Pauline Bonaparte on Elba

Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, by Robert Lefèvre, 1803

Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, by Robert Lefèvre, 1803

Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s favourite sister, was the only one of his seven siblings to join the exiled French Emperor on Elba. She became the life of Napoleon’s small court, and helped to finance his stay on the island, as well as his escape from it.

Pauline calls at Elba

In April 1814, with a European coalition occupying Paris, Napoleon was forced to abdicate the French throne. He was exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba, off the west coast of Italy.

As Napoleon made his way to the south of France to embark for his new kingdom, he stopped at the château of Bouillidou, where Pauline was staying. Fearful of being killed by a royalist mob, Napoleon had disguised himself in the coat and hat of an Austrian general. Pauline was astonished to see her brother in an enemy uniform and refused to kiss him until he had removed it. Pauline, who was in poor health, promised to join Napoleon on Elba as soon as she was feeling better.

On May 4, Napoleon disembarked at Portoferraio, the largest town on Elba. He sent the frigate on which he had arrived, HMS Undaunted, back to France to pick up Pauline, but she was not ready to depart. Instead she decided that her health would benefit from a visit to the baths at Ischia, near Naples, which was ruled by her sister and brother-in-law, Caroline and Joachim Murat.

Pauline stopped by Portoferraio at the end of May, on her way to Naples on a frigate sent by Murat. Napoleon had a twenty-one gun salute fired and went on board to greet her. Although Pauline didn’t want to leave the ship, Napoleon convinced her to come ashore, where she was met by local dignitaries and the town’s cheering population. “Ah, Madame,” said Napoleon, “you thought I was in an almost desert country, with half-savage people. Well! Look again and judge if one could be better surrounded than I am.” (1)

Pauline spent 24 hours on Elba. She stayed at I Mulini (the mills), also known as the Palazzina dei Mulini or the Villa dei Mulini, which Napoleon had chosen as his residence. It had been a garrison, consisting of a few large buildings surrounded by shacks and windmills, and was in the midst of an extensive renovation, directed by Napoleon. Pauline did not find the place commodious. Before continuing on to Naples, she gave Napoleon’s grand marshal, General Henri Bertrand, a cluster of diamonds and told him to buy an estate on Elba where she could live. He purchased the villa of San Martino, five miles away, for 180,000 francs. This became Napoleon’s country resort.

The only other member of the Bonaparte family to journey to Elba was Napoleon’s mother Letizia, officially known as Madame Mère. She arrived in August and took up residence in a house near I Mulini. Napoleon’s Polish mistress Marie Walewska came for a brief sojourn in early September, bringing with her Napoleon’s illegitimate son Alexandre Walewski, who was four years old. Napoleon whisked them away to a far corner of the island, hoping to keep the visit secret. The inhabitants of the island mistook the visitors for Napoleon’s wife Marie Louise and his legitimate son, the King of Rome, age three. Marie Louise and her son had gone to Vienna, to join the court of her father, Emperor Francis I of Austria. Although Napoleon prepared apartments for them on the upper floor of I Mulini, they never did join him on Elba.

Pauline comes to stay

On November 1, Pauline returned to Elba. She arrived on HMS Undaunted, which Napoleon had sent to Naples to fetch her.

Before the arrival of the Princess Pauline a number of cases of furniture, porcelain, glass, and an infinite quantity of pretty, useless things had been unloaded at the port and transported to the palace. The Emperor, curious to see what these cases contained and wishing to be the first to see them, had them opened before him. When the box contained porcelains, glass, or bronzes he would have the pieces taken out one by one, have them handed to him, amuse himself by taking off their wrappings, and, after having looked at them and examined them on every side, he would place them on a table or some other piece of furniture within his reach. This form of distraction pleased him so much that not a box was opened unless he was present.

When the Emperor knew of the arrival of the princess, his sister, he made all the arrangements necessary to receive her. The rooms in the upper story [originally intended for Marie Louise]…and which had been decorated and almost furnished, were put in order. The Emperor himself saw to everything. As soon as the ship which carried His Majesty’s sister entered the port and had anchored, the artillery of the place saluted the princess. The troops, I think were under arms during her landing. As soon as her carriage was ashore she got into it and drove to the palace. (2)

Pauline entertains

Pauline Bonaparte, by Robert Lefèvre, 1806. She still looked much the same on Elba.

Pauline Bonaparte, by Robert Lefèvre, 1806

Pauline was 34 years old when she arrived at Elba – 11 years younger than Napoleon. Although she was estranged from her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese, she retained the title Princess Borghese and was able to draw on her husband’s extensive wealth. She still possessed the beauty for which she was renowned. Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, described Pauline on Elba as follows.

