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Her Story in Jewels: Pauline Bonaparte - la Vénus de l’Empire

As the younger sister and favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte, Pauline Bonaparte (1780-1825) was a fashion icon across Europe. Her beauty was remarked upon wherever she went, and it is said that she chose every outfit with great care, dressing in the latest fashions and jewels. She was beautiful and she knew it. Contemporaries described her as 'the handsomest woman in Europe of her age', nymph-like, with all 'the beautiful proportions of the Venus di Medici'. The extravagant and scandalous lifestyle she led, however, was a far cry from her humble beginnings...

Pauline Bonaparte wearing a bandeau and belt of diamonds set in a Greek fret, with diamond-rimmed cameos at intervals. More are set in her comb and earrings, and she wears a double rivière of diamonds

Robert Lefèvre - © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

From Paoletta to Pauline

Pauline Bonaparte, born Maria-Paoletta Buonaparte in Ajaccio, Corsica, was the sixth of eight children in the Bonaparte family. At the age of 5, Pauline's father died, plunging the family into poverty. Not long after, her brother Lucien's seditious political comments sent the family packing for 'the mainland', France. When the British captured Corsica what little income the family had from their vineyards dried up completely, and the Bonaparte women resorted to washing clothes to survive. Growing up in these circumstances, Pauline received no formal education and had no 'intellectual learnings' that women of high social standing were expected to have to secure a wealthy husband. She had only her looks - a 'symmetrical' figure, a fashionable nose, and delicate hands and feet - her capacity to flirt, which by all accounts was impressive, and the help of her doting brother Napoleon, then a respected General.

At the age of 13, Paoletta (as she was known then) declared herself in love with Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron, an acquaintance of Napoleon's who was 26 years her senior and had enjoyed her company in southern France. He wanted to marry her but was already engaged, and when Paoletta's mother found out she had them separated. Despite her love for Fréron, Paoletta was quickly married off to another of Napoleon's friends - General Charles Leclerc. Her name was changed to the French 'Pauline', and less than a year later they had a son - Dermide.

Left: Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron via Wikimedia Commons

Right: General Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc via © National Portrait Gallery, London

After living apart for a short while - Leclerc stationed in Brittany while Pauline lived in Paris at the heart of the city's fashionable society - they were relocated in 1801 with their son to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), sent by Napoleon to quell a rebellion. Pauline didn't want to give up her life of fashion and pleasure in Paris, but once she arrived in Saint-Domingue she was treated so much like a queen that she didn't want to leave. There, Pauline would meet again her first love, Fréron, who would die only 2 months after her arrival of yellow fever. Her husband would be taken by the same disease in 1802, after which Pauline returned to Paris, devastated, with her son.

Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, Duchess of Guastalla, c.1800

Via Wikimedia Commons

The Pleasures of Pauline - Princess Borghese

Pauline was not a faithful wife. She had numerous lovers while in Saint-Domingue, including some of her husband's soldiers, and took more upon her return to Paris after her husband's death. This prompted her brother Napoleon to threaten the careers of many high-ranking military men who enjoyed her 'company' too frequently. She was rumored to have taken lovers from French generals to her own servants, as well as doctors, secretaries, minor princes, actors, and musicians. Instead of adhering to the usual rules of mourning, withdrawing from society, and continuing to wear black, Pauline bought the palatial Hôtel de Charost and hosted events there. In Paris she became widely talked about - desirable and envied, yet scandalous - a vision of fashion, beauty, and seduction.

The Beautiful Greek, a portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, c.1810

Uffizi Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Bertrand Andrieu produced a series of medals of the Bonaparte family, including this one of Pauline Borghese. The locket is glass, set in a chased four-color gold mount which is hinged on the reverse and encloses a medal portrait of Pauline with the Three Graces on the reverse

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Wanting to marry off his lascivious sister as soon as possible, as well as reinforce ties with French-occupied Italy to prevent rebellion, Napoleon soon found Pauline a new husband - Prince Camillo Borghese, a wealthy Roman nobleman from a prominent Italian family. Through this marriage Pauline became Princess Borghese, relocating to Italy. Meanwhile, Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France, and as a sister to the Emperor as well as a Princess in her own right, Pauline's status soared.

Detail from The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, c.1805-1807, the Bonaparte sisters (Pauline, Caroline, Elisa) and sister-in-law alongside Empress Josephine's daughter Hortense with her son, all decked in parures of varying designs. Via Wikipedia

Venus Victrix

As one of the most fashionable and desirable women of her age, Pauline's beauty was talked about all across Europe and was something she was very aware of herself. In the early days of her marriage to Prince Camillo Borghese, they commissioned a sculptor called Canova to make a sculpture for Pauline. She scandalized Europe by deciding to pose naked for the artist, resulting in the sculpture known as 'Venus Victrix', a likeness of Pauline as the goddess Venus, immortalizing her youth and beauty as well as her bold disregard for her reputation. When asked by disbelieving acquaintances how she could have been comfortable wearing so little for the artist, she replied simply that there was a fire in the room, so it had been perfectly comfortable. Prince Borghese did not realize until after the statue had been publically exhibited that it was of his wife, and upon finding out had it concealed in a room in his palace.

Pauline as Venus with the golden apple for 'the most beautiful of all', Antonio Canova, c.1805-1808

Images from plume-dhistoire.fr and meisterdrucke.uk

The Professional Beauty

Pauline and Prince Borghese soon grew to dislike each other. It's rumored that Pauline referred to the Prince as “His Serene Idiot”, and she continued her extramarital affairs throughout their marriage. Her health, however, had begun to trouble her, and in 1804 Prince Borghese accompanied her to the baths of Pisa but wouldn't allow her to bring along her son, Dermide. Instead, Dermide was left in the care of the Prince's brother and died of fever and convulsions while they were away. It is suggested that Pauline blamed the Prince for her son's death, and they spent the remaining decades of their marriage apart. The Prince would later take up a mistress, with whom he remained for many years.

