Two Duchesses (In Two Parts)

I have to say that I am getting a bit fed up with the after-effects of Covid – eight weeks after I first tested positive and had very mild symptoms, I am still feeling exhausted and completely brain-fogged, hence the lack of any posts recently. The brain-fog (and I don’t need anyone saying what’s new about that, thanks) is quite worrying: I can’t spell, I can’t remember names and facts, I can’t concentrate and therefore can’t read (except tried and trusted fiction), and, best(?) of all, I put my foot on the accelerator rather than the brake at one point last week, though thankfully no harm was done to anyone (or any car).

The end of a fun but exhausting day …

But there have been a few cheering interludes – most recently a trip to the seaside as a responsible adult(!) with my younger granddaughter’s nursery. I thoroughly recommend the promenade and beach at Chalkwell in Essex (by C2C train – geddit?) which was like going back in time to my own 1950s childhood. However, that was beaten by four days in Lucca the week before (we had had to cancel an earlier, longer Italian jaunt because of said Covid, having had previously to cancel a trip in spring 2019 because of the lockdown), where we mooched around the almost traffic-free streets, visited churches, museums and gardens, and contemplated the influence on the city of two very different female rulers, Elisa Buonaparte and Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Parma. The former was Napoleon’s sister, the latter a Spanish princess, married in 1795 to Lodovico of Bourbon, duke of Parma and Piacenza.

The church of SS. Giovanni e Reparata from the Duomo Museum, Lucca

The destinies of both, inevitably, were tied to the behaviour of Buonaparte (faithful readers will know that he is not my favourite historical character): the rise and career of his younger sister were (relatively) straightforward, while the life of Maria Luisa – born to the purple, as it were – was hugely more complicated, in genealogical as well as political terms. To begin with Elisa (1777–1820), she was the eldest surviving daughter of the Corsican lawyer Carlo Maria Buonaparte and his wife Letizia Ramolino. Like all her surviving brothers and sisters, she became royal, and indeed imperial, owing to the rise of her most famous brother through the Republican ranks in France to his apotheosis in 1804.

Carlo Buonaparte in later life, possibly by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–79). Credit: Maison Bonaparte/Casa Buonaparte, Ajaccio, Corsica.
His son, post-apotheosis, by François Gerard, c. 1806.

Originally named Maria Anna, she adopted the nickname Elisa, allegedly given to her by her brother Lucien (who apparently had Republican views and left France for exile in England, but later overcame them when made first Prince of Canino and Musignano by two successive popes: more on him below).

This portrait is alleged to be of Elisa as a child, but since it was created by by Lorenzo Bartolini, who was born in the same year as her and was later patronised by her, I suspect that it is in fact her daughter, Elisa Napoléone (1806–69)

She had been educated at the Maison royale de Saint-Louis at Saint-Cyr, the girls’ school founded by Louis XIV at the urging of Madame de Maintenon; it closed in 1793 and reopened in 1808 as the new home of Napoleon’s own military academy, founded in 1802.

Louis XIV and Madame de Maintenon visit Saint-Cyr in 1690.

She then returned to Corsica, but in 1795 the whole family relocated to Marseilles (presumably to be closer to the Napoleonic action) and there she met Felice Pasquale Baciocchi (1762–1841), a captain in the Corsican Army (who later named himself Levoy), whom she married in August 1797. This match did Baciocchi’s career no harm at all: when Lucien Buonaparte stopped being Minister of the Interior and went to Spain as France’s ambassador, Baciocchi went as his secretary, while Elisa cared in Paris for the recently widowed Lucien’s two daughters and maintained the salon which the siblings had set up together.

Felice Baciocchi Levoy, by Pietro Benvenuti (Credit: Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, Corsica)

Elisa and Felice were still apart when in 1804 the French Senate proclaimed the empire and she became an Altesse impériale, while he was promoted to major general (though apparently Napoleon had doubts about his military capability): however in 1805 the couple were made Prince and Princess of Piombino (a small coastal territory between those of Florence and Siena, handy for Elba and Corsica), and later in the year had the former republic of Lucca handed to them as the Principality of Lucca and Piombino: they entered the city on 14 July 1805.

Elisa as duchess, 1806, by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768–1826), a pupil of Vigée Le Brun). This painting and many others are in the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi in Lucca, a lovely place. But it and the Villa Guinigi, also a National Museum, were both totally deserted when we visited, so we were followed round by very pleasant and informative guides, and felt stupidly obliged to hurry through so as not to waste their time … as one of them pointed out afterwards: ‘E mio lavoro!’

Elisa seems to have done most of the governing, with the aid of a council of Luccans and French, while Felice looked after military affairs, of which there were very few. He also passed the time by taking violin lessons from the great virtuoso Paganini (then first violin in the Lucchese orchestra), with whom Elisa was meanwhile having an affair. Despite apparent good intentions, she never succeeded in becoming popular in the city, not least because she tried to set up a Frenchified court in what had until recently been a republic of which the aristocracy were merchants.

The young Niccolò_Paganini, by an unknown artist (France, private collection).

