Elisa Bonaparte was born Maria Anna on 3 January 1777 at Ajaccio, Corsica as the daughter of Carlo Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. She was thus a younger sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was given the name Maria Anna in honour of an elder sister who had died a few days after her baptism. She assumed the name Elisa later in life because she did not like the name Maria Anna. From now on we will use the name Elisa.
She attended the Maison royale de Saint-Louis at Saint-Cyr from 1784 until 1792 when her brother Napoleon brought her back with him to Ajaccio. These were scary times in France – it was in 1792 that the monarchy fell – and Elisa had no family in France. Shortly after, the school was closed. Elisa, her mother, and her sisters later went to live in Toulon and Marseilles, and her mother was eventually granted a small pension as a Corsican refugee. It was difficult for Elisa to adjust back to living with her family. By then, Napoleon’s star was on the rise in the army.
Elisa was given in marriage to a retired Corsican officer named Felix Baciocchi. They married in Marseilles on 1 May 1797. Her other brother Lucien was against the match and believed she could do better. Nevertheless, Baciocchi was a decent and accommodating husband, but he apparently lacked intellect. Elisa herself was also not the social success she was perhaps expecting to be. The Duchesse d’Abrantès said, “Never did a woman seem so utterly devoid of the charms of her sex; one would have said she wore a mask.” She also said, “Madame Baciocchi was never nice to her mother but who was she ever nice to? I have never known anyone with a sharper tongue!” Yet, as she was the sister of Napoleon, people gladly came to her salon. Their first child, a son named Felix-Napoleon, was born in June 1798 but he lived for only six months. Elisa’s marriage apparently soured quite quickly, and as her husband went on a mission to Spain with her brother Lucien, he wrote, “Madame Baciocchi was determined to be rid of her husband!” Meanwhile, Elisa went to Paris. In 1803, she was once again pregnant but her second son too lived for just one month. Elisa and her sisters carried Empress Joséphine’s train during her and Napoleon’s coronation at the Notre-Dame in Paris in 1804, and they were dismayed.
When the Empire was proclaimed, and Napoleon became its Emperor, his sisters were initially not given any titles – to their displeasure. They complained to their brother of their “situation of inferiority”, and although he was reluctant, they were eventually created “Princesses” with the address of “Imperial Highness.” In 1805, Elisa was also given the State of Piombino as Napoleon considered it to be badly governed and she was recognised as the Princess of Piombino. Her husband was recognised as Prince of Piombino. Elisa was elated to have a Crown of her own though it did not take long for her to complain that it was “very small for her head.” She was then also given the Principality of Lucca. Elisa took up the reigns of her principalities – even inspecting her little army on horseback. Upon their solemn entry into the city of Lucca on 14 July 1805, their state coach was drawn by six bay horses, and Elisa wore a robe of white satin, heavily embroidered in gold. Their court at Lucca soon became famous for its erudition and refinement and also for its strict etiquette. During these years, Elisa finally gave birth to a child who survived – a daughter named Napoleone. Shortly after the birth, she was described by a courtier, “Her manner, and her way of doing things, are those of the Emperor, and I should be very surprised if her character was not similar to his. Since her confinement, she has put on weight. Her complexion is excellent; in a word she has become pretty.” In 1809, she was created Grand Duchess of Tuscany, and she did everything she could to make herself popular with the people. She began to tour the province, but despite her best efforts, the Tuscan nobility gave her the cold shoulder. In 1810, Elisa gave birth to a son named Jérôme but tragically, he died the following year.
Elise had fallen in love with the power, but it was not to last. She wrote to her brother, “Things in Italy are going badly. There have been some insurrectional movements, and brigands have appeared in the north. I shall leave the Grand Duchy only if the enemy should occupy Florence, and then I would withdraw via Piombino to the island of Elba, and wait there until matters improved.” Just as the tide was turning and the Grand Duchess was forced to flee, Elisa gave birth to a son named Frédéric, and according to a lady-in-waiting to Empress Joséphine, “at a moment when she ceased to have need of an heir.” Elisa was arrested by the Austrian at Bologna and escorted to Brünn as a prisoner of war. She wanted to establish herself in Rome, and she had no intention of joining her brother Napoleon in his exile. This was denied her, and she settled in Bologna under the name Countess of Campignano. The tragedies that had struck her family seemed to have impaired her health, and she contracted a nervous fever during archaeological work. She deteriorated quickly and died on 7 August 1820 in Trieste at the age of 42, shortly after imploring her brother Jerome to look after her husband. Her husband bought a chapel in Bologna where her ashes were to be deposited.
From his exile in Elba, Napoleon wrote of Elisa, “My sister, Elisa, has a masculine mind, a forceful character, noble qualities and outstanding intelligence; she will endure adversity with fortitude.”1