When Napoleon entered the Council of Five Hundred, on the nineteenth Brumaire (November), 1799, Lucien had been there.11 The young general came with an armed bodyguard and turmoil broke out in the Orangerie of Saint-Claude. Seeing his intentions, several councillors shouted for his arrest, and some rushed forward. The grenadiers closed ranks, ushering their bruised commander out of the chamber. Pale and badly shaken, the veteran of Lodi and the Pyramids seemed, for once, to have lost his nerve. Soldiers looked on in confusion, as deputies inside clamoured for his arrest and imprisonment. It was left to Lucien, president of the assembly at only twenty-four, to rescue his brother and salvage what was left of their bloodless coup.12
He was, Napoleon himself later said, the ablest of his brothers but the one who caused him the most grief.13 By the time the Emperor was exiled to the island of Elba, just up the Tuscan coast, Lucien had already been in Canino for several years. He had escaped his older brother’s ire and fled with his family to the Pope whom Napoleon later abducted and imprisoned. Relations between the Bonapartes were never good, even at best of times. As a boy, Lucien said Napoleon was insufferable, ‘prone to anger for the slightest observations and never willing to broach the least resistance.’14
The younger Bonaparte was a more sensitive soul. He was largely self-educated, for one, and once destined for an ecclesiastical career like his great uncle and namesake, the abbot Luciano. He was a theatrical talent and the genuine radical of the family. At the outbreak of the Revolution, in 1789, he became an outspoken member of the local Jacobin club. A natural orator at only fourteen, he was capable of swaying a crowd, boasting of his ‘courage to commit tyrannicide’ and ‘die with a dagger in my hand.’15 After his family fled Corsica for the south of France, in 1793, Lucien was put in charge of a military depot near Marseilles and elected head of the local revolutionary committee. That December, when Napoleon led his artillery bataillon to storm rebel-held Toulon, Lucien reported with joy the mass bayoneting of men, women and children, signing his name, ‘Brutus Buonaparte, citizen sans-culottes.’16
As revolutionary ‘Terror’ enveloped France, Lucien was caught between his political ideals, his sense of human dignity and loyalty to his family. The Bonaparte clan found an untimely ally in Augustin Robespierre, whose older brother Lucien would later denounce as ‘the most cruel hypocrite, and the greatest coward of them all.’17 Yet, his own Jacobin credentials were enough to land him in prison, after Robespierre and the party leadership went to the scaffold. He probably would have perished in that crowded dungeon, still stained with the blood of recent victims, had Napoleon not secured his release.18
In this turbulent era, Lucien also married the illiterate daughter of his innkeeper, Christine Boyer, without his family’s knowledge. Napoleon was furious, but eventually disarmed by the young lady’s charm. She bore her husband two daughters, only suddenly to die in 1800 whilst pregnant with the third. Beside himself with grief, Lucien stood vigil at her tomb for an entire month, until Napoleon called him back to Paris.
In his absence, Lucien’s enemies had been conspiring against him. Joseph Fouché, the notorious chief of police, objected to the favour shown the younger Bonaparte, whom Napoleon had made Minister of the Interior for his role in the Brumaire. Earlier that year, Lucien had rigged the results of a plebiscite on the new constitution which delivered a landslide vote of approval for Napoleon’s government.19 Now, the chief of police showed the First Consul a subversive pamphlet allegedly circulated by his brother, entitled ‘Parallel between Caesar, Cromwell, Monck and Bonaparte.’ Far from the republican diatribes Lucien had written in his youth, the libel was a clever play at increasing the First Consul’s power. It was a risky gambit, one that reflected Lucien’s ambitions and the pivotal role he played in his brother’s councils at this time. Napoleon feigned outrage, though he probably helped draft the document himself.20 Lucien was dismissed from his ministerial post and spirited away as French ambassador to Spain.