In 1806, Napoleon tossed Massa and Carrara (along with its marble quarries) in Elisa’s direction, and she promptly set up a Lucchese Académie des Beaux-Arts, and a bank (the Banque Élisienne) to help sculptors and marble workers.

Remember this ‘La Magnanimità di Elisa’, also by Bartolini: you will need it for Part 2!

Other initiatives included schools, the reform of clergy and the closure of abbeys and nunneries which did not also function as centres of education or hospitality, a Committee of Public Charity, hospitals, and an initiative to support agricultural progress, including the growing of mulberries at Massa to support the traditional Lucchese silk industry. But ranked against these good deeds were the destruction of the city centre (including two churches, San Pietro and San Paolo, and a whole residential block) to enlarge her own palace and to create a completely disproportionate Grande Place (inevitably named Piazza Napoleone) in front of it. But again, she did found the Botanic Garden in 1811, and created a circular and shady park for the population along the top of the medieval ramparts (this year we walked right round the circuit, with occasional stops for refreshment).

About two-thirds of Piazza Napoleone, which formerly had a statue of its eponym in the centre …
A view from the walls. (Credit: PlanetWare)

Meanwhile, in Spain, Lucien Buonaparte had completed the secret Third Treaty of San Ildefonso with Charles IV: the vast area of Louisiana in North America was restored to France and, in exchange, a ‘Kingdom of Etruria’ was created in Italy for the Bourbon family. Its first rulers were the Spanish infanta Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Parma and her husband Louis (or Lodovico), son of Ferdinand, duke of Parma (1751–1802), who had ceded Parma to France in 1801; Louis, however, died in 1803 (his health was never good, and since bashing his head against a marble table in childhood, he had developed epilepsy). His infant son succeeded, with Maria Luisa as his regent, but in 1807 Napoleon cheerfully abolished the kingdom and divided it into three French départements: Maria Luisa and her son left. 

The flag of the short-lived Kingdom of Etruria.
Jacques-François, or Abdallah, de Menou, by Joseph Ducreux. (Credit: Versailles: Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon)

Tuscany was then ruled for two years by one Jacques-François de Menou, baron of Boussay (1750–1810), also known as Abdallah de Menou after his conversion to Islam during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, when he also married a wealthy Egyptian heiress: however, he was not very good at the job, and was recalled after two years, at which point Tuscany became a Grand Duchy (again) and Elisa was made its Grand Duchess, with her capital in Florence (Felice got an army promotion as well).

Elisa with Elisa Napoléone, 1808, by Pietro Nocchi, in Palazzo Mansi.

As at Lucca, she was not popular in Florence, and had considerably less freedom of action than before, as she was required to fulfill all decrees of Napoleon without being able to modify them. She did her best to encourage education and culture, supporting in particular the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History, founded in 1775, but Napoleon’s demands on her, for revenue and soldiers, caused an increasing rift between them, as a result of which she spent a lot of time at her royal residence at Capannori outside Lucca, where she spent her time remodelling the buildings and gardens.

The rivers Arno and Serchio, in the gardens of Elisa’s Villa Reale Marlia, Capannori, near Lucca.

After the disaster of the Russian campaign, Joachim Murat, king of Naples, Napoleonic general and Elisa’s brother-in-law, changed sides and marched up the peninsula, causing her to flee from Florence, where she was staying, back to Lucca, which Murat had assured her she could keep as her own. Unfortunately,  Lord William Bentinck (1774–1839), commanding a British–Austrian army, then arrived in Livorno and issued a proclamation urging the Italians to overthrow their French masters with British help.

Lord William Bentinck, by George Romney. (Credit: the National Maritime Museum)

He also told Elisa that he had no intention of honouring Murat’s pledge, and she fled (heavily pregnant with her last child, Frédéric Napoleon Baciocchi Levoy, 1814–33) on the night of 13 March 1814. At Bologna she was captured by the Allies, forced to yield the Grand Duchy and her other lands, and spent a month or so attempting to get back to France, but on 13 April, as Napoleon was arrested and sent to Elba, she was also arrested and sent to prison in Brünn, Austria.

She was freed in August, and allowed to settle in Trieste, later acquiring a country house at Cervignano in Friuli, where she took an interest in the local archaeology, and died, after six years of a relatively peaceful life, on 7 August 1820. She was buried in Bologna, in the chapel of San Giacomo in the Basilica of San Petronio. Felice outlived her by twenty-one years and was eventually buried beside her.

The church of San Petronio, Bologna.
The monument to Elisa and Felice inside the church.

The thing I find most intriguing about Elisa’s story is: who paid? She argued against her brother over his wish to increase taxes (to France) in Lucca, and yet even after her downfall she was able to live comfortably, buy and improve houses and sponsor archaeological investigations. Was there some sort of pension from the new French government, or was she supported by friends and well-wishers (her love-life appears to have been complicated, quite apart from Paganini). But that is enough for now: the second duchess awaits in Part Two!


This entry was posted in Art, Biography, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Two Duchesses (In Two Parts)

  1. Pingback: Two Duchesses (Part Two) | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  2. Pingback: The Stones of Lecce | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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