Her person, from what could be seen, had all the beautiful proportions of the Venus di Medici. Nothing was lacking to her but a little youth, for the skin of her face was beginning to be wrinkled, but the few defects which resulted from age disappeared under a slight coating of cosmetic which gave more animation to her pretty features. Her eyes were charming and very lively, her teeth were admirable, and her hands and feet were of the most perfect model. She always dressed most carefully, and in the style of a young girl of eighteen. (3)

Napoleon was delighted that Pauline had joined him. “She had all the qualities of a consoling angel,” wrote Pons de l’Hérault, manager of the iron mines on Elba. “Only the presence of the King of Rome could have been more precious…. She was sweet, affectionate, benevolent, and her gaiety animated everything around her.” (4) Napoleon organized a fête to welcome her.

Pauline shook up the staid set of activities on the island. According to Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand:

Princess Pauline’s arrival initiated a new way of life in Porto Ferrajo. Parties, balls, and concerts were given at her house; evening receptions were held at the Emperor’s and at Madame’s, replacing the activities of all kinds that had taken place until then. The small court of the sovereign of Elba took on a less military look. The princess, whose every charm was at its peak, lent an air of gallantry and mirth to all who surrounded her. …. She had brought her retinue, taking as lady’s companions Mme Colombani and Mme Bellini, wives of senior officers, and Mme Lebel, daughter of the adjutant general by that name. All three had a remarkable appearance and distinction. The princess dined every day with the Emperor and General Drouot; she had herself transported from her apartments to the Emperor’s. She went on her excursions in a sedan chair, in preference to a carriage; she was always accompanied by officers of the guard, who all vied for the honor. (5)

Napoleon had a large hall on the ground floor of the palace fixed up to serve as a ballroom and small theatre. Pauline organized and performed in comedies, including Les Fausses Infidelités and Les Folies Amoureuses. Napoleon also allowed a former church that was being used as a military storehouse to be converted into a municipal theatre, where Pauline arranged plays. Although mass was said at the palace every Sunday, Pauline “always found some way to escape being at divine service.” (6)

Napoleon was short of money and Pauline had plenty. She gave generously to Napoleon, and – at Napoleon’s insistence – paid for her own extravagances.

Anecdotes of Pauline on Elba

Although Pauline was not in the best of health, she tended to exaggerate her ailments. Pons de l’Hérault observed that she always wanted to be, or appeared to be sick, and the only fault she found in Napoleon was that he would contradict her on this point. Napoleon seemed to take pleasure in telling Pauline that her illnesses were imaginary. On one occasion when Pons de l’Hérault found Pauline being carried around outside by porters, she said, “You see how I am suffering because the Emperor told me to get some fresh air.” (7)

Pauline’s desire to appear ill never interfered with her ability to dance. According to Saint-Denis:

She always said that she was ill, out of sorts; when she had to go up or down stairs she had herself carried on a square of red velvet having a stick with handles on each side, and yet if she was at a ball she danced like a woman who enjoys very good health. She dined with the Emperor and he liked to tease and poke fun at her. One evening she was so angry with what the Emperor had said to her that she rose from table and went away with tears in her eyes. The irritation did not last long, for the Emperor went up to see her that evening or the next morning and the little feeling of annoyance quickly disappeared. (8)

According to Pons de l’Hérault, Pauline was so devoted to Napoleon that she once said that if Emperor had wanted to beat her, she would have resigned herself with good grace. “It would hurt me, but I would let him do it, if it gave him pleasure.” (9)

Pons also recounted how, after losing her temper with a servant, Pauline later rushed to hug the woman at a ball and apologize.

Napoleon leaves Elba

Napoleon leaving Elba, by Joseph Beaume, 1836

Napoleon leaving Elba, by Joseph Beaume, 1836

On February 16, 1815, the British commissioner on Elba, Colonel Neil Campbell, sailed for Livorno, indicating that he would be gone for at least ten days. Napoleon took advantage of Campbell’s absence to prepare for his own departure from the island (see “How did Napoleon escape from Elba?”). On February 23, four or five large cases belonging to Pauline and insured for 5,000 dollars were disembarked at Livorno. They contained Pauline’s silver dishes and were intended to be sold for the benefit of Napoleon.

On February 26, Napoleon announced that he would leave Elba that evening. Napoleon’s said good-bye to Letizia and Pauline. The latter, who was pale and had tears in her eyes, kissed each of them in turn, wished them success, and told them to take care of her brother. It then came time for Napoleon to take his leave. Marchand wrote:

The princess and Madame were in the throes of pain; full of fear and hope, they couldn’t let the Emperor out of their arms. All those who were going with His Majesty were allowed to kiss these ladies’ hands. I was in the Emperor’s room, awaiting his final orders, when Princess Pauline entered, her beautiful face covered with tears; she came up to me, holding a diamond necklace worth 500,000 francs. She wanted to speak, but sobs choked her voice. I myself was moved by the state she was in. She said: ‘Here, the Emperor sent me to hand you this necklace, as the Emperor may need it if he is in trouble. Oh! were this to happen, Marchand, never abandon him, take good care of him. Adieu,’ she said, offering her hand for me to kiss.

