Pauline Borghese (1780–1825) – a French provocateur in the papal chapel

Pauline Borghese, Francoise-Joseph Kinson, 1808, Museo Napoleonico

Pauline Borghese, Francoise-Joseph Kinson, 1808, Museo Napoleonico

When she was leaving for Italy, Napoleon reportedly said: “No escapades in Rome.”  However, her difficult to tame nature once again proved too much.  A sort of a manifesto of independence and proof of the beauty of this woman was the allegorical sculpture Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix (1805) commissioned by her husband Camillo, from the greatest Roman sculptor of that time, Antonio Canova.

Pauline Borghese, Francoise-Joseph Kinson, 1808, Museo Napoleonico
Pauline Borhese, bust, Pietro Marchetti, Museo Napoleonico
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, 1805, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese, imitator of Antonio Canova, approx. 1808, Museo Napoleonico
Casino di villa Paolina – the Roman residence of duchess Borghese, watercolor, Giovanni Riveruzzi, Museo Napoleonico
Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix, Antonio Canova, Galleria Borghese
Pauline Borghese, miniature, J.B. Isabey, Museo Napoleonico
Pauline Borghese on a silver medal from 1810, Museo Napoleonico
Pauline Borghese, miniature, J.B. Isabey, Museo Napoleonico

When she was leaving for Italy, Napoleon reportedly said: “No escapades in Rome.”  However, her difficult to tame nature once again proved too much.  A sort of a manifesto of independence and proof of the beauty of this woman was the allegorical sculpture Pauline Borghese as the Venus Victrix (1805) commissioned by her husband Camillo, from the greatest Roman sculptor of that time, Antonio Canova.

       

The youngest and reportedly the favorite sister of Napoleon Bonaparte was gifted with exceptional beauty, an immense temperament and independence allowing her to reject all conventions. After coming to Paris from Corsica, she rapidly became known for her rather promiscuous lifestyle. When in 1797 her brother married her off to the General Charles Victor Emanuel Leclerc, and immediately following the wedding he was sent off to Santo Domingo in order to quell a revolt, even there Pauline found opportunities to find joys of life among her husband’s subordinates. Following the general’s untimely death, she was once again married off in 1803, this time to a young Italian officer who served in the French army, Camillo Borghese, in this way becoming the wife of the Duke of Guastalla and governor-general of Piedmont.

Napoleon was very keen on introducing his sister to the grandest of Italian salons, in order to gain acceptance of the Roman aristocracy which looked disfavorably upon French rule in Italy. The choice of the old and prestigious Borghese family was an excellent political maneuver, although the emperor’s sister was not an easy commodity to sell. After arriving in Rome, her husband showered her with jewels and surrounded in splendor and all kinds of luxuries.  She spent money, organized balls and travelled. However, soon the city shook with gossip. It was greatly exaggerated, nevertheless a royal way of carrying herself, lack of moderation in everything she did, but most of all her promiscuous lifestyle, were even by Roman standards, unheard of. Especially because the princess Borghese was not too picky in her choice of lovers. Among those, of whom she quickly grew bored, were princes, generals, musicians, and actors. In this aspect she exhibited a large dose of democratism, origins were of no great importance to her.

After the fall of Napoleon, the marriage of Pauline and Camillo fell apart, while the richly divorced princess Borghese became interested in the fate of her valiant brother. Selling her jewels, she aided in his further political game, accompanied him to Elba, as well as in the last One Hundered Days of his military glory. After the final defeat of Napoleon, she along with other members of the Bonaparte family came to Rome and settled near Porta Pia, in a villa (villa Paolina), which she ordered to be decorated with the fashionable at that time frescos with Egyptian motifs. Her lifestyle was no longer as exciting as before – also due to her progressing illness – stomach cancer.

Right before her death, thanks to the intervention of Pope Pius VII, she reconciled with her husband.  From that moment their life was filled with travels. A few months later, in the face of imminent death, Pauline, ceremonially dressed, still beautiful, committed suicide at the age of 44. Her posthumous wish was granted: she was buried in a truly royal place – the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the family chapel of the Borgheses (Capella Paolina), in the shadow of other members of the family, Pope Paul V and his famous nephew Cardinal Scipione Borghese, directly across from a bitter rival of all kinds of promiscuity, Pope Clement VIII.