“Napoleon Bonaparte died 250 years ago, and since then, every day one academic book has been published about him, not counting all the other works people wrote for fun. Everybody is just fascinated with this man,” says Jacques Mattei, Director of the European federation of Napoleon Cities. Mediterranean style, we are having a long, relaxing lunch at the Napoleon café in Ajaccio, Corsica, birthplace of the last European emperor.
The night before, we flew in from Paris to Napoleon Bonaparte Airport on Corsica, the mountainous Mediterranean island off the west coast of Italy and the south-east coast of France. Napoleon once said that he could smell Corsica from the sea. The scent of everlasting yellow flowers, mint, myrtle and pine is everywhere. Ajaccio is a simple provincial town with great beaches, restaurants everywhere, boats along the coasts or ferries to Italy or France, not to forget stunning red sunsets over the Mediterranean Sea. There is a taste of the Côte d’Azur and Italy in its pastel-toned, cafe-filled historic center and the trendy waterfront promenade, full of beachgoers by day and party people later on.
We are here because this year, this small but vibrant city is getting ready for a major party. On Napoleon’s birthday in the middle of August, there will be fireworks, Napoleon costumes, lightshows, nightly visits and changing of the imperial guards.
Even though there are statues of the great general on every square, it’s in the tangled old-town lanes of Ajaccio that the ghost of Napoléon Bonaparte can be felt most, with Musée de la maison Bonaparte, the house where he was born in 1769 now serving as a museum to his memory. Here, you learn the story of his humble beginnings, the story of a not very rich family which, because of one of their genius sons, became the most powerful dynasty in Europe.
The Bonapartes were minor nobility of sixteenth-century Tuscany. They might have counted themselves among the elite of Ajaccio, but they were far from rich and lived frugally, just managing enough to own their own house and garden and to employ servants. The native house is not a palace, but a modest three story building furnished in the style of the time. Nonetheless, it offers a fascinating insight into how the island’s elite lived in the 18th century, as Maison Bonaparte is full of memorabilia and decor and furniture have been restored or replicated. Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia lived with their children in four rooms on the first floor and gradually bought the second and third floors.
Napoleon played in the well-appointed rooms of the house until the age of nine, when he was sent off to school. The museum has even pin-points the exact room where he was probably born.
A Corsican Ruler
We learn that history made Napoleon an emperor. In 1768 Genoa sold sovereign rights of Corsica to France to pay its debts and Napoleon was born in Ajaccio a year later. Had he been born earlier, he would have been Italian. Had his parents not managed to get noble status under French rule, he wouldn’t have gone to a military academy in Paris. Had Corsica stayed an independent country – as it was for 14 years in the 18th century – Napoleon would not have ruled France.
The Bonaparte family did not immediately profit from their son’s education in Paris. In fact, while he was away, they started to have troubles with the ruler of the island. This was a former friend of Napoleon’s father, but relations became so bad that the whole family fled the island. Napoleon only visited this house he grew up in three more times, while the parents eventually did return. They are buried in the church in the town center.
Once Napoleon had conquered Europe and crowned himself emperor, he ruled Europe like a Corsican, putting his siblings in charge of parts of the empire. Elder brother Joseph became King of Spain, younger brother Louis ruled Holland, his sister was put in charge of Tuscany, while the youngest sister became Queen of Naples.
In Ajaccio, you can see how well the family eventually did for itself at the art museum, which houses part of the 30,000 artworks owned by Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. Once Napoleon had risen to power, the Uncle Joseph received a long list of titles, including Prince of France and Prince of the Papal States. After his nephew’s defeat, Fesch retired to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life collecting art. A lot of it. Now the superb art museum in Ajaccio holds the largest French collection of Italian paintings outside the Louvre. There are masterpieces by Titian, Fra Bartolomeo, Veronese, Bellini and Botticelli and several rooms are devoted to Napoleon and his family. It takes almost two hours just to see the highlights.
Ajaccio lives from tourism and everybody on the island wants to be associated with Napoleon’s presence, but in the end not much is known about the emperor’s youth on Corsica. We know he was a short, skinny, Italian looking boy who spoke Corsican and Italian, but was not very good in French. We know that he was baptized at the Ajaccio Cathedral and played in the cave in the Jardins de Casone, nowadays the site of a huge Napoleon monument. In summertime, the family spent time in the lovely botanical gardens and olive groves around the Bonapartes country house at Les Milelli.
And he must have enjoyed the famous red sunsets. In the evening, Mattei takes us to visit the Isles Sanguinaires, translated as ‘bloodred islands’. While the sea turns bright red with the setting sun, we look at the rocks and think we see yet another statue of Napoleon overlooking the sea. It turns out to be a Genoese lookout tower that dates from 1608 and the Genoese occupation of Corsica, but we have started to see the famous general everywhere on this island.
Eventually, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall became one of the most spectacular in recorded history. The self-appointed emperor revolutionized Europe’s military, legal and educational institutions and become a worldwide cultural icon who symbolizes military genius and political power. It’s thrilling to walk in the places where he grew up, and knowing that wherever you go from here into Europe, his influence can still be felt.