Sunday, 26 June 2011

Chatsworth: The 6th Duke, Canova, Madame Mère & Paolina Borghese

Letizia Bonaparte and me

The main object of my visit to Chatsworth was to look again at Canova's imposing sculpture of Napoleon's mother, Letizia Bonaparte. Sculpted at the height of her son's power, it was purchased in Paris by the 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1818, when Letizia had been exiled to Rome and her son was languishing on St Helena.

In 1823 on one of his frequent visits to Rome where his step mother lived, the 6th Duke met Madame Mère, and wrote in a letter : "I am growing particular with Madame Mère. She scolds long and loud about the statue which she says they had no right to sell nor I to buy." He said that the statue was very like the old lady, who had a "very stately walk and her whole appearance is miraculous for a woman of 80."

Here also is Canova's large, much admired bust of Napoleon,

inherited by the Duke from his step mother, and flanked in the sculpture gallery by the seated figures of his mother

unhappy mother of the greatest son - Lord Holland

and his favourite sister, the exquisitely beautiful and loyal Paolina, shown looking at a portrait of her brother.

This sculpture was commisioned by the Duke and executed by the Rome based Scottish sculptor, Thomas Campbell (1790 -1858). Pauline collaborated willingly with Campbell, and allowed him to take casts from her hands and feet which were apparently of perfect form, and which he cast into bronze! Their whereabouts is unknown to me.

Opposite is a bust of another emperor and a ruler much admired by Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and close by is a Canova bust of Letizia which the Duke thought better than the head on the larger seated figure.

The sculpture gallery comes at the end of the tour, and for that reason perhaps not all visitors give it the attention it deserves. Even Albert and I missed some Napoleonic relics: medals made for Napoleon from the famous Elba iron that were given to the Duke by Paolina, apparently set into the rear panel of the pedestal of one of the statues; the bracelet Paolina wore when mourning her brother’s death, used to disguise a fracture in the wrist of Thorvaldsen’s Venus.

Finally a comment by Alison Yarrington, who advised Chatsworth in the project to restore the sculpture gallery to its original conception

These Napoleonic associations were also carried on the air at Chatsworth that was seasonally perfumed by the four orange trees from the Empress Josephine’s collection at Malmaison planted in the Orangery. The scent of these and other rare specimens scented the whole of Chatsworth with their blossoms. (1)

The 6th Duke and Paolina Borghese

Just before the entrance to the Sculpture Gallery there is currently an exhibition about the 6th Duke. In it is a copy of Lefèvre's portrait of Paolo Borghese, Napoleon's favourite sister, friend and perhaps lover of the 6th Duke.

Pauline Borghese (1780 – 1825)

Pauline was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Twice married and once widowed, she was the sole member of Napoleon's family to accompany him to Elba, where she used her own fortune to support him and his followers when Louis XVIII failed to pay the money promised in the Treaty of Fontainebleau.

During Napoleon's exile to St Helena she received visits in Rome from a number of Whigs who were receptive to her complaints about his treatment. When she heard of Napoleon's last illness on St Helena she wrote a letter to the English Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, to which she never received a reply, and she was making plans to go to St Helena when news reached her of her brother's death.

By the time she met the 6th Duke, Paolina was separated from her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese (1775-1832), although she was to be reconciled with him shortly before her death. The 6th Duke never married but had a number of romantic liaisons, and it seems highly probable that he was the last of Paolina's long line of lovers.


1. Under Italian skies, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, Canova and the formation of the Sculpture Gallery at Chatsworth House. This is an excellent study of the Duke's passion for marble and his admiration of Canova, the most talented, the most simple, and most noble-minded of mankind, as he later described him.

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