Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Napoleon’s Art-Collecting Uncle

Cardinal Joseph Fesch by Jules Pasqualini

Cardinal Joseph Fesch by Jules Pasqualini

One of France’s finest collections of old masters can be found in Ajaccio, Corsica, in the Palais Fesch. The museum is named after its benefactor, Napoleon’s uncle Joseph Fesch, a good-natured luxury-lover who used his takings from Napoleon’s stint in power to amass a huge amount of paintings. Thanks to Napoleon, Fesch was also a cardinal in the Catholic Church. He got caught in the struggle between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, and tried to soften Napoleon’s policy towards the church.

Joseph Fesch was born in Ajaccio on January 3, 1763. His father, Franz Fesch, was a lieutenant in a Swiss regiment that formed part of a French force serving in Corsica, under arrangements with the Republic of Genoa (Corsica was then part of Genoa). His mother, Angela Pietrasanta, was the widow of Giovanni Ramolino and the mother of Letizia Ramolino. In 1764, Letizia married Charles Bonaparte and went on to give birth to Napoleon and his siblings (see Napoleon’s family tree). In 1765, Franz and Angela had a second child, a daughter named Paola Brigida, who may have married a compatriot of her father named Bürkly in Basel, or – more likely – died in infancy. She does not feature in the Napoleonic literature.

One of the Bonapartes

“Uncle Fesch,” on the other hand, – only six years older than Napoleon – was very much a part of Letizia’s household. He entered the seminary of Aix-en-Provence in 1781, was ordained as a priest in 1785, and became the archdeacon of Ajaccio cathedral at age 24.

When Letizia and her family fled Corsica for Toulon in 1793, Fesch accompanied them. As the Catholic Church was suppressed during the French Revolution, Fesch was compelled to unfrock himself and engage in other occupations. Napoleon wrote of him in 1795:

[H]e is just what he always was, building castles in the air and writing me six-page letters on some meticulous point of speculation. The present means no more to him than the past, the future is all in all. (1)

When Napoleon was given command of the French Army of Italy, he found Fesch a post as a commissary. Basically Fesch was involved in contracting the army’s supplies, a role in which he turned a tidy profit for himself.

Fesch’s fortunes continued to rise when Napoleon became First Consul. Fesch returned to the cloth and helped Napoleon and Pope Pius VII negotiate the Concordat of 1801, which reestablished the Catholic Church in France. As a reward, in 1802 he was made Archbishop of Lyon. The following year he became Cardinal Fesch.

Between church and state

Napoleon sent the new cardinal to Rome as France’s ambassador to the Holy See. Assisting Fesch as secretary of the legation was the writer/diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand, who soon quarreled with his boss and wrote an imprudent memo to Napoleon accusing Fesch of incapacity, parsimony and (almost) treason. Napoleon remained loyal to his uncle and booted Chateaubriand to Switzerland.

Fesch was instrumental in convincing the reluctant Pope to officiate at Napoleon’s imperial coronation at Notre Dame on December 2, 1804. Napoleon rewarded him with the grand cordon of the Legion of Honour, the title and 40,000 franc salary of Grand Almoner of the Empire, and a seat in the French senate.

In late 1805-early 1806 relations between Napoleon and the Pope deteriorated. They clashed over a range of political and religious issues. Their competing positions are nicely summed up in this exchange.

Napoleon to Pope Pius VII, February 13, 1806:

Your Holiness is sovereign of Rome, but I am Emperor. All my enemies ought to be your enemies…. As the head of our religion, I shall always have a filial deference for your Holiness, but I am accountable to God, who made use of my arms to re-establish religion. And how can I see it compromised by the dilatoriness of Rome without groaning? (2)

Pope Pius VII to Napoleon, March 21, 1806:

[T]he Holy Father…does not recognize and has never recognized, in his states, any power superior to his own, and…no emperor has any rights over Rome. (3)

Cardinal Fesch was caught in the middle, trying unsuccessfully to reconcile the two, and annoying both in the process. This extract, from a letter dated January 30, 1806, gives a sense of Napoleon’s view of his uncle (and of women):

My Cousin, – I have found your reflections upon Cardinal Ruffio very mean and puerile. You behave like a woman at Rome. You did wrong to advise the cardinal to come to Paris. You meddle with things which you do not understand. (4)

In May 1806 Napoleon recalled Fesch from Rome. In 1808 he made several papal provinces part of his puppet Kingdom of Italy. In 1809, he annexed the remainder of the Papal States to the French Empire, leaving the Pope only his palaces. In response, Pius VII excommunicated Napoleon. Acting on his own initiative, an ambitious French general (Étienne Radet) kidnapped the Pope. Napoleon was furious, but decided not to release the Holy Father. He kept him under house arrest first in Savona, then at Fontainebleau. Pius VII did not return to Rome until May 1814, when the Allied forces freed him. For details of this downward spiral, see the article by Peter Hicks entitled “Napoleon and the Pope: From the Concordat to the Excommunication” on

Opposed to Napoleon’s imprisonment of the Pope, Fesch in 1809 refused to accept the archbishopric of Paris. In 1811, he opened a council of the Gallican (French national) church with a declaration of fidelity to the papacy. Napoleon forced him to retire to Lyon.

