Giuseppina Grassini, Mistress of Napoleon & Wellington
Giuseppina Grassini was a famous Italian opera singer of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though her voice was a contralto, she worked it into a higher register to sing roles written for mezzo-sopranos. Napoleon Bonaparte was enraptured by the quality of Madame Grassini’s singing, as well as by her physical beauty. He took her as his lover and paid her to sing at his court for many years. Giuseppina Grassini also became the lover of Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.
Maria Camilla Giuseppina Grassini (or Josephina, as she later signed herself) was born at Varese, north of Milan, on April 18, 1773. Her parents were Antonio Grassini, a bookkeeper for a local convent, and Isabella Luini, who claimed descent from the painter Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo da Vinci. Antonio and Isabella had 18 children. Young Giuseppina stood out for her beautiful voice. She sang like a nightingale to the accompaniment of her mother’s violin. (1)
Giuseppina Grassini’s first teacher was the church organist Domenico Zucchinetti. He recommended that she be sent to Milan to study for the opera. There Count Alberico Belgiojoso became her protector, promoter and lover. He oversaw Giuseppina’s musical education and arranged for her stage debut in Parma in 1789, at the age of 16. She sang small roles in two comic operas: Pietro Guglielmi’s La pastorella nobile and Domenico Cimarosa’s La ballerina amante. The following year, she sang at Milan’s La Scala in three more comic operas.
In 1792, Giuseppina began to appear in tragic operas. She performed in Vicenza, Venice, Milan, Naples and Ferrara, to growing acclaim. In 1796, she starred with one of her teachers, the castrato Girolamo Crescentini, in the premieres of two operas, performing roles for which she became famous: Giulietta in Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Zingarelli, and Horatia in Gli Orazi e i Curiazi by Cimarosa.
Madame Grassini meets Napoleon
Madame Grassini – La Grassini – was thus already a celebrated singer when French troops led by General Napoleon Bonaparte entered Milan triumphantly on May 15, 1796, after defeating Austrian troops at the Battle of Lodi. Count de Las Cases, to whom Napoleon dictated his memoirs when imprisoned on St. Helena, implied that Giuseppina Grassini tried to seduce the French general. He reported Grassini as telling Napoleon in 1800:
I was then [in 1796] in the full lustre of my beauty and my talent. My performance in the Virgins of the Sun [La vergine del sole, by Gaetano Andreozzi] was the topic of universal conversation. I fascinated every eye and inflamed every heart. The young General [Napoleon] alone was insensible to my charms, and yet he was the only object of my wishes! What caprice, what singularity! When I possessed some value, when all Italy was at my feet, and I heroically disdained its admiration for a single glance from you; I was unable to attain it, and now, how strange an alteration, you condescend to notice me – now, when I am not worth the trouble and am no longer worthy of you! (2)
However, Giuseppina Grassini’s biographer, Arthur Pougin, makes no mention of Napoleon seeing Grassini in 1796, or of Grassini appearing in La vergine del sole in that year. What is clear is that when Napoleon returned to Milan prior to the Battle of Marengo in 1800, he saw Madame Grassini perform at La Scala on June 4. Later that night, when Napoleon’s private secretary Bourrienne woke him to announce that Genoa had capitulated to French forces, “Madame Grassini also awoke.” (3) According to Bourrienne:
I several times took tea with her and Bonaparte in the General’s apartments…. Napoleon was charmed with Madame Grassini’s delicious voice, and if his imperious duties had permitted it he would have listened with ecstasy to her singing for hours together. (4)
Napoleon was so taken with Madame Grassini’s voice and person that he insisted on her joining him in Paris. On July 14, 1800, she sang at the national fête under the dome of the Invalides. Napoleon provided Madame Grassini with a house and an income.
Having a tolerably rich establishment of fifteen thousand francs a month, she exhibited her brilliancy at the theatre and the concerts at the Tuileries, where her voice performed wonders. But at the time [Napoleon] made a point of avoiding scandal; and not wishing to give Josephine [his wife], who was excessively jealous, any subject of complaint, his visits to the beautiful vocalist were abrupt and clandestine. Amours without attention and without charms were not likely to satisfy a proud and impassioned woman, who had something masculine in her character. [Madame Grassini] had recourse to the usual infallible antidote; she fell violently in love with the celebrated violin player, [Pierre] Rode. (5)
Accompanied by Rode, Grassini left Paris in November 1801, embarking on a concert tour of Holland and Germany.
