Alan Roche

Guillaume Guillon Lethière: The Sleep of Venus, 1802. This double portrait of Lucien and Alexandrine Bonaparte inspired Marcello Simonetta and Noga Arikha to begin research on their lives.

Lucien Bonaparte, like Napoleon’s other three brothers, is a figure largely neglected by English-speaking historians and biographers. When he appears, it is often as a footnote to the turbulent Napoleonic years, glimpsed only when his life intersects with that of his imperial brother. If he is known at all, it is for a single political act, when, on November 10, 1799, as president of the Council of the Five Hundred, the ruling body of Directory France, he turned a potentially violent and disastrous attack on Napoleon into a vote of confidence in his leadership, opening the way for his appointment as first consul. More astute and able than his avaricious sisters, Lucien preferred thereafter to distance himself from the web of family intrigues, though it was never easy to do so.

Of Napoleon’s many and quarrelsome siblings, Lucien is the one he is reported to have loved the best, and also hated the most. Six years his junior, Lucien was the one he bullied, admonished, sought to control, yet never succeeded in ruling. When Antonello Pietromarchi, in 1994, wrote one of the very few books devoted to Lucien, he called it Il Fratello Nemico di Napoleone—the enemy brother. The passions behind this obsessive, rivalrous relationship lie at the heart of the new biography by Marcello Simonetta and Noga Arikha.

In the 1820s, Lucien wrote his memoirs, at considerable length and with apparent candor. One volume was published in his lifetime. It was not until 1883 that a three-volume edition appeared, edited by a retired army colonel, Theodore Iung, who considered all the Bonapartes to be inveterate liars and gutted Lucien’s manuscript accordingly, omitting long passages about his relationship with Napoleon, his dealings with crucial French political figures and intriguers such as Talleyrand and Joseph Fouché, and the family’s early life. It is this version that historians have tended to consult and quote from. And even when they have dug deeper, gaining access to the archives of the French Foreign Ministry, where a microfilm of the original unedited manuscript is to be found, no one before Simonetta and Arikha seems to have carried the hunt further, into the archives preserved by Lucien’s Italian family, the Faina, in Milan.

Fascinated by coming across a painting acquired by a collector in New York—an erotic portrait of a decorous woman lying languidly on a chaise longue, beside a grave, good- looking man—and learning that they were Lucien and his second wife, Alexandrine, the authors traveled to Paris and then to Italy to find out more. It was in Perugia, in the vaults of the Faina family, that they unearthed a notebook full of intimate personal information, carefully saved from the predations of Napoleon’s descendants. It provided a new, rich seam of information.

Lucien was born in Ajaccio in 1775, the third son of a Tuscan-bred Corsican patriot, Carlo Bonaparte. His mother, Letizia, later known to the world as Madame Mère, was thirty-two when her husband died, leaving her to bring up eight children. There being very little money, Lucien, who was already showing a flair for oratory, was sent to a seminary in Aix-en-Provence. Realizing that he had no vocation for the church, he soon made his way back to Corsica and into the heady world of the Corsican separatists, much to the disgust of Napoleon, who was by then rising through the military ranks in mainland France. For a while, Lucien even took the name of Brutus, after the founder of the first Roman republic. Napoleon continued to scold. On June 24, 1792, Lucien wrote a shrewd letter to his eldest brother Joseph. What with his intransigence and bossiness, he remarked, Napoleon seemed to him “inclined to become a despot, and I think he would become one, were he a king.” And as Lucien wrote later in his memoirs, while he himself had no taste for being a subordinate, Napoleon had no concept of an equal.

The Bonapartes did not share in the excesses of their fellow Jacobins, but the family moved hastily to France when the Terror ended and scores were being settled. Under the Directory, Napoleon continued his steady rise, pulling Lucien up behind him. Always more interested in politics than military matters, Lucien soon outgrew his youthful extravagances and stood for the Council of the Five Hundred, of which he was elected president on October 23, 1799. Paris was by now seething with plots, rumors, and talk of counterrevolution, and it was against this background that Lucien, with considerable composure, engineered the bloodless coup that made Napoleon first consul and effectively brought an end to the unruly Directory. Whether Napoleon would have survived the day and continued his rise to absolute power without Lucien’s help, no one can say. At this stage Lucien still appears to have hoped that under his brother France would never return either to the monarchy or to the excesses of the Revolution.


Napoleon made Lucien minister of the interior, an extraordinary appointment for a young man barely twenty-five years old and with no administrative experience, entailing control over the whole of France’s internal bureaucracy. Lucien pledged to remain faithful to the purity of the Revolution. For a while, the two brothers remained more or less in harmony. Lucien worked hard and reveled in his new perks, which included a hôtel particulier in Paris and a country house near Neuilly. He presided over the plebiscite in 1800 that voted overwhelmingly for the Bonaparte government, though to what extent that election was rigged has never been established. The gossipy Laure Jounot, Duchesse d’Abrantès, who pinned down so many of the leading characters of the time in carefully chosen, unflattering detail, described Lucien at this point as nearsighted and stooped, “tall, ill-shaped, having limbs like those of a field spider.” But, she conceded, his nice smile redeemed his exceedingly plain looks.

