Elisa Bonaparte - Napoleonic Historical Society












Elisa Bonaparte 
Princess of Lucca

Elisa Bonaparte

Marianna-Elisa Bonaparte, the eldest of Napoleon’s sisters, was born in a Ajaccio, in the year 1777. She received a better education than either Pauline or Carolyn, for during her youth Corsica was tranquil, and the influence of her family considerable. They commanded sufficient credit to obtain her admission as a free pupil to the school of St. Cyr, where she remained till the Revolution broke out in Corsica, in 1792, in consequence of the capture of the island by the English. Madame Laetitia and her daughters now took up their residence at Marseilles, subsisting, as has been already stated, upon a fund voted by the convention for the support of Corsican refugees.

In May, 1797, at the age of 20, Marianna married M. Felice Bacciochi, Corsican like herself, of a poor but noble family, and holding the grade of captain of infantry. It is impossible, from the records now accessible, to decide whether Napoleon was favorable or averse to the alliance; one authority positively stating that he considered it unfortunate and ill-advised, and another as distinctly asserting that he regarded the prescriptions of a proper ambition as fully consulted in the match. But it must be remembered that Napoleon was already married to Josephine, and had been for some months general–in– chief of the Italian Army. Even at this period he might have with propriety sought husbands for his sisters in higher walks of life than those trodden by M. Bacciochi, and if in reality, he did oppose the step, the thorough insignificance of which his brother–in– law gave proof during his long career, amply justified his objections.

The next year, Lucien Bonaparte was elected to the Council of 500, and Marianna and her husband followed him to Paris. Here Madame Bacciochi, whose education had fitted her for the society of men of letters, gathered around her many of the poets and critics of the time. Chateaubriand took pleasure in her acquaintance and at a later period found her an active and willing mediatress in tempering the unfriendly relations existing between himself and Napoleon. Laharpe and Fontanes were assiduous visitors at her house: the latter soon became her acknowledged lover, the complacent husband quietly accepting the odious position. Madame Bacciochi now affected the airs of a blue–stocking: she presided over a Society of literary ladies, and invented a costume for the use of the associate members. This she wore herself on one occasion at a fancy ball, announcing her intention of recommending it to the adoption of all good Christians. In appearance, Marianna Bonaparte was much less attractive than either of her sisters. A harsh and domineering expression injured the effect of features which might otherwise have been pleasing, and her manner, which was abrupt and almost contemptuous toward inferiors, rendered her address distant and suspicious. Her bones were large and prominent, and her limbs ill-shaped: her gate was not graceful and often subjected her to the playful mockeries of her sister Pauline.

Napoleon became emperor in 1804, and in 1805 made his eldest sister, Princess of Lucca and Piombino, in Italy. She now abandoned the name of Marianna, by which she had been known during her youth, using exclusively her second baptismal name, by which she is historically known – that of Elisa. She and her husband were crowned at Lucca in July, 1805; this was the only act of her life as a sovereign, in which she recognized M. Bacciochi as her equal. She soon degraded him to a position which her biographers have described as that of the first of her subjects, if not that of the first of her domestics. At the parade, he was her aide-de-camp and lowered his sword as she passed; at official ceremonies of the palace, he was her Chamberlain, and stood behind her or marched after her; in social life, he was the very last and least of her associates; on the coins, his profile was three quarters absorbed and lost in hers. She seemed to make it a point to render him ridiculous in the eyes of Europe, and absurd in the sight of history.

Her government of the principality was not an unsuccessful one. She did much to develop the resources of the country, the face of which she beautified with numerous public works. The admirable road from Lucca to the Baths, and the embankment raised for the first 3 mi. along its borders to resist the inundations of the Serchio, remain to bear witness to her spirit of improvement. She committed, however, several ruthless acts; she caused the Cathedral of Massa Ducale to be demolished, because it stood too near her summer palace; and she destroyed, from a similar motive, the church of the Madonna at Lucca. She made her government a military one, in ambitious imitation, of that of France to, and, for want of a to it thatwar with which to gratify her martial tastes, she ordered parades, drills, musters and sham fights; of these she was the heroine, gorgeously attired and sumptuously served, her husband rendering himself useful as an orderly officer. He waited in respectful silence, and, when bidden, bore mimic dispatches across the bloodless field

\ The Princess encouraged the arts, and protected the artists who sought her favor. She rewarded the poets who chanted her praises; and when styled, in flattering verse, “La Semiramide di Lucca,” she accepted the comparison as a tribute which did her honor. She lived in open defiance of public opinion, being of a temper too imperious to pay heed to the criticisms of those who were her subjects and not her peers. One of her lovers of this period was Baron Capelle, prefect of the Mediterranean, and in this capacity stationed at Leghorn. He often saw the Princess at Lucca, and, when the proper moment for a declaration arrived, he made it in a manner at once novel and delicate. He found her suffering, on this occasion, with a violent toothache. He summoned a dentist to the palace. He said to her, “Princess, it appears the tooth is beyond saving; he must have it out.” “Oh, I can never consent, I am sure,” returned her Highness. He drew the dentist into a corner, and said, “Here, find the tooth corresponding in my mouth to the one which aches in the princess’s, and draw it; make haste.” The operation was accomplished quickly and noiselessly the Baron showed the extracted tooth to the Princess, saying “ There, you see that it is the affair of a mere instant, and that it leaves no trace behind.” The invalid could hardly regard with indifference this proof of interest.