In Madrid, Lucien’s charm soon won over the Spanish royal family and their favourite minister, Manuel de Godoy, queen Maria Luisa’s lover. Together, the two men sealed the most important alliance between their countries in a generation. On return to Paris, Lucien brought back a fortune in uncut Brazilian diamonds and priceless ‘Old Master’ paintings, amassed as gifts while in Spain. Napoleon disapproved of his brother’s use of public office for private gain, but Lucien was now the richest member of his family.21 Upon this and other successes, he was made senator of the Republic and grand officer of the Legion of Honor in 1802. The next year he embarked on reassembling the dispersed French Academy and himself took a seat. Still a young man, he was already famous, with an auspicious future. In the end, however, it was a chance encounter with Alexandrine de Bleschamp, the widow of Hippolyte Jouberthon, that determined the course of his life. A secret liaison ensued, leading to a child and a church wedding. As before nothing was said to the rest of the family, least of all his irascible brother.
When he secretly married the widow Jouberthon, intending to break the news gently to Napoleon, Lucien had no idea that he was foiling plans already hatched for him. As ambassador to the Bourbon court in Madrid, Lucien himself had sealed an accord that conferred the title ‘King of Etruria’ upon the Spanish monarch’s son-in-law, heir to the old Farnese Duchy of Parma in Italy.22 When the young Louis suddenly died of epilepsy in Florence, in May 1803, Napoleon saw an opportunity.
Bonaparte had a special interest in Etruria. In his younger years he had personally led the Revolutionary Army to a series of victories which annexed or subjugated large portions of Italy to France, but two prizes had eluded him: the Papal States, spreading north from Rome toward the Adriatic, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, an outlying province of the Habsburg Empire. Both laid claim to the ancient lands of the Etruscans and both were icons of absolutism from which many ordinary Italians hoped the French would liberate them.
Before taking Milan in 1796, Napoleon had addressed his Republican phalanxes, exhorting them that there remained much to do: ‘The ashes of the conquerors of Tarquin are still trampled by the assassins of Basseville.’23 Hugo de Basseville was a French agent who had been lynched three years earlier in Rome. Papal troops had not interfered to protect him, nor the Pope to punish his murderers. Napoleon’s words, which likened the pontiff directly to the despotic Etruscan Kings of old, caused panic in Rome.
Pius VI sought to appease Napoleon, but after the French ambassador was also killed in 1798, the Revolutionary Army marched upon the city and entered it unopposed, proclaiming the Republic of Rome and demanding the Pope renounce his temporal authority. Refusing, Pius was taken prisoner, escorted to Siena and thence to the Certosa near Florence. When France declared war on Tuscany, he was removed by long journey through northern Italy to Valence, on the Rhone, where he died soon after his arrival. A few years later, Florence itself was occupied by French troops and the Grand Duke Ferdinand, son of the Habsburg Emperor, forced to make way for the Bourbon prince of Parma.
Now that King Louis had died, and his Spanish wife, the infanta María Luisa, was left alone in Florence with her newborn son, it occurred to Napoleon to orchestrate a dynastic wedding between the widow and his younger brother, thereby unifying Tuscany more solidly to France. He suggested the idea to Lucien, who not breathing a word of his own marriage to Alexandrine a few days earlier, confessed no particular love for the ‘short, ugly and ungracious’ Queen of Etruria.24
Soon after, Napoleon received an official letter announcing Lucien’s civil union and the birth of a son. The First Consul was thrown into an immediate and violent rage. He had a particular dislike for the beautiful and seductive madame Jouberthon, a cultivated woman whose knowledge of poetry, literature and the arts may have intimidated him. He offered Lucien a choice between loyalty and love, allegedly uttering the words, ‘Tout pour Lucien non marié, rien pour Lucien marié.’25 Despite attempts at reconciliation by their mother and older brother, Joseph, Lucien responded by abandoning Paris for Italy, in 1804, under an assumed name. The same year, Napoleon disposed with the pretence of First Consul and adopted the title Emperor. At the same time, he had the senate issue a proclamation that excluded the younger Bonaparte and his heirs ever after from any rights of succession within the empire. For Lucien, it seemed, there was no turning back.
