Monday, 7 March 2011

Wayward Venus: The Life of Marie-Pauline Bonaparte Borghèse

 Marie-Pauline Bonaparte Borghèse
Painting by Robert Lefévre ~ ca. 1809
Image courtesy of:

"I did not love the Emperor as a sovereign; I loved him as my brother, and I shall remain faithful to him until death." 

Marie-Pauline as Venus Victrix
(Sculpture by Antonio Canova)
Image courtesy of:

She was known to her friends as la jolie Paulette for good reason. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, she was considered to be the most beautiful woman in all of Europe - and one of the least virtuous and most libertine. As such, and thanks to the prestige of her family name and powerful connections, Marie-Pauline Bonaparte was painted and sculpted by the foremost artists of the age. She shocked conventional society by her love affairs - and for posing nearly nude for Canova's celebrated sculpture, Venus Victrix, a work that has been replicated ad nauseum since its completion in 1808. A memoirist, the Duchesse d'Abrantes, whose husband fell madly in love with Pauline and was unable to resist her charms, wrote of her, "It is impossible to form any correct idea of the beauty of Paulette from her pictures."
(Quote: Bingham, D., The Marriages of the Bonapartes, Vol. 2, 1881: 227)

But for all her scandals, she was fiercely loyal to her brother, Napoleon I, if not to her husbands. She was witness to Napoleon's unstoppable victories, sharing the moments of his triumphs; but when his fortunes changed and her brother fell from power and was exiled to Elba, she was the only one of his siblings (on whom, as emperor, he bestowed so many titles and thrones) to follow him there. Even after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, when he was stripped of his titles and reduced to a mere mortal, she begged to be allowed to join him on Saint Helena's in order to share in his exile. Her fidelity was unswerving and concrete-firm. So it is not surprising that, of his three sisters, Marie-Pauline was Napoleon's favourite.

Marie-Pauline Bonaparte Borghèse, Duchesse de Guastalla
(Painting by Marie Guilhelmine Benoist)
Image courtesy of:

The daughter of Charles and Laetitia Bonaparte, Marie-Pauline (also known as Paolina or simply, Pauline) was born at Ajaccio (located on the west coast of the island of Corsica) on October the 20th, 1780. Although her older sister, Elisa (1777-1820), received a good education by the standards of the times, no such education was bestowed upon the younger Pauline. In fact, the amount of instruction she received in her youth was rudimentary at best. During those turbulent, chaotic years of the French Revolution when the sun set on the  royal House of Bourbon, the Bonapartes fled their native Corsica and settled in Marseilles. Like many refugees - then as now - the Bonapartes found themselves in straitened circumstances, sustained by charity.

Of Pauline, another woman, Madame Ducrest, wrote: "She was the loveliest woman I ever beheld; there was not the slightest imperfection in her delicious face, to which was joined an elegant figure and the most seductive grace. She was an incomparable beauty, but she had little or no instruction, no conversational powers, and her manners were exceedingly dissolute." It seems that Pauline, like her more imperial brother, had little shame and even less inclination towards more conventional social standards. But for all her wantonness, Pauline was graced with favourable qualities: she defiantly maintained her  courage in the face of dangerous circumstances; she never taunted or ridiculed Napoleon's consort, Josephine, as did the other Bonapartes; nor was she a mischief-maker. And her integrity never allowed her to be persuaded by political motive into committing a bad act.
(Quote & source: Bingham, D., The Marriages of the Bonapartes, Vol. 2, 1881: 227)

Marie-Pauline Bonaparte Borghèse  ~ 1808
(Painting by Robert Lefévre)
Image courtesy of:

A girl with charms as attractive as Pauline's had no shortage of suitors. She was first courted by a member of the French Convention - a fellow who was rejected by Napoleon. Instead, Napoleon attempted to marry off his younger, sixteen year old sister to one of his aides-de-camp, Marmont, a twenty-four year old officer in the artillery. The negotiations for this union occurred during the first Italian Campaign (1796-1797) at Mombello. But despite all the lucrative advantages a Bonaparte marriage had to offer, Marmont (courteously) declined. As he later wrote in his memoirs, "At the time I dreamed of married bliss, of conjugal faithfulness, of virtue so rarely found, in fact, but which often feeds the imagination of youth... In the hope of one day this chimera which was full of charm come true, I declined a marriage which would have had an immense influence over my career." As it proved to be, 'conjugal fidelity' was not one of Pauline's qualitative strengths.

