Napoleon Bonaparte’s Mother: Letizia Ramolino

Napoleon Bonaparte's mother
Napoleon’s Mother, Letizia Ramolino. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother, Letizia Ramolino was a sensible, pragmatic, domineering, and no-nonsense mother, and even after Napoleon became Emperor, she still acted like his mother. To demonstrate, once when Napoleon presented his hand for her to kiss, she flung it at him and presented her own hand instead. Although Napoleon and his mother had their differences with one another, Napoleon still respected her and once said of her, “She has always been an excellent woman, a mother without an equal; she deserved all reverence.”[1]

Perhaps, Napoleon felt that way based partly on what his mother Letizia once wrote about her early life, marriage, and children:

“I consecrated myself wholly to my duties as a mother, and rarely went out except to mass. My presence at home was always necessary to control my little children. My mother-in-law and husband were so indulgent that at the least cry or reprimand they ran to them and gave them a thousand caresses. As for me I was severe or indulgent as needed. Thus I was loved and obeyed by my children who have always shown me love and respect.”[2]

Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Napoleon’s mother was born Nobile Maria Letizia Ramolino on 24 August 1750 in Corsica. She was an Italian noble with a sizeable dowry who at the age of 13 married a 17-year-old law student named Carlo Buonaparte. A few months after their marriage, she was pregnant. The couple would ultimately have 13 children, 8 of whom survived infancy, with the fourth child being the famous Napoleon Bonaparte.

On 24 February 1785, Letizia’s husband died, and, to survive, she quickly learned to be thrifty and frugal. Her frugality continued even after Napoleon came to power and even after he endowed her with a generous allowance. In fact, it was because of her frugality that she amassed a fortune because instead of spending her money, she allowed her children and everyone else to spend their money on her. A newspaper once noted an example stating that she was so economical, she preferred to receive dresses from her daughters rather than purchase them for herself.

Napoleon’s wife, Josephine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Letizia loved her child and was devoted to them, she also meddled in their lives and was particularly meddlesome when it came to their spouses. For example, Letizia had plenty of reasons to despise Napoleon’s first wife Josephine de Beauharnais before she met her and it did not change when she met her. Letizia “condemned her [Josephine] harshly for seducing and corrupting the dutiful, naive [Napoleon],”[3] and, moreover, when Josephine was out of earshot, she called her a “whore.”

Letizia was not just critical of Josephine, she could also be critical of her own children. Despite being loyal to Napoleon, she sometimes criticized him and took the side of her children against him. For instance, when Napoleon was crowned, she boycotted his coronation. Part of the reason for the boycott was due to the fact that Napoleon did not include Lucien in his succession plan, which infuriated her. Other historians have also mentioned that her boycott may have also been related to her imperial title that she disliked. The title was “Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l’Empereur” (Mother of His Majesty, the Emperor), which everyone shortened to Madame Mère.

Letizia has often been described as a beautiful woman with a noble carriage. She retained her beauty as she aged. In fact, later in her life, one person wrote that ” Madame Mère was the best-looking woman of her age I ever beheld, (she was nearly seventy), and must formerly have been very handsome; but her countenance was at once sweet and dignified.”[4]

In 1802, Napoleon commissioned the famous Italian Neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, who was well-known for his marvelous marble sculptures, to make a bust of him. Letizia followed suit in 1804 but she commissioned a full-length sculpture. Canova completed her sculpture “without a mythological ‘disguise.’”[5] Quatremère de Quincy, an armchair archeologist, arts administrator, and influential writer, saw the sculpture and wrote to Canova telling him he thought it “very beautiful … The head seems to me a good likeness, and of good character.”[6]

Talma. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

After Napoleon’s famous loss at Waterloo, he was to be exiled to the island of St. Helena. Napoleon’s favorite actor, François-Joseph Talma, was there at their parting and witnessed mother and son saying their final goodbyes. It was the last time they would see each other, and according to one newspaper, it was a touching scene:

“Talma in breathless excitement, stood immovable and congratulated himself on being permitted to witness so interesting a scene. Napoleon’s mother passed Talma without noticing him. She saw nothing but her son, who stood in the middle of the room, fixing his gaze with an indiscribable expression on his parent. They stood opposite each other — … [and for] a while they stood opposite each other without speaking. Two large tears rolled down Laetitia’s cheek. Talma, who was standing in the background, wept bitterly, but Napoleon showed no sign of emotion. At length Laetitia raised both her hands, and stretching them out to the Emperor, said, with a clear and sonorous voice – ‘Farewell, my son!’ Napoleon pressed her hands in his, and looked long and affectionately at her face. Then with a voice as firm as his mother’s … he exclaimed, ‘Farewell, my mother!!’”[7]  

