11/01/2013 by noonobservation
What do you do if you’re young, attractive, witty, fabulously wealthy and your brother is Emperor of Europe? I would probably buy a less damp house where my shoes don’t go mouldy…
…and maybe a nice little army with lovely shiny boots and slightly-too-tight trousers…
Sadly, given my brother’s disappointing lack of ambition, these modest dreams are doomed to failure.
Pauline Bonaparte used her wealth, power and beauty to become a famous naked statue, and one of the 19th century’s most celebrated collectors of sexually transmitted infections.
I started out thinking this was a terrible waste, but actually it’s probably a better use of time than fighting expensive wars or troubling yourself with the ruling of a country – both of which seriously restrict the time available for having baths and buying transparent dresses.
Last week, I went to Rome, and totally failed to visit the famous statue of Pauline by Canova (due to a guidebook malfunction). I did however, get to see a pair of her tiny shoes in the Museo Napoleonico – joy! The three gallery attendants, who were the only other people in the building, were highly amused at my slipper-induced excitement. Clearly they didn’t realise the reverence with which Pauline Bonaparte’s famously exquisite feet were held in the 19th century.
Who’s that girl?
Born Maria Paola Buonaparte in Corsica, Pauline was the sixth of the eight Bonapartes. Though she followed the family tradition of being extremely short, Pauline was universally regarded as a looker thanks to her perfectly “symmetrical” figure and fashionable nose.
Pauline was Napoleon’s favourite sister, so when she was 16, he held a contest to see which French general looked most like him. The winner, Charles Leclerc (known as the Blonde Napoleon), was rewarded with Pauline’s hand in marriage. (He would have preferred a nice little army, but, like me, he had to work with what he was given.)
Nine months later, Pauline gave birth to a son, which Napoleon named Dermide after a character in a novel he was reading. The happy couple were then dispatched to liberate the ague-ridden island of Saint-Domingue from the slave population who had thoughtlessly rebelled. While Pauline collected exotic animals and slept with the garrison officers, her husband contracted yellow fever and died.
Returning to Paris, she soon re-married, choosing the dandy-ish, rich, handsome and weak-brained Prince Camillo Borghese, who she affectionately referred to as “His Serene Idiot”. After a spell as the queen of Roman society, numerous affairs, and following the death of Dermide from a fever aged six, Pauline effectively separated from her husband by carefully avoiding him for the next twenty years. She did, however, maintain an intimate relationship with parts of his family’s fabulous collection of diamonds and renaissance art.
Living large as an Imperial Highness in the playground of Europe, Pauline flitted from one spa to the next like a nymphomaniac butterfly, until she eventually dropped dead of stomach cancer aged 44. In the process, she came to be regarded as a Notorious Woman (or “legendary slut” in the vernacular tongue).
Addicted to love
Pauline is best remembered for her Amazing Sexual Appetite. She is famous for carrying on affairs with three French generals all at the same time, and sleeping with her beefy black servants. Her enormous list of lovers included her doctor, her husband’s secretary, a minor German prince, a famous Parisian actor, innumerable cavalry officers, Alexandre Dumas’s dad and any stray musician that passed within a 3 mile radius of her.
She is also said (by Josephine and others) to have been “too intimate” with Napoleon, and there is enough evidence to suggest they had the occasional platonic shag.
During her adventures, Pauline is thought to have acquired a plethora of sexual diseases. Salpingitis was the likely cause of her many health problems, including her infertility, abdominal pain, back pain and intermittent inability to walk. She is also likely to have had gonorrhoea. Several historian (presumably with nothing better to do) speculate that one of her sexual diseases made her ‘itchy downstairs’ – an itch which (being a princess) she liked other people to scratch for her.
Her doctors prescribed bathing, douches, applying leeches to her bits, and ABSTINENCE FROM SEX. Pauline tried all these treatments apart from the last, leading her doctors to despair at her apparent desire to shag herself to death.
“La diva Paulina”
Pauline was obsessed with her appearance and spent a fortune on her clothes and hours on her toilette (that’s toilette, not toilet). It was particularly necessary to outshine her sisters Elisa (Grand Duchess of Tuscany) and Caroline (Queen of Naples), and of course, the odious (Empress) Josephine. As a hostess, she was sometimes found wanting due to her habit of spending the whole week preparing her outfit and only thinking of the food, drink and entertainment on the morning of her parties. When abroad, Pauline had the latest dresses, bonnets and shoes delivered from Paris, sometimes in diplomatic bags, and thought nothing of sending urgent orders to Constantinople for shawls.
Having an emperor for a brother encouraged Pauline to make increasingly outrageous demands on her staff and hosts. The very best footstool, according to the Princess, was a lady’s throat, and so her ex-aristocrat ladies-in-waiting were forced to lie on the floor all afternoon with Pauline’s famous feet obstructing their tracheas. She also loved to bathe in cows’ milk and when visiting her ex-brother-in-law, her host diligently sent out for extra milk, but forgot to arrange her milk shower. When informed of this, the Princess told him, “Nothing is so easy. Just make a hole in the ceiling above my bath.” The acquiescent gentleman was left with a house humming with the scent of sour milk.
In fact, there was nothing Pauline did more than bathe. Her constant gynaecological problems required her to spend much of her time persuing cures in the most fashionable spa towns in Europe. Unfortunately, spa towns also proved excellent places to pick up wounded cavalry officers, so her cures rarely worked.
Canova was commissioned to sculpt Princess Borghese as Venus during the early days of her second marriage. When asked whether she had felt uncomfortable posing before the artist in so little clothing, she replied that since there had been a fire it the room, she had been perfectly comfortable.
As she aged, Pauline sought to restrict access to the statue to prevent people comparing her present appearance with it, but when she was dying, asked for a closed coffin at the funeral, instructing people to look at her statue instead.
Interestingly, when the Prince had the statue shipped back to Rome from Paris in 1814, the ship got blown onto Elba, and Napoleon tried to requisition the statue claiming it was Imperial property.
Though she was vain, giddy and lewd, Pauline had some redeeming features. Being more interested in frocks and sex than political power, she was Napoleon’s least grasping and most loyal sibling, visiting him on Elba and campaigning to get him better conditions on St Helena. She was also kind to children. Alexandre Dumas recalls her giving him a bonbon box as a present, though to his annoyance, she carefully tipped the bonbons out first.
Her last words were “I’m not afraid to die. I am still beautiful.”
Memorability spectrum analysis:
Hotness (red): 231 – Generally regarded as the hottest woman of the age, as well as being the Imperial French bicycle.
Eccentricity (green): 189 – Using your ladies-in-waiting as furniture and shagging so much that it makes you ill is quite odd behaviour.
Violence (blue): 47 – Exceptionally indolent, though she did once end an affair by throwing a book at her lover’s head.