Napoleon did not trust him. He found him too unpredictable and too independent. When Lucien’s sloppiness over finances and his overreadiness to delegate to unscrupulous subordinates provoked a scandal, Napoleon seized the moment to do what he had long wanted to do: remove him from Paris. Neither Talleyrand nor Josephine, who rightly suspected him of belittling her in Napoleon’s eyes, cared for Lucien, which made his sacking easier. Instead, peace of a kind between the two brothers was brokered by the more temperate and tactful Joseph, and Lucien was sent as ambassador to Spain, to the court of the weak King Charles IV and his avid and ugly wife, Marie-Louise of Parma, memorably described by Lucy de la Tour du Pin, who briefly served her as a lady-in-waiting, as “worthless” and possessed of the “driest, leanest and darkest bosom you can imagine.” Lucien’s wife Christine, the daughter of a modest Corsican innkeeper, had just died; she had been pregnant and her unborn child died with her, but she left him with two small daughters, Charlotte, six, and Christine-Egypta, two.

It was in Madrid that Lucien, who had proved dynamic and imaginative as a minister, learned the skills of a diplomat. Negotiating the extremely tricky waters of the Spanish court, attempting to remain incorruptible in the face of endemic corruption, he presented Napoleon with a much-desired treaty between Spain and Portugal and, most crucially, with the closure of Portugal’s ports to the British navy. He was also able to persuade the Spanish king to hand over the vast Louisiana territories to Napoleon (who, to Lucien’s annoyance, sold them rapidly to the Americans).

When he returned to Paris a year later, having been nagged and undermined incessantly by his brother, he brought with him a sack of unpolished Brazilian diamonds, the gift of grateful Spanish and Portuguese sovereigns, and the beginnings of what would turn into a magnificent collection of paintings. Lucien’s love for art was genuine, and whenever he could he promoted and supported artists and furniture makers. The end of his political career was, however, fast approaching. His last appearance as a public figure was in the spring of 1802, when he made two impressive and thoughtful speeches, one on religious freedom, the other on the creation of the Légion d’Honneur. Lucien was now twenty-seven. His public life had lasted a little less than three years.

Lucien often said of himself that he was neither chaste nor monogamous, and in Spain he had made many conquests. However, this often contradictory man was also a devoted husband and father, and had greatly loved his first wife. When, soon after his return from Madrid, he met Alexandrine de Bleschamp, the wife of Hippolyte de Jouberthon, who was working in Santo Domingo, he fell profoundly and lastingly in love. Like Lucien, Alexandrine has remained almost entirely a footnote in Napoleonic history, described variously as tall, with an expressive face and a marvelous neck; as too tall, with the body of a goddess; more the perfect model to paint than a desirable mistress; and by others as a former merveilleuse of no great beauty, sly and too intrigante. Portraits show a pleasant-looking rather than a stunning woman, with dark hair and a straight nose, not plump but well covered. She had a dimple in her chin and neat eyebrows. Lucien’s passion was reciprocated. In Napoleon and the Rebel, Alexandrine comes across as patient, accomplished, and a loving mother and stepmother.

Alexandrine’s husband, conveniently, soon died of yellow fever without returning from Santo Domingo and before long she bore Lucien a son, Charles, later to become a celebrated ornithologist. Napoleon, alerted by his spies to his brother’s affair, was outraged, not so much by Alexandrine herself as by the fact that Lucien had failed to get his permission to have a liaison, when he had other politically advantageous matches in mind for him. To conduct his frowned-upon affair, Lucien had a secret interconnecting passage built between his house and that of Alexandrine next door, to which only he, Alexandrine, and Madame Mère had keys.


Napoleon was considerably angrier when, five months later, he was informed that Lucien and Alexandrine had secretly married—though only blessed by a priest, Napoleon having forbidden any French mayor from carrying out a civil wedding. Attending a concert at Malmaison at the time, he rose to his feet, shouted out that he had been betrayed, and strode from the room, ordering his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, to tell Lucien that he would never recognize the match.

What is interesting is not Napoleon’s wrath, but the lengths to which he was prepared to go to end the marriage throughout the rest of his reign, finding time to cajole, bully, bribe, and blackmail Lucien into divorcing Alexandrine, even though occupied at the time by the conquest of Europe. As Simonetta and Arikha comprehensively document, he offered Lucien ambassadorships, crowns, noble marriages, and wealth. He threatened expulsion, disinheritance, vengeance. He announced that unless Lucien obeyed him, he would scrub his name out of the imperial household and erase his children’s names from all rights of succession.


Musée National du Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

Portrait of Lucien Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre

Lucien stood firm, unlike his younger brother Jerome, who, threatened with the same range of punishments if he refused to divorce his own unsuitable wife, agreed to have the marriage annulled, though she was pregnant with his child at the time. Napoleon, accustomed to groveling servants and courtiers and the weaving and ducking of the other members of his family as they hastened to do his bidding, found Lucien’s obduracy intolerable.