After sojourning for a spell near Sutri, Lucien and his family won the protection of the new Pope, Pius VII. The pontiff was warmly disposed to the younger Bonaparte for his role in the recent Concordat with Napoleon. Lucien and his family settled into the Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, hosted by his maternal uncle and minister plenipotentiary to the Holy See, Joseph Fesch. The good natured prelate, whom Lucien once followed into the seminary, had arrived in the city as an officer in Napoleon’s army but traded his boots for a cardinal’s hat. ‘From a pillager of the church, he had become one of its pillars,’ quipped the poet, Chateaubriand.26 The former love rival and friend of Lucien worked as Fesch’s secretary, from a cramped room on the top floor of his palace on Via dei Coronari.
The attic window looked out over the ruddy rooftops and cupolas of Rome. The city in which the exiled family made their new home was a gorgeous but decadent place, shrunk behind its ancient walls like the ruins of Tyre or Babylon, Chateaubriand mused, and marooned in a sea of desolation which the poet likened to a biblical desert.27 It was a city far from revolutionary Paris, where the ancien régime lived on in the weary paternalism of the Catholic church and a feudal nobility still couched in its ancient privileges. The traumas of the Napoleonic invasions had shaken off the last cosmopolitan refinements of the Grand Tour. Street brawls and vendetta killings were almost a daily occurrence, as were the saints’ feasts that were the bread and circuses of the Catholic Church.
During carnival week, Barbary horses were raced bareback through the city streets. Masked balls were held in the frescoed salons of Cardinal Fesch’s palace, where Lucien and Alexandrine befriended powerful and cultivated churchmen, like Ercole Consalvi, Cardinal Secretary of State, who had led negotiations over the Concordat in Paris, in 1801. The house was also frequented by leading artists, among them Canova, who was just beginning work on his marble statue of the reclining Venus, sculpted in the likeness of Lucien’s sister, Pauline Borghese.28
In Rome, the couple found a life befitting their station, one that had been impossible in Paris. Lucien soon purchased a palace of his own on the corner of Via Condotti, near the Spanish Steps, where he could hang his priceless gallery of Renaissance and Baroque paintings. The collection was arranged in fifteen rooms of the Palazzo Nuñez (now Torlonia), in Via Bocca di Leone. 29 He had a small theatre constructed on the upper floor in which artists and aristocrats in his circle acted out the parts in his own tragedies. The same year, he bought from the Apostolic Chamber the Villa Rufinella, a former Jesuit retreat high in the Alban hills above Frascati, set among parkland of holm oaks, cypresses and umbrella pine. There, like Roman patricians of old, he found refuge for his literary and artistic pursuits, collecting ancient marbles and helping excavate the buried city of Tusculum, nearby.30
By 1808, Lucien was also in possession of the old Farnese feud at Canino. The rambling property included the Badia fortress beside its bridge, as well as ‘a kind of manor house formed from the remains of the old castle’ at the lower end of Canino itself; ‘but this was small, very much neglected and badly distributed,’ so Lucien set about remodelling it to receive his family, who moved there by the end of the year.31 The entire estate had cost him 100,000 scudi.
Lucien threw himself into the role of landlord, riding about the estate in a chaise de poste, hunting rifle in hand and his dogs at his heel. ‘Dressed in a coarse woolen coat and thick shoes, whole days were passed in visiting his domain, and superintending the workmen who worked on various parts of it.’32 He dedicated himself to agricultural improvements, clearing abandoned olive groves, laying out extensive vineyards and experimenting with cotton production. The farm provided much needed income from grain, hay, timber and chestnuts, in addition to meat and cheese shipped from the tiny harbour of Montalto di Castro, nearby. Lucien even imported iron ore from the island of Elba, in order to reopen the foundry at Canino ‘that had existed from time immemorial.’33 When the cold blast furnaces were lit again, and glowed against the dark, smoke-filled sky, it seemed as if life was restored to the mineral-rich veins of old Etruria. In the evenings, Lucien wrote poetry and settled accounts.