In any event, Pauline was wedded to another of Napoleon's officers, the twenty-six year old Charles Victor Leclerc. The ceremony took place as it had been originally planned for Marmont: on June 14th, 1797, at Mambello in Italy. From this first marriage, a child was born on April 20th, 1798. (To her anguish, however, the boy whom Pauline called her "little angel," died on August 14th, 1804.) In 1802, when Napoleon had already become First Consul, Pauline was commanded to accompany her husband to Santo Domingo. The purpose of the expedition was to snuff out an insurrection, which the French succeeded in brutally achieving before being decimated themselves by yellow fever and illness; Leclerc, their commander-in-chief and who headed the expedition, was among the fifteen-hundred officers, twelve thousand soldiers and more than two thousand civilians who perished from the disease. As the French forces evacuated from the island of Santo Domingo, Pauline had no choice and was forced to leave as well - she brought her husband's body back to France. (Source & quote:, undated)

Portrait of Marie-Pauline Borghèse ~ 1806
(Painting by Robert Lefévre)
Image courtesy of:

It was soon arranged for Pauline, still a young widow, to be remarried; the candidate was an Italian prince who bore an illustrious family name and possessed a great fortune: Camille Borghèse. With this marriage (the ceremony of which took place at her brother Joseph's country estate, Mortfontaine), Pauline inherited the Italian title of Princesse de Borghèse. Soon after her marriage, Pauline left for Rome to join her husband; unfortunately for Pauline, she married a man who was indifferent to her charms and essentially ignored her. Their characters were too alike: both husband and wife were vain, capricious and almost entirely uneducated.

The marriage was an unhappy one and a separation soon ensued. In 1804, Pauline returned to France and settled into a magnificent residence befitting an imperial kin of Napoleon: l'Hôtel de Charost in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Honoré. (In 1814, the Duke of Wellington, in search of a suitable residence for the establishment of Great Britain's Embassy in Paris, purchased de Charost for 861, 500 francs; it has been the home of the British Embassy ever since.)
(Sources:, undated; Bingham, D., The Marriages of the Bonapartes, Vol. 2, 1881)

l'Hôtel de Charost ~ interior court
(Photo courtesy of the British Embassy, Paris)

"À la grecque"
Pauline Borghèse's Ceremonial Bedroom, ca. 1804 ~ l'Hôtel de Charost, Paris 
(Photo by Derek Evans - British Embassy)
The above two images are courtesy of UK in France :

Another view of Pauline Borghèse's bed, furbished in gold-coloured silk
(British Embassy, Paris)
Image courtesy of:

In 1806, Napoleon bestowed upon Pauline and her husband, Camille, the Duchy of Guastalla in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, situated northeast of Parma. A tiny principality - barely a village, in fact - incomparable to the more illustrious principalities given to her sisters, Elisa and Caroline: Elisa was created Princess of Lucques and Piombino in 1805 and Grand Duchess of Tuscany in 1809; Caroline became Grand Duchess of Berg and Cleves in 1806.

As with any neglected and bored wife, Pauline launched herself on many love affairs, for which she has come to be known. But what is generally overlooked is Pauline's entrenched fidelity to Napoleon. When the emperor was defeated and banished to the island of Elba, the new king of France, Louis XVIII, failed to provide him with the indemnity promised in the Treaty of Fontainebleu at Napoleon's abdication. Having been abandoned by those closest to him, including his siblings and second wife, Marie-Louise, it was Pauline who rallied to Napoleon's aid by giving him part of her own fortune and jewels, including a favourite diamond necklace (later seized in the emperor's coach on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo). (Source:, undated)

Marie-Pauline Borghèse as Daphne ~ ca. 1810
(Painting by Robert Lefèvre)
Image courtesy of:

A few years after Elba, when Napoleon was exiled on Saint Helena's in the South Atlantic, upon hearing of her brother's state of ill health, Pauline, despite of the fact that of her own state of poor health, pleaded with Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister of Great Britain at that time, in a touching letter from Rome dated July 11th, 1821: "...It is in the name of all the members of the Emperor's family that I appeal to the English government for a change of climate. If a request which is as wholly justified as this were refused, it would be tantamount to pronouncing his sentence of death and in that case, I request your permission to leave for Saint Helena so as to be present when he breathes his last... I know that the moments in the life of the Emperor are counted and I would reproach myself eternally if I had not endeavoured to use all the means which are in my power to ease the last moments of his life and to give him proof of my entire devotion to his person..."