It was not, as it happened, only a matter of matrimonial obstinacy. Lucien was more principled than Napoleon, and found his brother’s growing disregard for republicanism and everything the Revolution had stood for increasingly distasteful. To be regarded as a tyrant by an errant younger brother provoked Napoleon still further. In 1804, Lucien and Alexandrine felt that they had little choice but to leave for Rome where Lucien put himself and his family under the protection of Pope Pius VII, who was grateful to him for reopening, while minister of the interior, the French churches closed by the Revolution. They took with them her daughter, his two daughters, and their son Charles. With his unpolished diamonds—which turned out to be immensely valuable—Lucien bought a seventeenth-century palazzo not far from the Spanish Steps, where he hung his superb art collection, which by now included a Titian, a Velázquez, and a Rubens, and built an inner basin in which he taught his growing family to swim. He went on to buy the sixteenth-century Villa Rufinella in Frascati, supposedly built on the site where Cicero had written his philosophical dialogues, and later a villa at Canino.

Then followed years of acrimonious messages and letters between all the siblings as well as Madame Mère, trying to bring pressure on Lucien to yield to Napoleon’s wishes, while Napoleon continued to alternately threaten and entreat. While his more biddable siblings, having agreed to make the alliances and marriages ordered by Napoleon, were showered with kingdoms, principalities, and duchies, Lucien was treated as a pariah.

Lucien never wavered, but in 1810, as a peace offering, he consented to send his fifteen-year-old daughter Charlotte to live with Madame Mère at the French court. This too ended in increased enmity. Charlotte turned out to have a deft eye for the vaingloriousness of her Bonaparte relations and the absurdity of the imperial household, and her painfully unflattering and mocking written portraits, sent back in letters to her parents, were intercepted by Napoleon’s spies. There even came a moment when Napoleon announced that Europe was too small for both of them, and—since at this point Napoleon reigned over most of it—Lucien and his family embarked for America from Civitavecchia, with a large retinue of servants and friends, only to be intercepted by the British navy, arrested, and sent to England.

Here they were greeted unexpectedly warmly, as victims of Napoleon’s tyrannical ways, and Lucien bought a castle in Wales. There was one more moment of possible rapprochement, after Napoleon’s return from Elba, but the newfound cordiality was already wearing thin when the Battle of Waterloo brought an end to the glories of the Bonapartes and scattered the eight brothers and sisters (though several, along with Madame Mère, made Rome the city of their enforced exile).

On their estate at Canino, north of Rome, Lucien, saying that he intended to give himself up to the study of antiquities and history, grew fascinated by “archaeology in action” after finding a number of Etruscan objects on his land. Having uncovered an extensive necropolis, he created the first Etruscan museum, in nearby Vulci, on the border between Lazio and Tuscany. As Laure d’Abbrantès had noted, Lucien had always had a singular ability to lose himself in the people and worlds of earlier times; his mind was, she said, creative, fed by humanist sympathies.

While he looked at the stars through his Herschel telescopes and meticulously catalogued his finds, Alexandrine raised the children and wrote poetry. One cannot fail to be struck by the number of journeys the family made, the number of houses they bought and sold, the number of cities they lived in. Lucien and Alexandrine were always on the move, whether separately or together, sometimes as themselves, sometimes incognito, often held up by having the wrong papers and permits. Allowing for the many months Lucien and Alexandrine spent apart—including one five-year period when Lucien lingered in England and wrote a polemical pamphlet urging France’s return to a consular republic—it seems to have been a companionable, happy, and relatively faithful marriage.

Lucien died first, in June 1840, after a brief illness, and was buried in the church in Canino. He was sixty-five. Alexandrine lived on another fifteen years, with her seven children and stepchildren, writing, defending Lucien’s legacy, and being befriended by Balzac, Vigny, and Lamartine. It was thanks to their granddaughter Luciana that the family papers survived.

In their preface, Simonetta and Arikha explain that they made a conscious decision to follow the text of the unpublished memoir closely, allowing Lucien to speak for himself, “rather than judge him.” Long passages are quoted verbatim, with little comment, leaving an inevitable slight unease that Napoleon and the Rebel may be truer to Lucien’s perception of events, and his wish to emerge well from them, than to the events themselves. The narrative also suffers from occasional irritating colloquialisms—people are “grounded” or “rest up.” It is nevertheless a highly enjoyable portrait of a remarkable clan, bound indissolubly to one another by a powerful sense of family as well as by politics and grandeur, yet ceaselessly riven by jealousy and intrigue. The book contains wonderful details, like the way that Napoleon ordered courtiers and servants to scratch on the doors with their nails instead of knocking, rather like dogs trying to be let in.

Lucien was once described by Joseph’s secretary, Maillard, as “un homme de plaisir et du moment,” a man too unsteady and too epicurean to be really likable. The character who emerges from this book is more agreeable than that, less buffeted by greed and less pretentious than he is often made out to be, full of curiosity and interest in the wider world, and a devoted family man.