28 December 2016

The Venus of Napolean's Empire

By Francois Joseph Kinson via Wikimedia Commons
Born a poor little girl on a struggling island, Maria Paola had little to look forward to in life. Her family did not even attempt to provide her with the least education. The sixth of eight children, things looked even more bleak when her father, a minor functionary, died. She was just five years old. But there were three exceptional things about Maria Paola Buonoparte: she was exceptionally beautiful, she was exceptionally silly, and she had one exceptional brother.

Eleven years her senior, her brother rose to prominence in the French Army and the French Revolution, eventually taking over the government as First Consul. He brought his entire family, including the teenaged Maria Paola to Paris to enjoy his success with him. Now known as Pauline, the lovely young girl loved Paris, but more than that she loved men. It wasn't long before big brother Napolean found her canoodling in his office with one of his officers. For her own good, Pauline was soon married off to her lover, General Charles Leclerc. Within months, she gave birth to her only child, a son whom her brother named Dermide before sending the the general, his promiscuous bride and the baby off to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to tame a rebellion. Even in this far-flung corner of the world, Pauline managed to make a good time for herself in the company of other men. However, when her husband died of yellow fever, Pauline was truly devastated--indeed, she even cut off her luxurious hair and buried it with him.

Pauline and little Dermide returned to Paris, where despite the enforced rules of widowhood, 23-year-old Pauline basked in the attention lavished on her by the opposite sex. She was one of the most renowned beauties of her day. She prided herself on her milky skin, fine hands and feet, and perfect breast, which many people got to enjoy. Napolean arranged for her to marry a bona fide Italian prince Camillo Borghese after her period of mourning had ended. Pauline refused to wait. She married Camillo months early and took great pleasure in surprising her brother when she was announced as Princess Borghese at an event!

Initially enthralled with each other, the Borgheses soon discovered that their physical attraction had worn off and they had little in common. Already tired of Camillo, Pauline refused to forgive him for leaving her son Dermide behind on a trip. The little boy died while they were gone and Camillo insisted on keeping the news from her.

By Robert Lefevre via Wikimedi Commons
Like all of Napolean's officers, brothers and brothers-in-law, Camillo was kept occupied with various military and governing roles throughout Europe. Pauline found ways to entertain herself without him. Her reputation as a nymphomaniac grew steadily. Her other eccentricities also drew attention, like insisting on taking baths in milk poured over her by her African servant and making others carry her up and down stairs. She nevertheless danced incessantly at every party, made fun of her sister-in-law Empress Josephine, and even made sassy remarks to big brother Napolean in public. Wherever she went, she was the center of attention--and she loved it!

In spite of her great admiration for herself and her growing list of lovers (said to include famous actors, artists and musicians of the day as well as servants and minor officers), she had a genuine affection for Napolean. Rumors abound even today that the hot-blooded Pauline and her equally sex-mad brother might even have been incestuous lovers. Whether true or not, Pauline was the only one of Napolean's numerous siblings to voluntarily follow him into his first exile and she even begged to be sent to him during his final illness on Saint Helena.

After Napolean's death, Pauline reunited with her husband Prince Camillo Borghese and he helped see her through her final illness. She is thought to have suffered with gynecological problems throughout her life and was often advised to try abstinence. She never took that advice. It is also likely that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea, which was quite common in those days. In the end, she likely suffered from liver cancer, the same disease that had killed her father, but it was pulmonary tuberculosis that killed her at age 44.

Numerous portraits of the famous beauty survive and there is even one famously scandalous sculpture of her depicted, half naked, as the goddess Venus. It is how she would have wished to be remembered.
Venus Victrix is displayed at the Galleria Borghese.

For more about Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese:
How Pauline Bonaparte Lived for Pleasure on Shannon Selin
Keeping It In the Family on Noon Observation
The Long-Lost Slippers of Pauline Bonaparte Borghese on Two Nerdy History Girls
Marie-Pauline Bonaparte Was the Uncrowned Queen of Folly on Look & Learn
Napolean and Pauline Bonaparte: Incest? on Versailles and More
The Notorious Pauline Bonaparte on Scandalous Women
Pauline & Josephine: Rivals for Napolean's Love on Enchanted by Josephine
The Story of Pauline Bonaparte on Famous Affinities of History
Surface Beauty: Neoclassicism and Napolean's Scandalous Sister on Artstor Blog
Wayward Venus on The Coincidental Dandy
Why Did Pauline Bonaparte Cover Her Ears on History and Other Thoughts

Books about Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese:





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