On fine days, the whole family made excursions into the neighbouring countryside. ‘Not far from the town, and protected on the north by a fine wood, stood the remains of an old convent, which was now reduced to the humble condition of a granary; but this was spacious, being composed of several large apartments, and very well adapted to the purpose’ of a country house.34 Musignano, as it was called, soon became a favourite retreat, and Lucien set about transforming it into a comfortable home.
There the family thrived in the country air. Alexandrine and the children picnicked in the meadows nearby, followed by ‘horse and foot races, dancing, and other amusements.’35 Barns were erected, with simple beds on which the family reclined and took their meals. One was ‘filled with toys of every sort, guns, swords, tambours, hunting and riding equipment, picture books, etc.’ So Pierre Napoleon, Lucien’s son, recalled with nostalgia years later. ‘One can only imagine the joy we felt when the signal was given to depart for Musignano.’36
A mile away, in the midst of olive groves, where sulfuric hot springs boiled out of the ground, Lucien excavated and restored the remains of an ancient Roman bath. It was named for the hundred cells or bathing rooms, Centumcelle, carved in the rock, with a basin in which the scalding water was collected.37 The artist, Charles Chatillon, sketched Alexandrine and the children frolicking in the pool with the family dog, Mustapha. Pierre Napoleon later recalled his father teaching him to swim there, by throwing coins into the water for which the young boy dove.38
Over the years, Alexandrine would give birth to ten children, in addition to the three she and Lucien had brought with them from their previous marriages. Domestic life at Canino was portrayed by the painter Jean Baptiste Wicar, who in 1810 wrote to Canova saying that he was working ‘like a dog’ to realize various portraits of the growing Bonaparte brood.39 The canvasses show a life far from the cares of court, in a setting simple but idyllic.
But this Arcadia was thrown into turmoil that same year, when Napoleon annexed the whole of the Papal States to France, issuing a decree from Vienna declaring the temporal sovereignty of the Pope formally at an end. Pius VII excommunicated him, but Napoleon had the pontiff arrested in his own palace and dispatched under cover of darkness with a strong escort, allegedly out of fear for his life. He was bundled to Fontainebleau, where he spent the next four years a prisoner of the Emperor. All Catholic Europe was horrified, especially Spain which had sealed diplomatic ties to France at Lucien’s behest and whose own king had been imprisoned two years earlier.40
For his part, Lucien hastened to quit Italy for the New World with his wife and children, boarding the American frigate Hercules, sent to Civitavecchia from Naples by authority of his brother-in-law, King Joachim Murat. With them went the family physician, chaplain and tutor, as well as a suite of some thirty servants and the family portraits. But the ship was captured by the English off the coast of Sardinia, and the senator and his family detained on Malta. The British governor housed them in the country palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, vacant since Napoleon dissolved the order a decade earlier. From there, they were sent to England, where they spent the next four years comfortably secluded on the castle estate of Thorngrove, in the Worcestershire countryside, purchased by Lucien for 9,000 pounds.41
Only in May of 1814, after Napoleon had retired to his island domain of Elba, did Lucien finally return to Rome. He was greeted affectionately and embraced by the Pope, who had been released earlier that same year from Fontainebleau. To Pius, Lucien delivered a heroic poem he had composed during the long captivity in Britain. Charlemagne, or the Church Delivered, was a debt of gratitude to the pontiff who had baptized his own daughter, but it also dealt a subtle blow at the imperial pretensions of his brother.42 Ten years earlier Napoleon had forced the Pope to crown him in Notre Dame, a full one thousand years after Leo III had done the same for Charlemagne. The original Emperor of the Franks, Lucien hinted in his poem, had been a defender of the Church. His father Pepin had forced the donation of the Papal states from the Lombard kings - the very same monarchs whose iron crown Napoleon had placed on his own head in Milan, calling himself King of Italy.