Madame Grassini in London
In 1803, Giuseppina Grassini played for four months at the Haymarket Theatre in London. She also sang there in 1804.
This very handsome woman was in every thing the direct contrary of her rival [Elizabeth Billington]. With a beautiful form, and a grace peculiarly her own, she was an excellent actress, and her style of singing was exclusively the cantabile, which became heavy à la longue, and bordered a little on the monotonous: for her voice, which it was said had been a high soprano, was by some accident reduced to a low and confined contralto. She had entirely lost all its upper tones, and possessed little more than one octave of good natural notes; if she attempted to go higher, she produced only a shriek, quite unnatural, and almost painful to the ear.
Her first appearance was in La Vergine del Sole…well suited to her peculiar talents; but her success was not very decisive as a singer, though her acting and her beauty could not fail of exciting high admiration. So equivocal was her reception, that when her benefit was to take place she did not dare encounter it alone, but called in Mrs. Billington to her aid, and she, ever willing to oblige, readily consented to appear with her. The opera, composed for the occasion by [Peter] Winter, was Il Ratto di Proserpina, in which Mrs. Billington acted Ceres, and Grassini Prosperine. And now the tide of favour suddenly turned; the performance of the latter carried all the applause, and her graceful figure, her fine expression of face, together with the sweet manner in which she sung several easy simple airs, stamped her at once the reigning favourite…. Not only was she rapturously applauded in public, but she was taken up by the first society, fêtée, caressed, and introduced as a regular guest in most of the fashionable assemblies. Of her private claims to that distinction it is best to be silent, but her manners and exterior behaviour were proper and genteel. (6)
Madame Grassini continued to perform in London for the next two years. Thomas de Quincey found her voice “delightful…beyond all that I had ever heard.” (7)
Back in Paris
In 1807, Giuseppina Grassini returned to France, engaged to sing in Napoleon’s newly established imperial choir, along with her former teacher Girolami Crescentini. She received a salary of 36,000 francs, a pension of 15,000 francs, and the proceeds of an annual benefit concert, as well as other rewards.
One evening in 1810, she and Signor Crescentini performed together at the Tuileries, and sang in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ At the admirable scene in the third act, the Emperor Napoleon applauded vociferously, and Talma, the great tragedian, who was among the audience, wept with emotion. After the performance was ended, the Emperor conferred the decoration of a high order on Crescentini, and sent Grassini a scrap of paper on which was written, ‘good for 20,000 livres – Napoleon.’ (8)
Madame Grassini became a well-known figure in Paris.
Received everywhere, loved by everyone, she had a natural kindliness, spontaneity, true and original. She spoke a mixed jargon of French and Italian, all her own, which allowed her to say anything, and by which she profited to make the most amusing remarks and the most amusing confidences, blaming what she said on her ignorance of the language whenever she said anything that could shock or hurt someone. (9)
Attentions of the Duke of Wellington
After Napoleon was exiled to Elba in 1814, Giuseppina Grassini attracted the favours of the Duke of Wellington, who was then serving as the British ambassador to France. On November 13, Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, wrote to Granville Leveson Gower from Paris:
The Duke of Wellington is so civil to me, and I admire him so much as a hero that it inclines me to be partial to him, but I am afraid he is behaving very ill to that poor little woman [Wellington’s wife Kitty]: he found great fault for it, not on account of making her miserable or of the immorality of the fact, but the want of procédé and publicity of his attentions to Grassini. (10)
The affair continued after Napoleon’s return to France and his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The composer Felice Blangini described a meeting with Wellington and Grassini in July of that year.
