The Borghese Beauty

In our most recent THATLou post we lingered on an introduction to the Borghese Collection at the Louvre. Though necessary, it was honestly a bit sober. So in developing this story line (before getting to the actual crux — an item or two of the collection itself!) I thought we needed some juicy gossip. And what makes for juicier gossip than scandal? It’s hard to top the stories of Messalina, as touched on in a previous post, but Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister and wife to Prince Camillo Borghese, certainly comes a close second in “shock” factor.



Portrait of PrinceCamillo Borghese, by Francois Gerard (1770-1837) location unknown, wikipedia.org

She was the beauty of the family, 6th of the 8 children born to Napoleon’s parents in Ajaccio, Corsica. At the age of 16, in 1796 (just as Napoleon was starting to make his mark on history, during the Italian Campaign), she fell madly in love with a 40-year old syphilitic philanderer. To distract her, the family married her off to one of Napoleon’s soldiers, General Victor Emmanuel Leclerc (whom Nappy incidentally caught her being let’s say, indiscreet with behind a screen at the Palazzo Mombello in Milano — but I get the idea he didn’t share this morsel with his family).  

Despite having a son by Leclerc (Dermide, whom Napoleon, ever the control-freak, named), Pauline set herself up with many a lover. The family was posted to Haiti, which is where she may have developed her taste for sleeping with black men. It is well documented (a small bit of trivia that I remember from high school when we had to spend time at the Museo Napoleonico in Rome. Just as an aside, these completely un-useful bits of trivia is exactly how my history teachers hooked me on their rich subject) that she was in the habit of having her large black servant, Paul, carry her to the bath every day, and would spend an inordinate number of hours receiving guests from the bath – talk about being hungry for attention! She’d also apparently use ladies-in-waiting as foot servants — literally stepping on their backs.



Portrait of PrinceCamillo Borghese, by Francois Gerard (1770-1837) location unknown, wikipedia.org

Unlike either her older brother (who spent a large part of his life being her PR spin doctor, in addition to being self-appointed ‘Emperor’ of Europe) or Messalina (3rd Empress of Rome and a flagrant hussy), Pauline didn’t seem to have any ambition — her interest was pure frivolity and sex. Eight months after Leclerc died she secretly remarried the handsome Prince Camillo Borghese. This rush infuriated Napoleon (Ironically with such a sister, Napoleon tried to instill a code of good morals. Compare Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Mme. Recamier (1800, at the Louvre) to Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Pauline – which at her request was nearly nude and posed as Venus Victrix – 1805-8 at the Galleria Borghese). Throughout her infidelities, there was a modicum of decency and even loyalty about her. Though she swiftly cheated on Borghese — who was forced into selling a large part of his family’s art collection to his nouveau-riches self-coronated Emperor brother-in-law — she also secured Camillo the post of Governor of Piedmont and guardian of Napoleon’s prisoner, Pope Pius VII (two tasks Camillo coveted). And though she caused a lot of trouble for her brother (who adored her), she is also the only Bonaparte sibling to have supported him after he was deposed and sent to Elba. 



British Embassy on rue du Fbg St Honore, taken from flickr.com/eisenphotovideo

In fact according to Alistair Horne’s The Age of Napoleon, she liquidated most of her assets to go and live with Nappy in Elba and better his situation (although she kept her pretty frocks `to make him happy`). Among her assets was a sumptuous little number on rue du Faubourg St-Honore which she sold to the Duke of Wellingtonafter the Battle of Waterloo, and which since then has been the British Embassy of France. Apparently Wellington “gained the respect of the Parisians when, as the victor, he could have grabbed it for nothing, but insisted on paying the full price.



Pauline Borghese’s Paris Palace, now the British Embassy taken from Hector Berlioz’s website

Just as a small reminder – when little morsels are randomly placed in bold, it just may mean that those could conceivably arise as answers to bonus questions. The Borghese Beauty is applicable to any number of THATLous, since the Borghese Collection has the Three Graces (Beauty), wild satyrs (Bestiary), wonderful Craters (Food + Wine), and Roman Sarcophagi (Skull Scouting Halloween Hunt), etc.


English historian Alistair Horne has written a number of great books on Napoleon and his time. And here’s a good New York Times article about the Borghese Collection au Louvre (no bonus questions – just if interested).