‘Your Highness, I am hopeful this is but au revoir.’

‘That is not what I think.’ Some secret premonition seemed to tell her she would never see the Emperor again. His Majesty walked in at this point, speaking words of consolation, and took her out into the garden.” (10)

Although Pauline and Letizia had planned to join Napoleon in Paris, if he made it there safely (which he did, on March 20), Pauline never did see Napoleon again.

When Neil Campbell, the British commissioner on Elba, arrived back on the island on the morning of February 28 and learned that Napoleon and his troops had left, he went to Letizia’s house where he met with Pauline.

She…protest[ed] her ignorance of Napoleon’s intended departure till the very last moment, and of his present destination; laid hold of my hand and pressed it to her heart, that I might feel how much she was agitated. However she did not appear to be so, and there was rather a smile upon her countenance. She inquired whether the Emperor had been taken? I told her I could not exactly say he was, but that there was every probability of it. During this conversation she dropped a hint of her belief in his destination being for France: upon which I smiled and said, ‘non! ce n’est pas si loin, c’est à Naples;’ for I fancied (for the moment) she mentioned France purposely to deceive me. (11)

When Campbell left the island to search for Napoleon, Pauline made her own escape. She left for Italy in a felucca with a small number of companions  and her sedan chair. On March 4, she reached Viareggio on the coast of Tuscany, which was under Austrian control. She headed for her sister Elisa’s villa at Compignano. Elisa was elsewhere and the villa was soon surrounded by a detachment of Austrian troops. Pauline was detained as a prisoner of state. She was allowed only limited communication with the outside world until June, when she obtained permission to go to the baths of Lucca for her health. It was there that Pauline learned of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. She wanted to join Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, but was not permitted to do so. Instead Pauline went to Rome, which is where we find her in Napoleon in America, along with her mother Letizia, her brothers Louis and Lucien, and her uncle Joseph Fesch.

You might also enjoy:

How Pauline Bonaparte Lived for Pleasure

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

Napoleon’s Mother, Letizia Bonaparte

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon’s Family

Living Descendants of Napoleon and the Bonapartes

Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis: Napoleon’s French Mameluke

Louis-Joseph Marchand: Napoleon’s Valet and Friend

  1. André Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe(Paris, 1897), pp. 260-261.
  2. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), pp. 76-77.
  3. Ibid., p. 81.
  4. Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe, p. 238.
  5. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 122.
  6. Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, 78.
  7. Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe, p. 243.
  8. Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, p. 81.
  9. Pons de L’Hérault, Souvenirs et Anecdotes de l’Île d’Elbe, p. 238.
  10. Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, pp. 147-148.
  11. Neil Campbell, Napoleon at Fontainebleau and Elba (London, 1869), pp. 376-377.

8 commments on “Pauline Bonaparte on Elba”

  • lally brown says:

    another fabulous blog …. thank you!

  • artandarchitecturemainly says:

    I am sure Napoleon was frustrated and bored in exile on Elba, but once Pauline arrived, life became very pleasant for the Emperor. He had two lots of attractive accommodation, plenty of staff, the opportunity to correspond, respect from the locals and visiting relatives and friends.

    Pauline was a champion!

  • Addison Jump says:

    Thanks Shannon, well-written. I picture Letizia, Napoleon, and Pauline as natural aristocrats — proud to a fault, commanding, but dignified, passionate, and human.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Another great article! You spoil us!
    Pauline was certainly frivolous, a money spender, extravagant in many ways but as you show it, she was the most loyal of Napoléon’s siblings. He liked her because she had no political ambitions and didn’t ask him a crown or a title. And as she liked to tell to her jealous sisters, by her marriage with Borghese, she was the only “real” princess of the family.
    Pauline also showed that she could be courageous, especially during the disastrous expedition of Saint-Domingue.
    Pauline has always been Napoléon’s favorite sister and he, her favorite brother. They met for the first time when he was 16 and she, 5. He was the big brother who left Corsica for France, who came back in a beautiful uniform. It seems that it was love at first sight between them; nothing sexual even if some enemies tried to spread the rumour of incest.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Marie-Noëlle. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It’s touching to read Pons de L’Hérault’s account of them together on Elba. He makes clear just how important they were to each other.

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Princess Pauline’s arrival initiated a new way of life in Porto Ferrajo. Parties, balls, and concerts were given at her house; evening receptions were held at the Emperor’s and at Madame’s.

Louis-Joseph Marchand