As I often saw Madame Grassini, she took me to Lord Wellington’s, where we often made music. Lord Castlereagh was a constant visitor there; he sang with us, very tolerably for an English minister. When Madame Grassini was at these small gatherings at Lord Wellington’s, she recited and sang scenes from Cleopatra and from Romeo e Giulietta. Alone in the centre of the salon, she gestured as if she were on the stage, and with the aid of a big shawl she dressed up in various ways. I do not remember whether, during these sessions, she sang the arias that end with a ‘sgauardo d’amor’; but what I am sure of is that Lord Wellington was overjoyed in ecstasy. (11)
Regarding soirées hosted by Wellington in Paris in 1816, the Countess de Boigne wrote:
I recall that on one occasion he decided to make Grassini, then in possession of his favours, the queen of the evening. He placed her on a raised sofa in the ballroom and never left her side. He had her served first before anyone else, arranged everyone so that she could dance, gave her his hand to take her into supper first, sat her next to him, and finally paid her the kind of attention normally granted only to princesses. (12)
In 1817, Giuseppina Grassini returned to Italy. She continued to appear in operas, but her voice was not what it used to be, and she retired from the stage in 1823. She settled in Milan and devoted herself to teaching. Captain Gronow recollected:
When I first met her in 1825 she still possessed some remains of the remarkable beauty which had won for her the attention and admiration of so many of the great men of the age. Napoleon and Wellington, the Marshals of France, the Generals of the allied armies, English, Russians, Prussians, Austrians, as well as the Dukes and Marquises of the Restoration, had all bowed before Grassini’s shrine, and had all been received with the same Italian bonhomie and liberal kindness. She would often say, ‘Napoleon gave me this snuff-box; he placed it in my hands one morning when I had been to see him at the Tuileries, and added, ‘Voilà pour toi; tu es une brave fille!’ He was indeed a great man, but he would not follow my advice. Il aurait du s’entendre avec ce cher Vilainton. By the by, c’est ce brave Duc qui m’a donné cette broche….’ And so she would run on, with anecdotes and remarks on a long list of admirers.
All Madame Grassini’s recollections came out quite naturally, with true southern frankness, or rather cynicism; and she narrated her liaisons in as unconcerned a manner before every one she met, as she were speaking of her drive in the Bois de Boulogne. Her face must have been in her youth still handsomer than that of her niece, Giulia Grisi. The eyes were larger and more expressive, and she had more regular features and finer teeth. There was a tragic dignity in the contour and lineaments of her countenance, which formed a strange contrast with her unrefined language and gipsy style of dress; every colour of the rainbow was represented in her garments, which she tied on without the smallest regard to taste, and gave her very much the appearance of a strolling actress equipped at Ragfair.
Grassini’s once fine voice had, when I saw her, degenerated into a sharp, loud, unmelodious soprano, which grated harshly on the ear. She had no cleverness or wit, and the bons mots that are cited as hers are amusing only from the cynic bonhomie which inspired them, as well as the strong Italian accent with which they were spoken. (13)
Giuseppina Grassini died on January 3, 1850 in Milan at the age of 76. An obituary described her as “one of the most celebrated Italian singers, and the most beautiful woman, of her day…. Few of her profession ever boasted of a career so long and so brilliant as hers. In Italy, France, Germany, and England, she achieved for herself the highest reputation, and for many years ruled in undisputed possession on the throne of song.” (14)
You might also enjoy:
- Arthur Pougin, Une Cantatrice ‘Amie’ de Napolon: Giuseppina Grassini, 1773-1850 (Paris, 1920), p. 9.
- Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III, Part 5 (London, 1823), p. 21.
- Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (New York, 1891), p. 395.
- Ibid., p. 395.
- Joseph Fouché, The Memoirs of Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto (Boston, 1825), p. 144.
- Richard Edgcumbe, Musical Reminiscences, Containing an Account of the Italian Opera in England, From 1773 Continued to the Present Time, Fourth Edition (London, 1834), pp. 92-94.
- Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (London, 1930), p. 191.
- “Death of Signora Grassini,” The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Vol. 23 (New York, May 1851), p. 48.
- Madame Ancelot, Les salons de Paris: Foyers éteints (Paris, 1858), p. 34.
- Castalia Countess Granville, ed., Lord Granville Leveson Gower (First Earl Granville) Private Correspondence, 1781 to 1821, Vol. II (London, 1916), p. 507.
- Felice Blangini, Souvenirs de F. Blangini (Paris, 1834), p. 279.
- Adèle d’Osmond, Mémoires de la Comtesse de Boigne, Vol. II, M. Charles Nicoullaud (Paris, 1908), p. 145.
- Rees Howell Gronow, Celebrities of London and Paris: Being a Third Series of Reminiscences and Anecdotes of the Camp, the Court, and the Clubs (London, 1865), pp. 151-154.
- “Death of Madame Grassini,” The Musical World, Vol. 25, No. 4 (London, January 26, 1850), p. 52.
She spoke a mixed jargon of French and Italian, all her own, which allowed her to say anything, and by which she profited to make the most amusing remarks and the most amusing confidences, blaming what she said on her ignorance of the language whenever she said anything that could shock or hurt someone.