Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Prettier Bonaparte

Venus of Empire
by Flora Fraser

This book is not really about art, except insofar as it describes how Canova came to sculpt the famous portrait statue of Pauline Bonaparte, the Princess Borghese.

It is a biography of Pauline, youngest of Napoleon's seven siblings. Napoleon was very dedicated to his rather mediocre family and made all his brothers Kings, except for Lucien who displeased him and had to be satisfied with being Prince of Canino.

None of them really made much of a mark in the history books, with the exception of Pauline. She is chiefly remembered today for her scandalous amours and for "Venus Victrix", the magnificent life size marble sculpture by Canova. I am sure many of our members have seen it in the Borghese Palace in Rome.

Flora Fraser has written a well-researched and very entertaining account of the fair Pauline's tumultuous love life, set in the context of the upheavals in Europe at the time. Of all his siblings, Pauline was the most loyal to Napoleon and was the only one to accompany him into exile on Elba. There was talk that she also had an incestuous relationship with him, but Ms Fraser tends to discount that as malicious rumour.

Napoleon tried with indifferent success to curb his sister's flamboyant lifestyle. Said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe, Pauline was impetuous, cruel, spendthrift, wildly manipulative and a bit of a nymphomaniac. Which is, of course, why it's such fun to read about her!

In England, the Regency period was at its height and this book reads like a spiced-up version of a French Georgette Heyer. We learn about Pauline's social life, her fashionable wardrobe, her schemes to hide lovers from her brother’s spies, her sybaritic retreats to fashionable spas, a lot of society one-upmanship and a great deal of high-end shopping. Pauline liked jewellery and plenty of it. She also liked to redecorate, lavishly and at vast expense, any new palace she moved into.

Her husband, Prince Camillo Borghese, commissioned the portrait sculpture, which caused a bit of a scandal at the time, because nude portraits of high-ranking ladies were unusual. Strategically-placed drapery was the accepted thing.

Pauline is shown as the victorious Venus, half-reclining and holding an apple in her right hand. This alludes to the Judgement of Paris, when he awarded the golden apple to Venus (Goddess of Love) over the competing charms of Juno (Goddess of Marriage) and Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom).

For goodness' sake, why did the runners-up even bother to compete? Did they really think a young man with all that testosterone sloshing around his system might pick Marriage or Wisdom? Puh-lease! He was sorry later, mind you: it doesn't do to offend a goddess, never mind two!

Canova, on the other hand, was not in the business of offending anyone, least of all the Emperor. Napoleon, having seen and admired his sister's marble portrait as the nude Venus, commissioned a companion piece of himself as a nude Mars. A bit disturbing … maybe there was something in those rumours after all!

Anyhow, Canova very sensibly did a flattering job. He made Napoleon look like a man who is no stranger to the gym. Many of our members may also have seen this statue: ironically, it stands in the stairwell of Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington's mansion near Marble Arch in London. It was given to him by the British Government, who purchased it from the Louvre after his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1816.

Another touch of irony is its title: "Mars the Peacemaker". Now all we need to complete the set is a statue called "Mother Teresa the Warmonger."

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