08 August 2019, The Tablet

Napoleon and the popes

Napoleon and the popes

Detail from The Coronation of Napoleon (1805-07), by Jacques-Louis David


Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Corsica 250 years ago, never had much time for religion, unless it suited him … until he approached his death on the lonely island of St Helena

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio on 15 August 1769, into a Catholic family of Italian extraction. Although he was to imprison two popes, traces of his mother’s piety were never to be entirely extinguished.

His parents originally christened him Napoleone di Buonaparte, and it wasn’t until he was in his twenties that he changed it to something that sounded more French. Even as Emperor of the French, Napoleon always spoke the language with a strong Corsican accent, and never mastered French spelling.

His father, Carlo Buonaparte, was a lawyer and something of a chancer, who ducked and dived between an assortment of political and business initiatives. He was a man of the Enlightenment, scornful of popular religion. It was his Catholic mother, Letizia Buona­parte, née Ramolino, pious and austere, who was instil in Napoleon habits of organisation and iron discipline. “She sometimes made me go to bed without supper, as if there were nothing to eat in the house. One had to learn to suffer and not let others see it,” Napoleon remembered.

Although she was happy to accept a share of her son’s burgeoning fortune, his fame and wealth was no guarantee of his mother’s uncritical favour. Napoleon was to grant elaborate titles to his family. But Letizia was less than impressed to be “Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l’Empereur” (or “Madame Mère”), and decided to snub his coronation.

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