Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIX, chapter 2
Bonaparte – His Family



The first Buonaparte (Bonaparte) of whom there is mention in recent annals is Jacopo Buonaparte, who, as augur of future conquest, left us his history of the Sack of Rome in 1527, of which he was an eye-witness. Napoléon-Louis Bonaparte, son of the Duchesse de Saint-Leu, who died after the insurrection in the Romagna, translated this curious document into French; at the head of the translation he has placed a genealogy of Buonaparte: the translator says ‘that he will content himself with filling in the gaps in the preface written by the Cologne editor, by publishing authentic details of the Bonaparte family; scraps of history,’ he says, ‘which have been almost entirely forgotten, but interesting at least to those who like to discover, in the annals of time past, the origin of a more recent example.’

There follows a genealogy in which one finds a Chevalier Nordille Buonaparte, who, on the 2nd of April 1226, stood surety for Prince Conradin of Suabia (he whose head the Duke of Anjou severed) for the value of the customs rights of the said Prince’s effects. Around 1255 the proscription of Trevisan families began: a Bonaparte branch established itself in Tuscany, where one meets with them in the high offices of State. Louis-Marie-Fortuné Buonaparte, of the branch established at Sarzana, crossed to Corsica in 1612, settled in Ajaccio and became head of the Corsican branch of the Bonapartes. The Bonapartes carry arms of gules two bends sinister between two stars or.

There is another genealogy that Monsieur Panckoucke has placed at the head of a collection of Bonaparte’s writings; it differs in several details from that given by Napoléon-Louis. Madame d’Abrantès, on her side, thinks that Bonaparte might be a Comnène, alleging that the name Bonaparte is a literal translation of the Greek Caloméros, the surname of the Comnène. Napoleon-Louis feels he must end his genealogy with these words: ‘I have omitted many details, since these titles of nobility are only an object of curiosity for a small number of people, and besides the Bonaparte family acquires no lustre from them.

‘He who serves his country well needs no ancestors.’

Despite this philosophical line of verse, the genealogy exists. Napoléon-Louis wished to make the concession to his century of a democratic apophthegm without eliciting its consequence.

All this is curious: Jacopo Buonaparte, historian of the Sack of Rome, and the detention of Pope Clement VII by the soldiers of the Constable de Bourbon, is of the same blood as Napoleon Bonaparte, destroyer of so many towns, master of Rome become a prefecture, King of Italy, conqueror of the Bourbon crown and gaoler of Pius VII, after having been consecrated Emperor of the French by the Pontiff’s own hand. The translator of the work of Jacopo Buonaparte is Napoléon-Louis Buonaparte, nephew of Napoleon and son of the King of Holland, brother of Napoleon; and this young man chances to die during the late insurrection in the Romagna, some distance from the two towns where the mother and widow of Napoleon are exiled, at the moment when the Bourbons tumble from their throne for the third time.

As it would have been quite difficult to make Napoleon the son of Jupiter Ammon by the serpent beloved of Olympias, or a descendant of the grandson of Venus by Anchises, liberated scholars (such as Las Cases) found a different marvel to employ: they demonstrated to the Emperor that he was descended in direct line from the Iron Mask. The Governor of the Îles Sainte-Marguerite was called Bonpart; he had a daughter; the Iron Mask, twin brother of Louis XIV, fell in love with the daughter of his gaoler and secretly married her, by the Court’s own admission. The children born of this union were taken clandestinely to Corsica, bearing their mother’s name; the Bonparts transformed themselves into Bonapartes due to the change of language. So the Iron Mask became a mysterious brazen-faced ancestor of the great man, connected in this way to the great king.

The Franchini-Bonaparte branch of the family carried three golden fleurs-de-lis on its shield. Napoleon smiled at this genealogy with an expression of incredulity; but he did smile: it was ever a claim of royalty of benefit to his family. Napoleon affected an indifference he did not feel, since he himself had called for his genealogy from Tuscany (Bourienne). Precisely because Bonaparte’s birth lacks any connection with divinity, that birth is wonderful: ‘I saw,’ says Demosthenes, ‘that Philip against whom we fought for the freedom of Greece and the salvation of its Republics, his eye cut out, his collarbone fractured, his hand and leg mutilated, offering up all his limbs to the blows of fate with unchangeable resolution, satisfied if he might live with honour, and crown himself with the palms of victory.’

Now, Philip was Alexander’s father; Alexander was then the son of a king and a king worthy of the title; because of those twin realities, he commanded obedience. Alexander, born to the throne, had not, as Bonaparte had, a lesser life to live, before achieving the greater one. Alexander offers no disparities in his career; his teacher is Aristotle; taming Bucephalus is one of his childhood pastimes. Napoleon has only an ordinary schoolteacher to instruct him; chargers are not available to him; he is the least wealthy of his college companions. This artillery sub-lieutenant, lacking servants, nevertheless obliged Europe to acknowledge him not long ago; this little corporal summoned the greatest sovereigns of Europe to his antechambers:

‘Are our two kings not yet here? Tell them then
They are over-late, that Attilla tires of them.’

Napoleon, who cried out so feelingly: ‘Oh, if only I were my grandson!’ did not inherit family power, he created it: what diverse abilities does not this creation suppose! Would you have Napoleon be merely the wielder of an intellect that unusual events, and extraordinary danger, have developed? That supposition would make him no less astonishing: indeed, what would a man be who was capable of directing and appropriating so many unusual superiorities?