As Napoleon began his exile on St. Helena, Letizia went to live in Rome with her younger brother, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. She claimed that Napoleon’s fall from power, ended her life. It is true that after his exile she gave up the theatre, something that had been of infinite pleasure to her (just like Napoleon). She then began focusing on “netting, ‘reversi,’ and alms-giving.”[8] In addition, Napoleon’s secretary reported that after her son’s exile, Letizia strongly desired to send him all that she had saved, which amounted to millions of francs.

In early 1819, while Napoleon was banished to St. Helena, an Austria clairvoyant, named Madame Kleinsmuller, convinced Letizia and Fesch that she was receiving information directly from the angelic Virgin Mary and that Napoleon had escaped the island. Madame Mère’s daughter Pauline, and Pauline’s husband Louis, tried to persuade the pair, it was untrue. Unfortunately, shortly Letizia was finally convinced, she learned Napoleon had died on 5 May 1821. The news was too much: She cried, fell to the floor, and refused visitors for days.

Triple portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1804, of Madame “Betsy” Bonaparte. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Three years later, in 1822, Madame Mère got sick, a supposed “violent inflammation.” The inflammation was apparently violent enough that she feared she might die and made out her will. She left the bulk of her estate to Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II, “with the exception of fifty thousand piastres (dollars) to each of her own sons, and twenty-five thousand dollars to each of Lucien’s sons.”[9] Elizabeth Patterson “Betsy” Bonaparte, who had married Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome and was known as Madame Bonaparte, was extremely interested in Madame Mère’s will. She was so interested in fact that she hired a “special agent” to ferret out all the details, and when she learned the particulars, she was greatly disappointed.

Madame Bonaparte need not have worried about the distribution of property because Madame Mère recovered from her illness. However, several years later, on 22 April 1830 while walking in a garden of the Villa Borghese, a nearly blind 80-year-old Letizia had a misstep while leaning on the arm of the Chevalier Cozorra. She fell and broke her thigh and because of her advanced age, the remedy necessary to fix the problem could not be undertaken. Everyone once again thought she was in imminent danger of dying, but she soldiered on and did not die. However, the fall made her lame and she eventually became bed ridden.

Deathbed portrait of Letizia. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Letizia became bed ridden, an English woman and her husband attempted to interview her. Although Letizia had stopped receiving visitors long ago, she agreed after her granddaughter convinced her to see the wife, but Letizia then decided to allow the woman’s husband to accompany her. The couple found Letizia resting on a small white bed in the corner of the room surrounded by full-length portraits of her family that covered the walls. The wife wrote:

“[N]ever did I see a person so advanced in life with a brow and countenance so beaming with expression and undiminished intelligence; the quickness and brilliancy of her large, speaking eyes was most remarkable.”[10]

Those remarkable eyes survived the death of Napoleon II, who caught pneumonia and died of tuberculosis on 22 July 1832. However, about four years later on the 27th of January 1836, Letizia fell into a stupor. Her brother was summoned to her bedside, and she slightly recovered, but it was temporary. Sacraments were then given to her, and, on the 1st of February, her sufferings doubled. Letizia died calmly and peacefully the following day on 2 February 1836 at one o’clock in the morning. She was 85.

References:

  • [1] H. S. Turner, Dixie: A Monthly Magazine v. 2-3 (Baltimore: Dixie Publishing Company, 1899), p. 355.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 344.
  • [3] Carolly Erickson, Josephine: A Life of the Empress (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 163.
  • [4] William Henry Ireland, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte v. 4 (London: J. Cumberland, 1828), p. 137.
  • [5] Christopher M.S. Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe (London: University of California Press, 1998), p. 113.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Falkirk Herald, “Incidents of Napoleon Downfall,” March 6, 1862, p. 6.
  • [8] H. S. Turner, p. 355.
  • [9] Eugene Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1879), p. 124–25.
  • [10] Sligo Champion, “A Visit to Madame Letitia, Mother of Napoleon,” November 26, 1836, p. 4.

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