Princess Elisa was instrumental in directing the efforts of Paganini to a new field all of exertion. At the age of 20 he was appointed leader of the orchestra of the court; he conducted the musicians at the opera, when the reigning family attended the performance. Once a fortnight, he gave a concert at the Palace. A lady home whom he had long loved in silence, seemed to manifest, by her constant presence at these entertainment’s, that she observed and perhaps returned his passion. Their position, however, enjoined upon them discretion and mystery. On the day preceding one of his concerts, Paganini caused a message to be conveyed to the lady, to the effect that he was arranging a musical surprise for her. The program for the evening announced a “Novelty,” quote, called a “Scena Amorosa.” The court curiosity thus enlisted, was stimulated to a high pitch by the appearance of Paganini with a violin of two strings. The sol and the chanterelle. The peace, executed entirely by him on this instrument, represented a passionate dialogue between a lady of soprano register and tender sentiments, and a jealous lover of tenor compass and pleading accents. To the reproaches of the tortured gallant succeeded the consolations of his yielding inamorata; a reconciliation soon followed, the whole concluding with a Merry Rigadoon danced by the happy couple, which the audience interpreted as an elopement and a lesson to obdurate parents.

Princess Elise complimented the musician upon his extraordinary performance, saying, “You have accomplished an impossibility with two strings; could you not execute a similar fate upon one?” Paganini hesitated, but promised to make the attempt. Three weeks afterwards, he played before the court, and upon the fourth string alone, the Sonata entitled “Napoleone”. This success was immense, and from this concert dated his predilection for performances upon a single string. This is Paganini’s own account – given some years subsequently – of the manner in which he was led to attempt a task apparently so impossible. The popular explanation had previously been, that having committed a terrible murder, he was confined for many months in a dismal cell, where a violin formed his only resource and furnished him his only occupation. The jailer, fearing that he might hang himself with the strings, prudently removed all but one! From this solitary chord the patient artiste speedily learned to draw the various sounds which, until then, had only been extorted from four!

Napoleon recognized the administrative capacities of his sister, in 1808, by making her grand Duchess of Tuscany, thus largely extending her dominions. She now resided alternately in Florence, Pisa, and Poggio. She felt that she might presume, in her diplomatic relations with France, upon the indulgence of her brother, in the correspondence of her government with the French minister of foreign affairs, which she dictated herself, shows how jealous she was of French encroachment or interference, and how adroitly she made her influence with Napoleon, tell in favor of Tuscany and its interests. She stimulated agriculture by offering prizes for successful cultivation of the land, or an amelioration of the breed of domestic animals. She made forays against the bandits that infested the forests. She built fortifications and erected school-houses and a asylums for orphans. Her reviews and parades were now upon a grander scale; she disciplined raw recruits, instituted a system of military encouragement, promoted favorites and cashiered the objects of her dislike. Her husband had not participated in her late advancement; while she rose from the rank of a process to that of a grand Duchess, he still remained a citizen husband of a regal wife; she never allowed him any other position than that of a submissive official, and an obedient subaltern.

Upon the fall of Napoleon, she commenced, like all her family, a life of exile and vagabondage. The Austrians would not permit her to reside in Bologna, and Murat, the husband of her sister, would not receive her at Naples. She remained for a time in and in Trieste, and upon the death of Murat, in 1815, she retired with Caroline to the vicinity of Vienna, and afterwards to the château of Brunn, in Moravia. She was finally permitted to reside at Trieste, under the name of the Countess of Campignano, where she died in 1820. She was the first of the eight sons and daughters of Laetitia Bonaparte to descend to the tomb.

During the period of her wanderings, Napoleon said of her at St. Helena: “Elisa has a masculine brain and a lofty soul, she doubtless displays great philosophy in adversity.” Upon hearing of her death, he desired to be left alone. Being interrupted in his meditations, he said “I used to think that death had forgotten our family; but now he has begun to strike. He is taking Elisa, and I shall soon follow her.” His own death took place in less than six months from this date.

Extracted from At the Court of Napoleonby Frank B. Goodrich, 1856; J.B. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia, 1875. Reprinted from the Napoleonic Society of America journal.

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