But Lord Liverpool's heart was untouched; he ignored her pleas and did not even acknowledge receipt of Pauline's letter. Just as she received permission from the allies to journey to Saint Helena's and join her ailing brother, news of Napoleon's death reached Pauline: the emperor had expired on May 5th, 1821.
(Source:, undated)

Pauline Bonaparte ~ 1808
(Painting by François Joseph Kinson) 
 Image courtesy of:

The shock of Napoleon's death shook Pauline to the core - it was a shock from which she never recovered, particularly in her feeble condition. In 1825, desperately ill and close to death, she repaired to the baths of Pisa in a valiant hope of recovering her health. Feeling that her end was nearing, however, she sent word to her estranged husband, Camillo, who was residing in a splendid palace in Florence at that time, to receive her. Touched by her appeal and helpless condition, the Prince Borghèse agreed to a reconciliation - after so many years of estrangement - and Pauline had the comfort of dying in his arms. (Source: Bingham, D., The Marriages of the Bonapartes, Vol. 2, 1881)

Marie-Pauline as Venus Victrix ~ (1805-1808)
The two images above are courtesy of:

Considered a supreme example of Neoclassical sculpture, the subject of Antonio Canova's Venus Victrix (executed between 1805-1808) harkens back to the Greek myth of the Judgment of Paris. The tale describes a wedding celebration attended by the gods of Olympus and from which Eris, the goddess of strife, was excluded. Angered at being left out of the nuptial celebrations, Eris intrudes upon the wedding feast anyways and mischievously throws a golden apple - the Apple of Discord - into the midst of the assembled guests inscribed with the words, To The Fairest. The apple lands at the feet of the three most powerful Olympian goddesses: Hera, Pallas-Athena, and Aphrodite. Rather wisely, Zeus decides not to judge who, of the three goddesses, is the fairest but appoints Paris to be the judge and awarder of the golden apple with its significant title.

When the time had come for his decision, the goddesses appeared to Paris on Crete's sacred Mount Ida in all their glories. Each one made him a promise: Hera assured him bountiful wealth and power and rulership over the greatest kingdom on earth if she was awarded the apple; grey-eyed Athena pledged undefeated victory in every battle, together with triumphant glory and, most important of all, the gift of wisdom - the three most precious gifts a mortal man can possess; in her turn, Aphrodite promised him the gift of love and the possession of the most beautiful woman of the world, equal in perfection of form to Aphrodite herself: Helen. Guided by Aphrodite's promise and the strength of his desires, Paris unhesitatingly chose Aphrodite as the fairest and awarded her the golden apple - henceforth, she was referred to as Venus Victrix or Venus Victorious, as the Romans knew her. By his decision, Paris won much more than the favour of the Goddess of Love; he won the eternal enmity of both Athena and Hera, two very powerful adversaries. And so began the legend of Helen and Paris, and the seeds of the Trojan War were sown. (Source:, undated)

Venus Victrix ~ (Detail 1)
(Image by Alinari Archives/Corbis)
Image courtesy of: K. S. Alok Ranjan:

And so it was that Pauline Borghèse was portrayed, in the form of the reclining Aphrodite, prized apple in hand. Exceptional at the time - a person of high rank was customarily portrayed fully draped - Canova executed this statue of Pauline in the form of a half-nude, goddess of love " a pose of classical tranquility and noble simplicity." La dea Venere has been transformed into la dea Paolina: she is a self-assured Venus, well-contented in her triumph.

The settee on which Pauline reclines, draped like a catafalque, once held a mechanism within it which enabled the sculpture to rotate. In that way, the spectator stood still while the entire work rotated, affording the viewer the ability to see it from every angle. The figure - made of fine-quality white marble - was also waxed, giving it a soft gleam as it was once admired by candlelight. (Quote & source:, undated)

Venus Victrix ~ (Detail 2)
Image courtesy of:

Image courtesy of:

Image courtesy of:

Photograph by Erika Cantarutti ~ 2008
Image courtesy of:

By Thomas Campbell ~ 1823
(British Embassy, Rome)

Suggested readings:

Napoleon: His Wives and Women (2002), by Chritopher Hibbert: W. W. Norton & Company 
Napoleon's Women (2004), by Chritopher Hibbert: W. W. Norton & Company 

Pauline Bonaparte and Her Lovers (2004), by Hector Fleishchmann: Kessinger Publishing

Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire (2010), by Flora Fraser: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


  1. Hello Coincidental Dandy and fellow Torontonian, you have a very fine blog here. I look forward to more.

  2. Thank you kindly, Hazel, for your comment & compliment. Stay tuned for more.