The day he arrived in Rome, Lucien knelt before the Pope to receive the title of Roman Prince, with the formal investiture of the feud at Canino and all its properties. The family now returned to their congenial life of exile, dividing time between the distractions of city and the tranquility of the countryside. In the company of his inseparable friend, Father Maurizio of Brescia, Lucien found intellectual stimulation. The Franciscan was well read, a mathematician, astronomer and theologian, tutor to Lucien’s children, a man whom the Prince later remembered as his ‘faithful companion in study and travel for more than thirty years.’43
But then in March of 1815, Lucien suddenly embarked on the most unexpected and seemingly ‘contradictory’ moment in his career.44 When word spread that his brother had slipped away from Elba and landed again in France, Lucien set out in disguise with Father Maurizio, crossing the Alps by mule. It may be he played some role in Napoleon’s escape, though rumours also circulated of British complicity.45 In the preceding months the Emperor had received many distinguished English visitors on his island, among them admiring seamen and officers but also peers like Lord Holland, who wanted to see him back in France.46
We may never know the truth, but Lucien was welcomed with the warmest honours, even a peerage, and once again he stood at his brother’s side. After the defeat at Waterloo, he alone nurtured belief Napoleon could hold onto power. In the end, the Emperor hadn’t the nerve. When Lucien pressed him to ‘dare,’ Napoleon replied famously, ‘Alas, I have dared only too much already.’47 On 22 June, 1815, Lucien delivered to the French assembly Napoleon’s letter of abdication in favour of his son and namesake, knowing full well that it was only a formality, for the boy was in Austria.
As the Prussian army closed in, Lucien fled Paris for the last time, accompanied by his old friend, the painter Charles de Chatillon. Crossing the mountains of Savoy, the pair was captured by Austrian troops and locked away in the fortress of Turin. Only months later, by personal appeal to the chancellor Metternich, did the Prince finally return to his wife and children in Canino. He settled back into life as best he could, but with all that had happened his relationship with the Pope could never be the same. Even if Pius forbade any form of persecution against ‘that fine man, Lucien,’48 his family was under constant surveillance within the Pontifical state by order of Cardinal Consalvi. Whenever they travelled between the properties in Canino, Rome and Frascati, Lucien needed authorization from the Vatican Secretary of State, and even then they were accompanied by mounted police.
In 1817, the escort proved useful when his party was waylaid at the Villa Ruffinella by a band of brigands headed by the notorious bandit, Giuseppe de Cesaris. The painter, Charles Chatillon, was mistaken for the Prince, knocked over the head with the butt of a rifle and abducted, along with the Monsignor Cuneo, prelate of antiquities just up the road at Tusculum. Chatillon managed to win over his captors, by sketching de Cesaris and promising to write his biography. For the release of their hostages, the outlaw accepted a ransom of five hundred scudi, but after this disturbing episode Lucien decided to abandon his villa at Frascati.49
He may, however, have had other motivations for the sale. It was now that he began to face financial difficulty. The time away in Paris, coupled with the estrangement of powerful friends in Rome, brought Lucien and his wife upon hard times. He was forced to sell his palace on via Condotti, along with the larger part of his gallery of paintings and Roman sculpture.50 This left him to depend upon the estate at Canino, and an increasing number of loans. In time things grew worse, until the annual earnings of the estate were barely enough to pay the interest on his debts. Creditors threatened to take him to the Tribunal. Temporary reprieve came from Cardinal Fesch, but it was only a matter of time before he was back in debt again.51 This went on until he was on the brink of ruin. And then, just when things seemed utterly hopeless, early in 1828 his fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better.