Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIX, chapter 3
The Corsican branch of the Bonapartes specifically



However, if Napoleon was no prince, he was, as the old expression has it, the son of a family. Monsieur de Marbeuf, Governor of the Island of Corsica, obtained Napoleon’s admission to a school in Autun; he was later enrolled in the college at Brienne. Élisa, Madame Bacciochi, received her education at Saint-Cyr: Bonaparte reclaimed his sister when the Revolution closed the doors on those religious retreats. Thus one finds a sister of Napoleon as one of the last pupils of an institution where Louis XIV heard its first young ladies chanting the choruses of Racine.

The proofs of nobility required for Napoleon’s admission to a military school were prepared: they contained the baptismal certificate of Carlo Bonaparte, Napoleon’s father, from which Carlo one can go back to Francesco, ten generations earlier; a certificate from the principal nobles of the town of Ajaccio, proving that the Bonaparte family had always been numbered among the oldest and noblest; a certificate of recognition that the Bonaparte family of Tuscany enjoyed patrician rank, and declaring that its origin was one with that of the Bonaparte family of Corsica, etc, etc.

‘On Bonaparte’s entering Treviso,’ says Monsieur Las Cases, ‘they told him that his family had been powerful there; at Bologna, that they had been inscribed in the golden book…At their meeting in Dresden, the Emperor Francis told the Emperor Napoleon that his family had been monarchs in Treviso, and that he had been shown the documents regarding the matter: he added that to have been a monarch was beyond price, and that he must tell Marie-Louise, to whom it would bring great pleasure.’

Born of a race of gentlemen, which forged alliances with the Orsini, the Lomelli, and the Medici, not for a moment was Napoleon, who had been attacked by the revolution, a democrat; that is clear from all he said and wrote: ruled by his blood his leanings were towards aristocracy. Pasquale Paoli was not Napoleon’s godfather as he claimed: it was the obscure Laurent Giubega de Calvi; one learns this particular from the registry entry for the baptism, carried out at Ajaccio by the cathedral bursar, the priest Diamante.

I am afraid of compromising Napoleon in setting him among the ranks of the aristocracy. Cromwell, in his speech to Parliament on the 12th of September 1654, declared he was born a gentleman; Mirabeau, La Fayette, Desaix and a hundred other partisans of the Revolution were also noblemen. The English have claimed that Emperor’s first name was Nicholas, from which in derision they call him Nick. That fine name Napoleon came to him from one of his uncles who married his daughter to an Ornano. Saint Napoleon was a Greek martyr. According to the commentators on Dante, Count Orso was the son of Napoleone da Cerbaia. No one in the past, in reading history, was struck by that name which several Cardinals bore; now it seems striking. A man’s fame does not flow backwards; it flows onwards. The Nile at its source is only known to some Ethiopian; at its mouth, what nation does not know of it?