Despite their estrangement, their marriage did bring Pauline some joy in the form of the Borghese family jewelry and diamonds, which she made good use of.

A silver, gold, diamond, and ruby parure, Rome, c.1803, originally created for Pauline Borghese

From the Albion Art Jewellery Institute via Instagram

A diamond tiara believed to have belonged to Pauline Bonaparte, with seven oval-shaped diamond clusters as flowerheads amid a profusion of foliate scrolls. Via Pinterest

These pieces were put together in the mid-19th century so it's unlikely they were worn by Pauline, but these are the House of Borghese's diamonds, so she may have owned the diamonds themselves or worn them in different settings or pieces of jewelry. From the Albion Art Jewellery Institute via Instagram

Pauline was obsessed with her appearance and spent a fortune on clothes and jewelry. Some of her contemporaries described her as being in love with herself, so much so that when hosting an event she often spent a whole week preparing her outfit and left any thought of food, drink, or entertainment until the last minute. She was desperate not to be outshined by her sisters Elisa (Grand Duchess of Tuscany) and Caroline (Queen of Naples), and to keep apace with the revered Empress Josephine. In order to do this, she had all the latest fashions delivered from Paris and even sent urgent orders to Constantinople for the perfect item to complete any outfit. She was particularly fond of cameos and Roman or Grecian dress, indulging in sheer dresses through which her body could easily be seen, paired with jeweled headdresses.

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, c.1806

Via Wikimedia Commons

The gold and sardonyx tiara comb of Pauline Borghèse in its original case, c.1803

Marie-Étienne Nitot & François Regnault Nitot - via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte in her cameo parure, by Robert Lefèvre, c.1803

Via Château de Malmaison

As above but in a different dress, with a lace veil, double rivière, and colorful bracelets, c.1807

Robert Lefèvre - Via Grand Ladies

Both images show Pauline in a cameo parure with a double rivière, with slight variations. For example, one has a cameo-set comb and clasp while the other has a cameo bracelet Left: © National Portrait Gallery, London. Right: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pauline's beauty was her main accomplishment and asset in life, being uneducated as she was, so her reputation as the highly fashionable beauty who was Princess Borghese and sister to the Emperor was everything to her. In a book from 1890, it's said that: 'Whenever she went to the theatre, every opera-glass was turned towards her. Her entrance into a ball-room was greeted by a long murmur of admiration. Her attire was always carefully studied, and very beautiful; her jewelry was of enormous value. She inspired the wildest enthusiasm', she was an exceptional woman, a 'professional beauty'. At social events, some say she had to retreat to a corner to pose prettily when the conversations turned intellectual, and the upper-class company she kept only forgave her lack of education because she was 'so pretty, so merry, so drôle, and always so ravishingly 'gowned''.

One of a group of three miniature portraits of the Bonaparte sisters. This is likely Pauline, signed L. Gobbato, Nice, painted on ivory with a gilt-metal frame. Via Sotheby's

Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, c.1808

Château de Fontainebleau via Wikimedia Commons

A diadem of sapphires, diamonds, and pearls belonging to Pauline Bonaparte

Via notesdemusees.blogspot.com

Pauline Bonaparte with a pearl necklace and earrings and a bandeau set with cameos,

by François Joseph Kinson, c.1808. Museo Napoleonico via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Pauline Borghese, née Bonaparte, c.1810. Enamel on copper, gold frame with silver-gilt and enamel mount, by Salomon-Guillaume Counis. Via Sotheby's

Fading Beauty

In 1806, Napoleon became King of Italy and made his favorite sister Pauline Duchess of Guastalla. Pauline swiftly sold the title to Parma, keeping only her title of Princess Borghese, in exchange for the hefty sum of six million francs - enough to indefinitely fund her life of luxury, spent traveling across Europe, flitting from spa to spa seeking cures for her ailments. Everywhere she went, all eyes were on her.

With her seemingly ever-rising status, she made increasingly outrageous demands on her staff and hosts, some of which included using her serving ladies' throats as footstools, and demanding baths and showers in cows' milk. As she grew older, she grew increasingly self-conscious about losing her looks. She wrote to her estranged husband, Prince Borghese, saying it was good he had shut away her statue, and many historians speculate she was keen for its continued concealment so that no one could compare the youthful beauty of the statue to her aging appearance.

Although Pauline was far from being a faithful wife to the husbands selected for her, she was by all accounts a faithful and loving sister. She was known to be Napoleon’s most loyal sibling and the least demanding, asking nothing of him despite his wealth and status, and making her own way. When he was exiled to Elba, she was the only sibling to visit him, selling many of her jewels and her hotel to help grant him better living conditions on St Helena.

Gold necklace made from 14 Roman aurei and a gold bracelet made from 7 Roman aurei, both supposedly commissioned and given as a gift by Napoleon Bonaparte to his sister Pauline Bonaparte

Via Coins Weekly

Fashion-forward even in death, when Pauline knew she was dying of the tumor she had developed in her stomach at age 44, she left very precise instructions about the toilette and parure she was to be buried in. Her last act before she died was to reconcile with her husband, Prince Borghese, and to hand over the keys to her remaining jewelry and wealth. Whatever you may think of her luxurious lifestyle, her beauty, her unapologetic sensuality, and the impact she made on society with her carefully paired outfits and jewelry have certainly long outlived her, and are remembered to this day.