.

In fact, aside from the evocative setting and exterior of the building, not much from Napoleon’s time remains in Maison Bonaparte.  The original Bonaparte belongings were pillaged when they hurriedly left Corsica under a political cloud in 1793.  Then, when Napoleon’s mother returned to Corsica in 1796, after her son’s early successes in France, she had the place made over.  Now, it’s a museum, with few personal effects and no kitchen, dishes or clothing in sight.

On the other hand, due to its location in Ajaccio’s unchanged narrow streets, you can easily imagine young Napoleon with his older brother Joseph in tow, running the two short blocks to the citadel to mingle with the soldiers.  The streets must have echoed Letizia’s scolds as she dragged her unwillingly son away from the citadel to attend the cathedral’s daily mass.

Most poignant for me was looking out the window of Napoleon’s father’s study at the terrace where Carlo Bonaparte set up a small shelter to which his industrious second son could escape from his large, noisy family to study mathematics and to dream.

Corsica The Man

First Day in Napoleon’s Hometown

Ajaccio, Corsica, is a lovely place, on a vast Mediterranean bay, full of Italian exuberance and French style.  It’s a bit run-down here and there, but that only adds to the authenticity. We arrived on its patron saint’s feast day and were treated to a solemn religious parade and marching band. The museums were closed for the festival so we toured the public spaces, finding three Napoleon statues, two representing the local son as Caesar, the third resembling a Soviet war memorial.

Our fifth-floor walk-up apartment overlooks the citadel where the young boy Napoleon is purported to have hero-worshipped the soldiers and traded his refined white bread for their coarse brown rations.  To this day, the citadel remains a military installation.  The plaque outside its walls tells its distinguished history, without mentioning that in 1792 Napoleon himself led an attack of French troops against Corsican rebels holed up inside.  Based on the statues and this tourist sign, I’d conclude that his hometown has whitewashed Napoleon’s colorful history to turn the complex man into a flat heroic figure.

I’m sure that Corsica has much more to teach me in the coming days.



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