Maria Letizia Ramolino was born on 24 August 1750 as the daughter of Nobile Giovanni Geronimo Ramolino and Nobile Angela Maria Pietrasanta, who were low ranking nobility of Genoa. She was educated at home.
On 3 June 1764, she married the 18-year-old Carlo-Maria Buonaparte, who was still a law student at the time. She was accompanied by over 50 male cousins. 1 It was considered to be a love match, no doubt aided by a dowry of 6,705 livres, partly in land and property. Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved into Casa Buonaparte, a three-storey house in a narrow street.2 Tragically, the couple would lose the first two children born to them, a son born in 1765 and a daughter born in 1767. The first child to survive infancy was Giuseppe (Joseph) who was born in January 1768. Her most famous son Napoleon was born in August 1769, shortly after Letizia had attended a mass for the Feast of the Assumption. The two successful births were followed by three short-lived or stillborn children. It was until 1775 that she once again gave birth to a living child. He was named Lucien. Five more living children would follow, leading to a total of eight surviving children.
She was a strict mother and once ambushed Napoleon after he had slipped away to avoid a beating.3 In 1777, her husband took their two eldest children to France with him, neither child could speak French. Letizia took her sons to be blessed by the father superior, and upon departure, she said to Napoleon, “Coraggio (Courage).” Carlo’s health was a source of worry, and he passed away in 1785. There is no record of how Letizia responded to the news. Letizia was now a widow at the age of 34. Napoleon was just about ready to present himself for the Ecole Militaire’s final examinations, and his elder brother Joseph began studying for a law degree, hoping for a similar post to his father.
Napoleon became a lieutenant at the age of 16 and finally returned home almost eight years after his first departure. He barely knew how to speak to his mother in their native tongue and met several siblings for the very first time. 4 He was most concerned by the state his mother was in. His father had spent most of her dowry, and she was doing her own housework. She finally asked Joseph to employ a servant after she injured a finger.5
By the time of the French Revolution, Napoleon was in and out of France. It was clear that Corsica would never achieve independence, and Letizia believed it best for Corsica to support France.6 Napoleon was soon in trouble. He had left without having permission and set about having himself elected lieutenant-colonel. Fighting between two army factions led to both of them blaming Napoleon, and his absence without leave meant that he could be court-martialed. He was reinstated.
The family soon moved to France, where the situation was not all stable. Louis XVI had been executed in 1793, and Napoleon was now serving with his regiment in Nice. Letizia struggled to maintain her lifestyle as she was almost entirely dependant on Napoleon. A promotion to Brigadier-General meant that he could move the family to a comfortable country house. Not much later, her son was suddenly a national hero. He had saved the government from being overthrown by the insurgent National Guard. He was promoted to Commander of the Army of the Interior, and he began handing out posts to his brothers. Letizia joy at her children’s success was overshadowed by the fact that Napoleon suddenly married without asking her permission. She could no longer beat Napoleon into submission, and outwardly accepted the marriage. 7
When Napoleon became Emperor of the French in 1804, Letizia became “Son Altesse Impériale, Madame La Mère de L’Empereur” and was more informally known as Madame Mère. She was even provided with a coat of arms. She was well cared for, but she remembered the terror all too well and living in Versailles left a bad taste in her mouth. She later moved into the Castle of Pont, on the banks of the Seine, where she divided her time between religious observances, walks, needlework, reading and card games. 8
On the evening of 14 December 1809, Letizia was among those gathered at the Tuileries to hear the announcement of her son’s divorce from Joséphine. He remarried to Marie Louise of Austria in 1810, and she fulfilled her dynastic duty the very next year with the birth of Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles.
Napoleon was forced to abdicate, ostensibly in favour of his son, on 4 April 1816 but rather to make way for a King. The family spread out, and Letizia never saw her grandson again. Letizia was determined to join her son in his exile in Elba, and he was glad to see her arrive. She was not told of his plans to return to France until the day before he sailed. His return was triumphant but shortlived. The Battle of Waterloo would prove his undoing, and on 22 June 1815, Napoleon would once more abdicate. In later years, Letizia would comment, “My life ended with the Emperor’s fall.” 9
Letizia petitioned for a passport to Italy an set out on 20 July. She finally settled in Rome. She took to wearing mourning clothes and led a quiet life. 10 When Napoleon died in 1821, everyone around Letizia tried to keep the news from her. 11 When she was at last told, she was crushed and refused to see anyone. 12
Letizia had an accident four months before her 80th birthday and broke her hip. Though she survived the broken bone, she would be in pain for the rest of her life. 13 In addition, she slowly started going blind from a double cataract condition. 14 She was deeply upset by the death of Napoleon’s son and cried out, “This last way of losing my son is perhaps more painful than the first. Am I destined to outlive all my children?” 15
On 27 January 1836, Letizia caught a chill that induced a fever. She knew what was coming and asked for the sacraments. She remained lucid and calm. 16 At 7 o’clock in the evening on 2 February 1836, Letizia fell asleep and did not wake again. She was 85 years old.
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 19
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 23
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 45
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 61
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 65
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 71
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 100
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 153
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 228
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 238
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 256
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 257
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 267
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 268
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 281
- Monica Stirling – Madame Letizia: A Portrait of Napoleon’s Mother p. 289