The Best of the Bonapartes

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…

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