What is the link between Napoleon I and Helena? Well, there is of course the island where the deposed French emperor passed his last exile, named after Helena. But here I am thinking of the statue Napoleon’s mother, Letizia Ramolino, also known as Madame Mère, commissioned from the most celebrated Neo-classicist sculptor of his time, Antonio Canova.
Popular stories about Napoleon’s mother (such as my favourite novel) have it that she was an illiterate peasant woman, forever baffled at (and critical of) her son’s ambitions and the crowns appearing on her children’s heads. Much of this is, of course, nonsense. Like her husband, Carlo di Buonaparte, Letizia came from the lower nobility of Corsica, which was mostly of Italian ancestry. The republic of Genoa sold Corsica to France in 1768, one year before Napoleon’s birth, upon which its nobility was integrated into the French aristocratic hierarchy. I suppose there weren’t any guillotines on Corsica during the French revolution, or the Buonapartes (or now Bonapartes) weren’t a particularly important family, as they all survived it. What seems to be true is that Letizia, despite having been given the title of Madame Mère de l’Empereur, wasn’t keen on her son’s emperorship and preferred to live away from court and often in Italy. She may also have felt more at home there, given that she spoke Italian for her entire life and that all her daughters lived in Italy (her oldest daughter Elisa had been made grand-duchess of Tuscany, the second one, Pauline, was married to the Prince of Borghese, and the third one, Caroline, was queen of Naples).
When she arrived in Rome in 1804 – a trip apparently undertaken to avoid Napoleon’s coronation ceremony – she asked Antonio Canova to execute a full-length marble portrait of her. It is now in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the ancestral seat of the Duke of Devonshire, as it was bought by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, a passionate admirer of Canova, after Napoleon’s fall. I recently went to see it, because I had heard that the piece was modelled on Helena’s seated statue in the Musei Capitolini. The resemblance is indeed absolutely striking. To be sure, Letizia gazes at the onlooker and Helena looks straight ahead. The hairstyle, the size of breasts and some of the folds of the respective chitons are different. But, they are both wearing a chiton, and the relaxed pose, the position of the hands, the slightly ajar legs, and the one protruding, sandaled foot are all exactly the same. Here they are, side by side:
When I first heard about the Madame Mère statue and then saw it at Chatsworth, I thought to myself what an absolutely amazing find this was. Here was a modern-day emperor of obscure origins who needed his mother to give his dynasty substance, and what did he do? Model her on Helena, icon of Roman and Christian imperial motherhood, who had been used for exactly the same purpose by her own son. This would do for my book’s epilogue!
But in the meantime, I have done a bit of research, and it all turns out to be far more complicated than it first appears, as usual.
As I learn from Christopher M. S. Johns (references below), the story of Madame Mère’s statue is actually one of subversion. Canova was not pleased to be courted for his skills by the Bonaparte dynasty (Napoleon himself and his sister Pauline, princess Borghese, also commissioned portraits; in Pauline’s case, this is the famous Venus Victrix statue now at the Galleria Borghese). Canova was deeply disturbed by the French invasion of Italy in 1797 and fiercely loyal to the papacy so maltreated by Napoleon, as well as to a nascent Italian nationalism. He refused to go to Paris and work there, but of course it was harder to escape the Bonapartes who came to Italy to commission his work, like Letizia and Pauline. So he decided to trick his French masters.
What’s important here and what I hadn’t really registered yet until now, is that in the early 19th century the statue at the Musei Capitolini was not attributed to Helena yet. Instead, the statue was believed to show Agrippina, although there was disagreement about which one. Some thought it was the virtuous Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus, wife of Germanicus and mother of Caligula. For others, the statue represented the more controversial Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. Either way, but certainly in case of the latter, their motherhood was not an altogether unproblematic affair as everyone of any education at the time knew. Drawing on exactly this statue to represent Napoleon’s mother, Canova made a statement about the madness of imperial sons. But it gets even more interesting. Johns speculates that Madame Mère herself – as mentioned, wildly critical of her son’s career – may have been in on the trick. It seems to have been Letizia who chose the statue as a model and in doing so would have been fully aware of its ambiguous message. As was to be expected, Napoleon rejected the statue when his mother presented it to him for display in the Tuileries palace.
Here is Mary Beard talking about this very episode (it’s worth watching the whole video for her comments on the problems to use hairstyle as a way to identify ancient sculpture, but the Canova story is from min. 53.04):
Oh well. There goes my epilogue, but at least I’ve gained a useful insight into a disfunctional imperial mother-son relationship. I am also intrigued by what the story tells us about the identification of sculpture. It is now well accepted that the Musei Capitolini statue dates to the second century and that its head was recarved to represent Helena. Canova was probably baffled by Helena’s hair which is unlike any classical coiffure. Unsurprisingly, he did not reproduce it, but chose a hairstyle that more resembles what Antonine empresses like Faustina the Younger wear on coins. You do wonder though why no one then questioned the odd hairstyle since it clearly wasn’t well liked. So hurrah for Raissa Calza who seems to have been the first to take another look at this statue in her Iconografia romana imperiale and attributed it to Helena. If Napoleon had only known, he may have liked it better…
Calza, Raissa. Iconografia romana imperiale da Carausio a Giuliano (287-363) (Rome, 1972)
Christopher M. S. Johns, “Subversion through Historical Association: Canova’s Madame Mère and the Politics of Napoleonic Portraiture”, Word & Image 13 (2012), 43-57.