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The house of the Bonaparte family on the corner of Rue Saint-Charles and Rue Letizia

The house of the Bonaparte family on the corner of Rue Saint-Charles and Rue Letizia
  

This second route takes us to meet the Bonaparte family. It begins in Rue Saint-Charles in front of the family house.
There is documentary evidence for the presence of the Bonaparte family in Corsica as far back as the end of the 15th century. The first member of the family to come to Corsica from Italy, Francesco, had the surname 'Maure de Sarzane', from the name of the small Ligurian town from which his family originated. That family is known as far back as the 12th century, and most of the family members were notaries.

The Bonapartes' first house in Ajaccio was at the end of the Grande-Rue. It was demolished in the middle of the 16th century to make room for the citadel. From that period to the 17th century, it is not known where the Bonapartes lived. But in 1682 Giuseppe Bonaparte moved into the house that was to become 'Casa Bonaparte'. As was the custom in Corsica, the house was divided up between different owners, each possessing one or more rooms, sometimes even a whole floor. By his marriage to Maria Bozzi, Giuseppe took possession of the rooms which had belonged to his wife, and then via careful marriages and simple purchases Giueseppe managed to turn 'Casa Bozzi' into 'Casa Bonaparte'. And it was to this house that Carlo-Maria Buonaparte (the 'u' was added to the surname Bonaparte after the attestation of common origin with the Buonaparte family of Florence) brought his young bride Letizia Ramolino on their marriage in 1764. Charles de Buonaparte (such was the name he gave himself on rallying to the French cause) was a lawyer to the Conseil superieur and an assessor of royal jurisdiction in Ajaccio. He was elected to as Deputy to the Corsican nobility in 1772 and even travelled to Versailles in this capacity. Anxious to live as be befitted his rank, he set about enlarging and decorating the family house. This work was continued in 1790 by the Archdeacon Lucien, his uncle, who looked after the family on the death of Charles in 1785.

The house was to suffer badly when the Bonaparte family openly showed their support for Republican ideas. In May 1793, when Letizia and her children fled to France, the house was totally sacked and partially burned by supporters of Paoli backed by the English. It was subsequently requisitioned by the English as officers' lodgings and the story goes that Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's future jailer on St Helena, lived there on the first floor. In October 1796, when the English were driven out of Corsica, the Bonaparte family returned to their house and began significant building work paid for by compensation from the Directory. The complete restoration of the house was finished in 1799 and the new furniture - still there today - was bought in Genoa and Marseilles.
Napoleon, the second son of Charles and Letizia, was born in this house on 15 August 1769. The future Emperor was given the strange name Napoleon - a name which he himself considered 'virile, poetic and a little excessive' - in memory of the Napoleon's uncle, the brother of the Archdeacon Lucien, who died in Corte a few weeks before the battle of Ponte Nuovo. All the other children of the Bonaparte couple were also born in this horse, the only exception being Joseph whom we shall meet in our discussion of the house in Corte in which he was born. Stendhal in his Vie de Napoléon gave a very symbolic version of the Emperor's birth: 'On 15 August 1769, the day of the Feast of the Assumption, Madame Bonaparte was at Mass when she felt birth pangs so sharp that she had to return home with all haste. She did not reach her chamber in time and her child came into the world in the antichamber onto an antique carpet decorated with large figures of heroes'. When Letizia later heard of this story, she remarked 'He made it up. Was that really necessary?' adding 'We never had carpets in our houses in Corsica. And if there was a reason to have them in winter, there was certainly none for having them in Summer'. But it is true that Letizia was too late to get to her bedroom and so gave birth on a sofa - the Louis XVI chaise-longue, however, with its reversed back, on show in the house very definitely postdates this birth. Apparently of a weak constitution, the baby was summarily baptised at home on the authorisation of the Archdeacon Lucien. He was breast-fed not only by his mother but also by a wet nurse called Camilla Ilari, a tough peasant girl and daughter of an Ajaccio sailor, and she was to be remembered by the future emperor for the rest of his life, to the extent that she was remembered in his will. When the family left Corsica for good in 1799, the house was left to her good offices and Napoleon even thought at one point of giving it to her. In the end, Casa Bonaparte was given to one of Letizia's cousins, André Ramolino, and he in return agreed to hand over his own house to Camilla.

