Was Napoleon Italian?

Was Napoleon Italian?

Napoleon crossing the Alps

The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis, famously said, “Being born in a stable does not make one a

horse.”  Wellington was a phlegmatic Englishman who insisted that being born in Dublin, Ireland in 1769 did not make him an Irish “anchor” baby.

Wellington’s maxim applies equally to Napoleon himself who was born the same year on the island of Corsica.  From 1559 right up until the year before Napoleon’s birth — 1768 — this mountainous island belonged to the Republic of Genoa.  It was then purchased from Genoa and annexed to the kingdom of France.

Napoleon Bust
Grand Curtius Museum, Liege, BE

Napoleon’s parents, Carlo Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. were both born in Genoese controlled Ajaccio.

They gave him the name “Napoleone Buonaparte” which might be Google translated into “Lion of Naples Good Parts” which hardly sounds French.

San Miniato, Italy

Napoleon boasted of his Italian heritage.  He  said, “I am of the race that founds empires.”  He also once said, “I am more Italian or Tuscan than Corsican” (“Io sono Italiano o Toscano, piutosto che Corso”). The ancestral home of the Bonaparte family is in San Miniato in Tuscany.  A visitor to San Miniato will find a piazza Buonaparte and other reminders of the Buonaparte clan.

General Napoleon fought and won many battles on behalf of Revolutionary France in Italy such as Rivoli (1797) and Marengo (1800).  This in itself does not make him Italian any more than winning the battle of Waterloo made Wellington Belgian.

Italian Guard
Musee de L’Armee, Paris, FR

On May 26, 1805 Napoleon was crowned king of Italy with the iron crown of Lombardy inside the cathedral in Milan.  Over 165,000 Italians, representing two percent of their total population, fought for Napoleon’s empire from 1802 to 1815 on battlefields from Madrid to Moscow.  Napoleon had a healthy respect for his Italian soldiers, writing in 1809: “The troops of the Kingdom of Italy covered themselves with glory…since the Romans, no period has been so glorious for Italian arms.”

Bust of Julius Caesar
Arles Archaeological Museum, FR

From his youth Napoleon studied the life and writings of Julius Caesar.  He was a lifelong admirer of Caesar and often emulated the Roman general.  Napoleon adopted the eagle as the rallying symbol for his troops just as the Romans had done centuries before.  You could even say that Napoleon had a bit of a Caesar complex.

Not all invaders are male!

Years after his exile and death on St. Helena Napoleon continued to exert an influence on the Italian peninsula.  In 1859 Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, would dispatch a French army to fight on behalf of a unified Italy against the Austrians at battles such as Solferino and Magenta.  Some have suggested that he was prompted by his beautiful Italian mistress, the Countess of Castiglione, who was also Cavour’s cousin.

Napoleon passed through Levico Terme in 1796, Trentino, IT

Was Napoleon Italian?  Well, Napoleon, although he adopted and loved France, was Italian in pretty much the same way that the world’s most famous Argentine, Pope Francis, is also Italian.

Christopher Kelly