An Ordinary Man

Napoleon: The Imperial Household

an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, February 3–May 6, 2018; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, June 9–September 3, 2018; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, October 19, 2018–March 3, 2019; and the Musée national du château de Fontainebleau, April 5–July 15, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Sylvain Cordier
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Hazan, 352 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
An engraving of Napoleon, 1820
Trustees of the British Museum
An engraving of Napoleon based on a drawing by a British army captain stationed on Saint Helena, 1820

Napoleon didn’t think much of his father. He recalled him as a good man but also as “a man of pleasure” who dissipated the family fortune and played the grand seigneur in Paris. He shed only passing tears when Carlo Maria Buonaparte died in 1785 at the age of thirty-eight, of the same stomach cancer that was to kill Napoleon himself in 1821, at fifty-one. When the town council of Montpellier asked his permission to build a monument to Carlo, Napoleon, normally eager for any opportunity to elevate his family, vetoed the request. By contrast, he worshipped his mother, Letizia, to whom he said he owed “my fortune and all I’ve done that’s worthwhile” and for whom he devised the stately title Madame Mère.

Posterity has meekly accepted this assessment of Carlo. But is it true? He was all the things that Napoleon was not—tall, handsome, and a fine horseman. (The emperor rolled around in the saddle like a ship in a high sea, which made the thousands of miles he rode in his campaigns all the more impressive.) But Carlo was no mere playboy. He worked hard to advance his family’s fortunes, scrabbling a few extra acres of dusty Corsican uplands to add to Letizia’s modest inheritance and fighting off squabbling cousins for more elbow room in the run-down tenement they occupied in Ajaccio. In 1772, through the favor of the French governor, the Comte de Marbeuf, Carlo secured a seat for himself in the new Corsican assembly. It remained a persistent rumor that Letizia’s son Louis was Marbeuf’s child. Through this patronage and diligent lobbying in Paris, Carlo managed to convince Versailles of the family’s vestigial claim to noble status and extracted a royal scholarship for Napoleon to study, first at the military academy of Brienne and then at the École Militaire in Paris.

It is hard to exaggerate the physical and cultural jump from the smelly lanes of Ajaccio to the Baroque grandeur of the École Militaire. Hard too to think of a more rigorous education to be had anywhere in Europe: the classics and the Catholic catechism, but also mathematics and physics, geography and music, philosophy and fortifications. Napoleon, a shy, surly, solitary boy with a ghastly Corsican accent and floppy spaniel’s sidelocks, was unhappy among the self-confident aristocratic cadets, who teased him about his humble origins. But he was as ferocious a reader as he was a fighter, and he lapped up the culture of the Enlightenment, being as much an addict of the lachrymose rhapsodies of La Nouvelle Héloïse as of the intoxicating vision of Le Contrat Social. All his life he was to have a taste for the sentimental as well as the…

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