I have been informed, that when Napoleon was one day speaking to his uncle about the Pope’s obstinacy, the Cardinal made some observations to him on his (Bonaparte’s) conduct to the Holy Father, upon which Napoleon flew into a passion, and said that the Pope and he were two old fools. (5)

Napoleon’s anger towards his uncle gradually diminished. Fesch had always been a good companion to Letizia; the two often lived together. Fesch also served as a general point of correspondence for the Bonaparte family. Affable and tolerant, he was the medium through which Napoleon’s mother and siblings frequently addressed Napoleon, and through which Napoleon often addressed them and tried to boss them around. Though Napoleon did not think particularly highly of Fesch’s abilities, he enjoyed him as a foil, and Fesch accepted the role. At the Tuileries Palace in 1812 or 1813, the valet Saint-Denis recounted,

Every Sunday there was a family dinner. The Emperor enjoyed arguing various theological points with Cardinal Fesch, and it was rarely that his arguments did not nonplus His Eminence. (6)

Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich wrote:

Cardinal Fesch was a curious compound of bigotry and ambition. A sincere devotee, he yet was not far from believing Napoleon to be an instrument of heaven and a being almost supernatural. He thought his reign was written in the book of destiny, and looked on his flights of ambition as so many decrees of God. (7)

Happy in Rome

During Napoleon’s first abdication (1814), Cardinal Fesch went to Rome. When Napoleon escaped from Elba for the Hundred Days, Fesch returned to France and resumed his duties at Lyon. Upon Napoleon’s final abdication (1815), Fesch returned to Rome. He lived at the Palazzo Falconieri. Letizia lived with him until 1818, when she moved to the Palazzo Rinuccini, where you’ll find Fesch dozing in Napoleon in America.

Through his appointments and profiteering on state and church property, Fesch had amassed a fortune. Throughout his career, he spent lavishly on luxury goods and the fine arts. His collection of paintings included some 16,000 canvasses, mainly Italian works from the Renaissance to the 18th century, and many fine works of the Flemish and Dutch schools. He would buy whole lots with the hope of finding a piece of rare value. His gallery occupied three stories of his palace. Letizia irritably regarded his collection as a “mania.”

A visitor to Rome in late 1817 wrote:

Cardinal Fesch has a very fine collection of pictures, one of the most valuable at Rome; the best Rubens I ever saw, – many fine Rembrandts, Vandykes [sic], Morillos, and a beautiful Titian…. The Cardinal happened to be at Rome when I visited his collection, and there were several strangers present. He joined in the conversation; talking about the pictures like a man who knew the language of connoisseurship, and appeared as merry and jocular as he had been demure the day before…. He wants to sell his pictures for a life-annuity of three thousand guineas, meaning, he says, to live five-and-twenty years! (8)

Earlier, the same visitor had observed the cardinal at a service at which the Pope officiated.

Cardinal Fesch was more particularly an object of attention to foreign spectators, and all could vouch for his exemplary devotion; not one of their Eminences, I am sure, prayed with more fervor. I heard him muttering over his book most part of the time, with great unction, lifting up his eyes at intervals, and casting them down again on his book without ever glancing aside to the right or the left, and crossing himself very often. Notwithstanding all this he is en surveillance, in consequence of having rather slyly eloped during the hundred days to join his nephew in France. (9)

Unlike most of Napoleon’s relatives, Fesch gives the impression of being a jolly fellow.

The cardinal is liberal and affable to all strangers who may be desirous of going over his residence. There is nothing stern or intolerant about him. In person he is described as being tall, but not commanding; in manners, if not dignified, at least not arrogant: smooth faced, calm featured, comely and portly; with the sleekness of good humour and good situation in every muscle. (10)

Though Fesch never again set foot in France, he remained archbishop of Lyon because the Pope would not comply with French demands that he be deposed. He donated generously to charities in Lyon.

Cardinal Fesch participated in the papal conclaves of 1823 (which elected Pope Leo XII), 1829 (Pope Pius VIII) and 1830-31 (Pope Gregory XVI). In later years, his piety gave way to a mysticism that came close to superstition. It is said he went barefoot in the dust at the head of processions of penitents. As described in my post about Napoleon’s mother, Fesch was easy prey for the Austrian mystic who convinced him and Letizia that Napoleon had been spirited off St. Helena.

Cardinal Joseph Fesch died on May 13, 1839 in Rome, at the age of 76. In addition to leaving a large number of his paintings to Ajaccio, he bequeathed part of his collection to the city of Lyon.

You  might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Mother, Letizia Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s Scandalous Brother

Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s Capable Sister

Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s Defiant Puppet

How Pauline Bonaparte Lived for Pleasure

Napoleon II: Napoleon’s Son, the King of Rome

Living Descendants of Napoleon and the Bonapartes

  1. R.F. Delderfield, The Golden Millstones: Napoleon’s brothers and sisters (New York, 1964), p. 22.
  2. D.A. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1884), p. 216.
  3. C.S. Phillips, The Church in France, 1789-1848: A Study in Revival (New York, 1929), p. 88.
  4. Bingham, A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon, Vol. II, p. 208.
  5. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1831), p. 338.
  6. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 10.
  7. Richard Metternich, ed., Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1773-1815, Vol. 1 (New York, 1881), p. 311.
  8. Louis Simond, A Tour in Italy and Sicily (London, 1828), pp. 201-202.
  9. Ibid., p. 200.
  10. The Court and Camp of Bonaparte (New York, 1835), p. 32.

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Cardinal Fesch was a curious compound of bigotry and ambition. A sincere devotee, he yet was not far from believing Napoleon to be an instrument of heaven and a being almost supernatural.

Clemens von Metternich