Letizia Bonaparte

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Letizia Bonaparte
Mother of His Imperial Majesty The Emperor
Robert Lefèvre 001.jpg
Letizia Bonaparte (Madame Mère)
by Robert Lefèvre c.1813
BornMaria-Letizia Ramolino
24 August 1750 (or 1749)
Ajaccio, Corsica, Republic of Genoa
Died2 February 1836(1836-02-02) (aged 85)
Rome, Papal States
Imperial Chapel, Ajaccio, France
(m. 1764; died 1785)
FatherGiovanni Geronimo Ramolino
MotherAngela Maria Pietrasanta

Maria-Letizia Buonaparte[a] (née Ramolino;[b] 24 August 1750 (or 1749[c]) – 2 February 1836), known as Letizia Bonaparte, was a Corsican noblewoman and mother of Napoleon I of France. She became known as “Madame Mère” after the proclamation of the Empire. She spent her later years in Rome where she died in February 1836.

Early life[edit]

Maria-Letizia Ramolino was born in Ajaccio, Corsica (then part of the Republic of Genoa), as the daughter of Giovanni Geronimo Ramolino and his wife Angela Maria Pietra-Santa. Giovanni was an army officer with expertise in civil engineering, who commanded the Ajaccio garrison,[5] and his family were low-ranking nobility from Lombardy established in Corsica several generations earlier.[6]

Letizia was educated at home and trained in nothing but domestic skills, like most Corsican women at the time.[7] After the death of her father, when she was six, her mother married Franz Fesch, a Swiss officer in the Genoese Navy at Ajaccio in 1757. The couple had two children, among them Letizia's half-brother, future Cardinal Joseph Fesch.[5]

Marriage and children[edit]

Carlo Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino

On 2 June 1764, 14-year-old Letizia married 18-year-old law student Carlo Buonaparte of Ajaccio. The Buonapartes, also part of the Corsican nobility, originally came from Tuscany in the early sixteenth century. Carlo had been studying law at Pisa University but left to marry her without taking his degree.[5] First pregnant a few months later, she went on to give birth to thirteen children in all, of whom eight survived.[7] A first son, named Napoleon, was born and died in 1765, followed by a baby girl who also died. Carlo then went to Rome where he spent the next two years. On his return, he joined republican leader Pasquale Paoli, becoming his part-time secretary.[2] At the time, Letizia fell pregnant, eventually giving birth to Joseph, originally named Giuseppe, on 7 July 1768.[5]

In 1768, when Genoa formally ceded the island to France, a Corsican guerrilla movement led by Paoli rose in revolt against the French.[d] Carlo and Letizia, then 19-year-old and pregnant with the future Napoleon, joined Paoli and fled with the insurgents into the mountains near Corte.[5] She would fight beside her husband in the struggle for independence. After the failure of the rebellion in May 1769, the couple returned to Ajaccio. On the feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1769, while she was at Mass in Ajaccio Cathedral, a minute's walk away from Casa Buonaparte, Letizia went into labour. According to the legend, she gave birth at home on a carpet of the living room where battles of the Iliad and Odyssey were woven.[e] The little boy was christened Napoleon, after an uncle who had died the previous year.[5] For the first time, Letizia was unable to produce milk and had to hire a wet nurse called Camilla Llati to act as a surrogate mother.[10] Letizia kept only one servant - a woman named Mammuccia Caterina, who lived with the family without wages and acted as the midwife during Napoleon's birth.[11] For a time, Letizia performed all the household chores while Mammuccia looked after the children.[12]

Letizia and her husband Carlo befriended the new island's military governor, Charles Réné, Comte de Marbeuf and the intendant, Bertrand de Boucheporn, whose wife was the godmother of their son Louis. In 1777 Marbeuf secured Carlo's election as a deputy to represent Corsica at Versailles.[5] At the end of 1778, Carlo took Joseph, Napoléon to the continent to study at the Collège d'Autun. The following year in May 1779, possibly because of Carlo and Letizia's friendship with the governor, and after Carlo was accorded a certificate of nobility, 9-year-old Napoleon was admitted to the Brienne cadet school under a scholarship.[13]

Letizia remained in Ajaccio, bearing six more children, Lucien in 1775, Elisa in 1777, Louis in 1778, Pauline in 1780, Caroline in 1782 and Jérôme in 1784.[5]

In 1784, Letizia managed to visit Napoleon at Brienne, even though no boy could leave the school grounds for six years and visits by parents were restricted.[14] The same year, he was promoted to the Royal Military School in Paris. Two years later, he graduated as a second lieutenant and joined the 4th artillery regiment of la Fère based in Valence.[15]