The room in which Napoleon was born

The room in which Napoleon was born
  

In this narrow street, Maison Bonaparte, (which after suffering many different fates became a National Monument in 1967) with its tall and sober façade stretching over three stories is characteristic of 18th century housing in Ajaccio. The museum is divided into two parts. The second storey recounts the history of Corsica in the 18th century and that of the Bonaparte family, whilst the first floor contains the historical apartments. On leaving the museum, visitors should stop for a few moments to take a pleasant rest in the small garden opposite the house and admire the bust of the King of Rome placed there in 1936 on the centenary of the death of Letizia.

Ajaccio Cathedral

Ajaccio Cathedral
  

At the end of Rue Saint-Charles, in Rue Forcioli-Conti (in the neighbourhood in which Napoleon grew up) stands Ajaccio Cathedral. Built on a modest scale, this edifice which dates from the end of the 16th century is a place of Napoleonic pilgrimage. True to the story as Stendhal told it, Letizia did indeed feel the first birth pangs there - some even went so far as to say that she gave birth on the cathedral steps. Napoleon was baptised in the cathedral by his great-uncle the Archdeacon Lucien (assisted by the treasurer Gio Balta Diamante) on 21 July 1771 at the same time as his new born sister Maria Anna, who died before the year was out. The birth certificate - a copy of which can be seen in the Salon napoléonien in the Hôtel de Ville - was written in Italian and neither the town nor the church in which the ceremony took place is mentioned. It is certified by François Cuneo, advisor to the king and royal judge for the province of Ajaccio. Napoleon's godfather was Laurent Giubeca, the royal procurer, and his godmother was his aunt, Gertruda Paravicini. The baptistry where the ceremony was held can still be seen today in the entrance to the catheral. In 1869, the Empress Eugénie and the Prince imperial, visiting Ajaccio on the hundredth anniversary of the Napoleon I's birth, were present at the singing of a Te Deum here. They also took part in the laying of the foundation stone for a new cathedral which was never to be built.

Façade of the hôtel Pozzo di Borgo

Façade of the hôtel Pozzo di Borgo
  

Go back onto Rue Saint-Charles and walk as far as Rue Bonaparte. This main arterial road, the "Carrughiu drittu" (the straight road) was one of Ajaccio's first roads and during the Genoese period it was lined by the houses of the wealthy. Most of these houses were rebuilt in the 19th century. On the right, at number 17, is the house which once belonged to the Pozzo di Borgo family, into which was born Charles-André (1764-1842), distant cousin and close friend of Joseph and Napoleon, who became their sworn enemy during the Paulist struggle. Because of his opposition to the republican government in 1796, Charles-André was forced into exile in England and later to Vienna. A wily diplomat and a confirmed opponent of the Emperor, Pozzo di Borgo subsequently joined the staff of Russian Tzar. Since his property was not included in the general amnesty law of 1796, it was confiscated. Hôtel Borgo di Pozzo was refitted between 1820 and 1825, and although today the building is in disrepair, it has fine trompe'd'oeil decoration on the façade and a richly sculpted door framed by Ionic columns. Further on down the road there are two plaques, at number 5 and number 10 respectively, commemorating the two famous men who once lived there. The 'Father of the Homeland', Paoli, lived in what was once the "Publico palazzu" or town hall in 1791 and Murat lived in the Hôtel de la Croix de Malte in September 1815 before embarking on his ill-fated attempt to reconquer the Neapolitan throne which came to a tragic end at Pizzo in Calabria.
Rue Bonaparte enters Place du Maréchal Foch where in addition to the statue of Bonaparte and the Lions (to be dealt with in the following route) there is the Hôtel de Ville or town hall, also called by the locals the "Maison Carée". This Neoclassical edifice, built in the first quarter of the 19th century and whose austere façade is slightly softened by the beautiful red ochre of the plaster work, contains a Salon napoléonien. Two rooms on the upper floor are arranged so as to provide exhibition space for the collections which have been left to the town. A good number of members of the imperial family are represented in painting and sculpture, of which the most remarkable are some by Girodet and Canova, not to mention copies of Gérard and Winterhalter. An interesting collection of coins and medals depicts the major events of the Napoleonic epic, both of the consulate and the Empire. The sole contemporary work in this Salon is the allegorical ceiling fresco painted by the Corsican artist Dominique Frassati - it shows Napoleon I surrounded by figures from the imperial court, soldiers of the Grande Armée, and symbolic figures. Whilst the artist is clearly talented, the work is remarkable for its confused composition and poor quality. Indeed it is clear proof of how difficult it is to master the Grand Manner, or the History painting, a style almost completely abandoned by the 20th century. But given that 20th century representations of Napoleon are rare, this makes interesting viewing.
On leaving the Hôtel de Ville, go right onto Rue Fesch. This quarter, known as "U Borgu" (the borgo), was inhabited by the Corsicans who could find no room in the Genoese city. And the name of this extra-muros city has remained attached to Rue du Cardinal Fesch. At number 28 a plaque commemorates an event from Napoleon's youth. The text (translated) runs as follows: 'For three days in May 1793, Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in this house belonging to ex-mayor Jean-Jérôme Lévie. Napoleon was being pursued by anglo-paolists and Lévie welcomed him into his house where he had assembled a armed posse of men from the hills. When the gendarmes came to arrest them, Lévie managed to get his men away without a fight, and on the same night he arranged for Napoleon to escape by sea to Calvi and then to the Provençale coast. Seven months later (21 December) Bonaparte took Toulon'. As First Consul, Napoleon named Lévie as Mayor of Ajaccio in 1800, but Lévie refused the post because of his age.

