Bonaparte, Maria Letizia
b. circa 1750, Ajaccio
d. 2 February 1836, Civita Vecchia?
Napoleon's mother. Her maiden name was Ramolino, and she was usually known as Letizia. Her date of birth is uncertain. Her memoirs, which she dictated personally, give 1753 as the year, but other sources give 1750. Her son Lucien's memoirs, however, state that she was born in Ajaccio on 24 August 1749. Her father was an officer who died during the war that the Corsicans fought for independence from Genoa, and her mother then married a Swiss officer in the French service, Captain Fesch, which union produced the future cardinal of that name. Letizia, who was considered a great beauty, married Carlo Maria Buonaparte, a lawyer and member of a prominent but not very wealthy Corsican family, on 1 June 1764. At first they lived in the family home in Ajaccio, then for a brief period in 1768-9, when the French were attempting to gain military control of Corsica, Letizia joined her husband in the mountains, where he was fighting the invading forces. A couple of months after the Corsicans had been forced to surrender, she gave birth to her second son, Napoleon (on 15 August 1769). In the period that followed, Letizia bore many other children, and tried to keep house with very little money. By the time Carlo died prematurely, in 1785, there were eight surviving offspring, all of whom reached adulthood, and were destined to become kings, queens, princes, and princesses under the Napoleonic empire.
The next great upheaval in Letizia's life came in 1793, when the whole Bonaparte family (which was politically aligned with the Revolutionaries in mainland France) was forced to flee to Marseille when the Corsican leader, Pasquale Paoli, took the island over to the English. Letizia continued to live in Marseille in by then habitual straitened circumstances, until the extraordinary rise of Napoleon brought with it an improvement in family fortunes. However, Letizia never had any confidence that such good fortune could last, and even at the height of her son's power and influence she retained what then looked like a comical desire to economise and save money in case things went wrong. In this she was the opposite of Napoleon's wife, Josephine, whose extravagance was one of the causes of Letizia's dislike of her. Nor did she much like the idea of her son being elevated to the status of Emperor, and she refused to attend his coronation. Nevertheless, a decree of 23 March 1805 gave her the titles of "Her Imperial Highness" and "Madame Mère", as well as providing her with a house and money. However, she generally kept away from the court, living in her chateau of Pont-sur-Seine. On those occasions when she stayed in Paris she lived in the Hotel de Brienne (now the Ministry of War).
Letizia was profoundly religious, and on the fall of Napoleon she turned to the Pope for protection. She visited Napoleon on Elba, staying there until he escaped, then joined him in Paris. After his second abdication, she again turned to the Pope, and went to live in Italy. On 29 August 1818, while the sovereigns of Europe were at Aix-la-Chapelle, she sent them a letter asking for clemency for her son Napoleone, but received no reply. In the following year, she sent two priests and Dr Antommarchi to St Helena to attend Napoleon. It was a choice that seems to have been dictated more by religious concern than motives of practicality, and none of the attendants were much use, though Antommarchi seems to have conducted Napoleon's autopsy with some practical skill. Letizia learned of her son's death on 22 July 1821. For the rest of her life she lived very much in retirement, eventually being confined to her rooms after she had broken here femur in a fall, and suffering from failing eyesight, which prevented her from reading. She died after a few days of illness. She was buried at Corveto, near Civita Vecchia. In 1851, her remains were transferred to the cathedral in Ajaccio, and in 1860 to the Imperial chapel.
Sources: Balteau, J. and others. Dictionnaire de biographie française, 1933-, vol. 6, p. 925; Michaud. Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne, 1843-?, vol. 4, pp. 673-6.
According to the latter, Letizia stood 5ft 1in tall (French measure), or 5ft 5ins by English measure.
No biography in Bouvier, F. Bonaparte en Italie, 1796, 1899.