On 24 February 1785, Carlo died of stomach cancer, and Letizia became a widow with eight children at the age of 35. Joseph, as the eldest son, was now the head of the family and returned to Corsica after finishing his studies at Collège d'Autun. In September 1786, Napoleon returned to Ajaccio, after eight years away, as a lieutenant in the Royal Army and stayed until September. [16] The family financial situation worsened, and Letizia had four children dependent on her as well as school fees to pay for Jerome and Joseph. Napoleon returned at the beginning of 1788 on a leave until June as the only breadwinner and as such the new head of the family.[17] He returned again in September 1789 entering Corsican politics with Joseph.[17]

In 1793, after Napoleon turned against Paoli, Letizia and her other children fled to France on 31 May, while the partisans of Paoli pillaged and burned her house.[12] The family resettled in Toulon when the Terror was at its peak. Letizia and her daughters, to avoid being recognised as aristocrats, were described as "dressmakers" in the passports provided to them by Napoleon. After the British fleet took possession of the port of Toulon a month later the family moved to Marseilles. Penniless, Letizia had to queue for food at the soup kitchen. Her only income came from Napoleon's salary as an officer.[18] In the Spring of 1794, after winning his first major battle as artillery commander during the siege of Toulon, Napoleon became General de Brigade. With his new income, he was able to move his mother and siblings to the Château Salé in Antibes.[19] While Letizia was proud of Napoleon, she disapproved of his marriage to the widow Joséphine de Beauharnais, on 9 March 1796, on which she was not consulted.[20]

When Joseph became ambassador at the court of Rome on 14 May 1796, Letizia personally accompanied him to Italy.[21] On 1 June 1797, after Napoleon's triumphant First Italian Campaign, she visited him in Milan with Caroline and Jerome, then moved back to Casa Buonaparte in Ajaccio, which had been rebuilt, renovated and redecorated for the occasion.[22] Napoleon allowed his mother and uncle to exercise some supervision over the affairs of Corsica. As such, the prefect of the island received orders not to make an appointment without consulting Letizia or Fesch. On 28 September 1799, Napoleon, returning from his successful campaign in Egypt, stopped in Ajaccio and stayed with Letizia.

On 7 October he left for Fréjus[23] about to seize power in the bloodless coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, the beginning of his rise to power, and Letizia moved to Paris.[24] Even as the mother of the First Consul, she was known to live in relative simplicity, receiving a monthly pension of 25,000 francs.[25] On the evening of 10 November 1799, while she was with her daughters at the Theatre, the play was interrupted and it was announced that an attack against Napoleon had just been foiled, but she famously kept her composure and only left at the end of the performance.[24] When her son Lucien clandestinely married Alexandrine de Bleschamp, known as Madame Jouberthon, against Napoleon's wishes, the brothers fell out. Letizia sided with Lucien and left Paris for Rome, where Pauline already lived as Princess Borghese, and where Letizia stayed with her half-brother, now Cardinal Fesch. Lucien and his family soon followed her.[26]

Mother of the Emperor[edit]

While Napoleon had made his brothers and sisters imperial highnesses, except Lucien and Jerome, Letizia did not have an official title yet.[25] In July 1804, Cardinal Fesch wrote to Napoleon, suggesting that a title be found for her. By decree, she was given the title “Madame” but since this was also how the daughters of the King used to be called, “Mother of his Majesty the Emperor” was added to the end. She became referred to as “Madame Mère” (Madame Mother).[25] On 2 December 1804, when Napoleon was crowned Emperor, despite being depicted in the famous painting of his coronation by David, she did not attend the coronation. When she was congratulated on her son's successes, she famously replied: Pourvu que ça dure! (Let's hope it lasts!).[27]

On 19 December 1804, Letizia left Rome and took up residence at the Hotel de Brienne, 92 rue Saint Dominique in Paris, a house that she purchased from Lucien for 600,000 francs. Napoleon gave her an appanage of 500,000 a year.[28] She did not attend the Imperial court and lived from 1805 to 1813 at the Chateau de Pont-sur-Seine, a castle that Napoleon gifted her. On the occasions when she visited Paris, she resided at her Hotel de Brienne.

Later life and death[edit]

Deathbed portrait of Maria Letizia Bonaparte.