Statue of Cardinal Fesch in the courtyard of Palais Fesch

Statue of Cardinal Fesch in the courtyard of Palais Fesch
  

Further down the street, at number 50, one palace is particularly notable for the austere lines of its Classical architecture. Palais Fesch was built on the orders of Cardinal Fesch, Napoleon's maternal uncle, born in Ajaccio in 1763 and who died in Rome in 1839. Ordained priest in 1785 and made Archdeacon of Ajaccio in 1787, Fesch was subsequently nominated vicar to the Bishop of the town. He fled Corsica with the rest of the Bonaparte family in 1793, following his nephew to Italy, and for a brief time forgetting his ecclesiastical duties he acted as a supplier to the armies. Made Archbishop of Lyons in 1802, Cardinal in 1803, Grand Chaplain to the Emperor in 1805, disgraced in 1812 after his siding with the Pope, Fesch took refuge in Rome in 1814, and he was to spend the rest of his life there building up his prestigious collection of Italian paintings. "Do not get me second-rate pictures" he wrote to his buyer in Rome; "If it is not fine and beautiful, I do not want it". In his will dated 1839 he expressed his wish "to found a great establishment dedicated to God in his three persons" where deserving and studious young men could study the sciences and the arts. Furthermore, he bequeathed to the town of Ajaccio a small part of his collection of paintings, "some original works of all the schools, in the attempt to found a museum which would help in the instruction of young people". The building was finished in 1840 and commandeered as a barracks. In 1847, the edifice finally opened its doors as an Institut d'études, and in 1852 as a Museum, but over time the museum galleries were gradually replaced by classrooms. Palais Fesch remained a boys school until 1936, before becoming a soup kitchen during the Second World War. At the end of the 80s, the building once more became a museum and today it houses one of the largest provincial collection of Italian painting in the world. In addition to the painting collection the museum also has a significant Napoleonic section containing some remarkable works.
Palais Fesch dominates the port and the city. In front there stands a large courtyard with an imposing statue of the Cardinal set in the centre carved by Vital Dubray - bas-reliefs on the pedestal recount the most important events in the Cardinal's life. Commissioned and installed during the Second Empire, this statue is part of Napoleon III's work in Ajaccio. In fact Napoleon III had declared 'Corsica for me is not just another 'departement', it is a family', and he tried throughout his reign to bring about an economic upturn on the island. He took similar pains with the heritage left by his illustrious ancestor and was careful to preserve his family memory. Hence the right wing of Palais Fesch was commissioned to house the Bonaparte family chapel.

Interior of the Imperial Chapel

Interior of the Imperial Chapel
  

The Imperial chapel was built under orders from Napoleon III, between 1857 and 1860, in response to Cardinal Fesch's wish, expressed in his will, that he should be buried in a church built for him and his family in Ajaccio. The latter became the family burial chapel of the Bonapartes. The bodies of Charles and Letizia, Napoleon's parents, Joseph Fesch, Charles-Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Canino and of Misignano, the latter's children Napoléon-Charles, Zénaide and Eugénie, Prince Victor and his wife Clémentine, and Prince Napoleon all lie in the crypt. Every year Masses are celebrated there on the anniversaries of Napoleon's birth and death. Going a little further down Rue Fesch, at number 44 (close to the house in which Tino Rossi, the man christened 'the Napoleon of Romance', was born) there is a plaque commemorating Bonaparte's opposition to Paoli. It was here in January 1791 that Napoleon read out his first public speech, a letter to a Royal sympathiser Matteo Buttafuoco, during a meeting of a patriotic club associated with the Jacobins.

 

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