In 1814, Letizia shared Napoleon's exile on the island of Elba with Pauline.[29] In February 1815, Letizia followed him to Paris during the Hundred Days. They met for the last time at the château of Malmaison on 29 June 1815.[25] After saying goodbye to her son, she travelled from Paris to Rome to be under the protection of Pope Pius VII. She purchased the former Palazzo Rinuccini, renamed Palazzo Bonaparte (now Palazzo Misciatelli) on the corner of piazza Venezia and Via del Corso, where she lived with Joseph. During her years in Rome, she lived in seclusion with very few visitors except for her half-brother, who rarely left her.[30] Letizia's great wealth acquired from selling her own jewellery and shrewd investments allowed her to live comfortably for the rest of her life. For a time, the painter Anna Barbara Bansi served as her companion.[31]

Letizia died in 1836, aged 85, three weeks before the 51st anniversary of her husband's death. By then, she was nearly blind and had outlived Napoleon by 15 years. In 1851 her body was transferred to the Imperial Chapel specially built for it in her native Ajaccio. In 1951, Carlo's body was brought in a hundred years later, to rest next to her.[32]


Letizia gave birth to thirteen children between 1768 and 1784; five of them died, two at birth and three in their infancy.[7]


Coat of arms of Letizia Bonaparte
Coat of arms Maria Letizia Buonaparte.svg
The Coat of arms of Letizia Bonaparte depicts an eagle, the head to the sinister in front of an azure background standing upon gold thunderbolts on top of which is the letter L for Letizia. The shield is surrounded by the red Imperial mantle, semé of bees. The shield is topped by the Imperial crown.[38]


  1. ^ Before the annexation of Corsica to France in 1768, the family used both spelling Bonaparte and Buonaparte[1] After the family fled to France in 1793, they started using exclusively the French spelling of their names[2]
  2. ^ sometimes spelled Romolini in italian[3]
  3. ^ A note from the first volume of the Memoirs of Lucien Bonaparte indicates that she was born on 24 August 1749. This date is confirmed by the act of marriage of Joseph Bonaparte to Maria-Julie Clary, on 1 August 1794, which says that Madame Mère was forty-five years old on that date. The date of 1750, the most frequently found, seems to be a consensus without tangible proof.[4]
  4. ^ In November 1755, Pasquale Paoli had proclaimed Corsica a sovereign nation independent from the Republic of Genoa[8]
  5. ^ she would later deny the story of the carpet[9]



  1. ^ Houghton Mifflin 2005, p. 97.
  2. ^ a b Dwyer 2014, p. 27.
  3. ^ Vita di Napoleone Buonaparte imperatore de' Francesi 1827, p. 12.
  4. ^ Tulard & Waugh 1984, p. 77.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h McLynn 2011, p. 14.
  6. ^ de Carolis 2014, p. 12.
  7. ^ a b c McLynn 2011, p. 4.
  8. ^ Abjorensen 2019, p. 96.
  9. ^ Carrington 1990, p. 12.
  10. ^ Burton, Burton & Conner 2007, p. 10.
  11. ^ Falk 2015, p. 29.
  12. ^ a b Williams 2018, p. 11.
  13. ^ Masson 2016, p. 42.
  14. ^ Dwyer 2014, p. 32.
  15. ^ McLynn 2011, p. 41.
  16. ^ Dwyer 2014, p. 35.
  17. ^ a b McLynn 2011, p. 35.
  18. ^ McLynn 2011, p. 70.
  19. ^ McLynn 2011, p. 77.
  20. ^ Hibbert 2002, p. 57.
  21. ^ Abrantès 1834, p. 5.
  22. ^ de Carolis 2014, p. 24.
  23. ^ Larrey & Larrey 1892, p. 276.
  24. ^ a b Boissonnade, p. 55.
  25. ^ a b c d Dwyer 2013, p. 135.
  26. ^ Falk 2015, p. 300.
  27. ^ Roberts 2014, p. 448.
  28. ^ Williams 2018, p. 36.
  29. ^ Dwyer 2013, pp. 510–511.
  30. ^ Lévy 1852, p. 409.
  31. ^ Ulbrich, von Greyerz & Heiligensetzer 2014, p. 61.
  32. ^ Decaux 1962, p. 273.
  33. ^ Bartel, P. (1954). La jeunesse inédite de Napoléon: d'après de nombreux documents. Présence de l'histoire (in French). Amiot-Dumont.
  34. ^ Garros, L. (1947). Itinéraire de Napoléon Bonaparte, 1769-1821 (in French). Éditions de l'Encyclopédie Française.
  35. ^ L'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux. L'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux (in French). 1981.
  36. ^ de Brotonne, L. (1893). Les Bonaparte et leurs alliances (in French). E. Charavay. p. 10.
  37. ^ Volkmann 1998, p. 99.
  38. ^ Valynseele, de Warren & Pinoteau 1954, p. 162.


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