N & E
Napoleon & Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte in Corsica

Symbolically, it is not insignificant for any Corsican to consider that Napoleon Bonaparte (Nabulionu Buonaparte) was in some way present on May 8 and 9, 1769 on the battlefield of Ponte-Novo [Battaglia di Ponte Novu] : indeed his mother Laetitia (Letizia) Ramolino, who was carrying him as a pregnant, had come to accompany her husband Charles-Marie (Carlo Maria) Buonaparte, who fought alongside Pascal Paoli (Pasquale de Paoli) against the troops sent by the King of France Louis XV.

Then, as everyone knows, it was in Ajaccio [Aiacciu], then a small fishing port of around 4,500 inhabitants (ten times less than in Bastia), that the future Emperor was born on August 15, 1769, in the family home   [41.91808, 8.73851] at the corner of Malerba street [now Rue Saint-Charles] and del Pevero street [now Rue Letizia] . His nanny was Mrs. Camilla Ilari, née Carbone; he spent more time in her arms (whom he still called "Mom" in 1799 during his stopover in Ajaccio) than in those of his own mother.

The old town and the citadel of Ajaccio
The old town and the citadel of Ajaccio

Napoleon was baptized on July 21, 1771 at the same time as his sister Maria-Anna, born on July 14 and who only would live a few months, by their great-uncle, Archdeacon Lucien (Lucianu), in  the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral of the city ; he is carried to the baptismal font  by his godfather, the prosecutor Laurent (Lurenzu) Giubega , and his godmother, his aunt Gertruda Paravicini.

1769-78: Napoleon's youth in Ajaccio

Napoleon spent his first nine years in his hometown. His parents placed him in 1773 in a mixed school run by sisters who occupied the former Jesuit establishment, then, in the fall of 1777, at the city college, in a class of Father Jean-Baptiste (Ghjuvanbattista) Recco. His uncle Joseph Fesch,six years older than him, taught him to read, while his great-uncle Lucien taught him catechism. He also acquired some notions of literary Italian.

From this time, he appeared more destined for a military career than his brother Joseph (Ghjaseppu); with a lively and combative temperament (which earned him the nickname "Ribulione", the Disruptor) he liked to wander by the sea, with his foster brother, Ignazio (Gnaziu), his nanny's son, and to take part in the quarrels between the children of the old town and those of the suburbs.

The child also liked to go up to the place called "Casone" [the current Place d'Austerlitz] where, sheltered under large rocks  [the "Napoleon's cave"], fascinated by the illustrious figures of the past, he dreamed of conquests and glory.

Likewise, according to legend, he liked to come regularly to the Milelli house with his uncle Lucianu to talk about famous men in the history and future of the Bonaparte family.

The Milelli house, on the heights of Ajaccio
The Milelli house, on the heights of Ajaccio

At this time, the Milelli were not yet the property of the Bonapartes (they would not be until 1785) but Charles, a keen litigator, had obtained the long lease, not so much for the house  , although vast, as for the approximately eleven hectares of the olive grove    surrounding it, making it the second largest on the island at the time. The income from the sale of oil (the house has its own mill in the basement) was not negligible for this family which quickly became numerous.

Napoleon embarked on December 15, 1778 to join the college of Autun, in Burgundy, where his father had been able to enroll him after obtaining a scholarship.

Subsequent stays in Corsica

Napoleon Bonaparte subsequently made six stays on the "Isle of Beauty" (Corsica). Below are the dates:

First leave

On September 15, 1786, Second Lieutenant Napoleon Bonaparte, who had left Valence (Rhône Valley) fifteen days earlier for a first leave, landed in Ajaccio.

He stayed there with his family for almost a year, since he left on September 11, 1787.

Second leave

On January 1st, 1788, Napoleon arrived in Ajaccio from Paris.

He remained there until May 31 of the same year, when he left for Auxonne  , in Burgundy, where his regiment was garrisoned.

Third leave

After having left Auxonne on September 9, 1789, Napoleon began a new island stay on September 21; it would be the longest, since it would last until January 30, 1791.

On October 17, 1789, Napoleon was charged by the revolutionaries of Ajaccio with writing an address to the Constituent Assembly. He composed it in the following days and on October 31, 1789, on the occasion of a political meeting held in town , he had it signed by the assistants, numbering around forty, including his brother Joseph and Charles-André (Carlu Andria) Pozzo di Borgo .

This document requested the French National Assembly to restore the Corsicans to the rights that nature had given to the country, denounced the intermediate commission of the Noble Twelve and the military regime which opposed the formation of the national guard, expressed the fear of being put back under the yoke of Genoa, and demanded Corsica to be reunited with the French nation which had become free: The fruit of our impositions is consumed by adventurers who only come to our country to enrich themselves... You will deliver us from an administration that eats us, degrades us, discredits us.

On November 2, 1789 (November 5 according to Patrick Guenifey and Roger Iappini), he went to Bastia [Bastìa] , seat of the island's government, to enforce in Corsica the decrees of the National Assembly.

Bastia's old port
The old port of Bastia

In Bastia, Napoleon Bonaparte spoke with municipal officers and, perhaps, with the future leaders of the insurrection which would take place shortly after (November 5, 6 or 7 depending on the sources) about the establishment of a national guard. Witnesses saw him distributing tricolor cockades. Viscount Charles Armand Barrin de la Galissonnière, governor of the island, ordering him to leave Bastia, Napoleon complied.

On November 30, the address written by Napoleon was read from the podium of the National Assembly, and, the same day, Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau passed a decree attaching Corsica to the Kingdom of France and authorizing Pascal Paoli and his supporters to return from exile. When this decree was announced, Napoleon hung an enthusiastic and unambiguous banner on the pediment of Casa Bonaparte: Evviva la Nazione ! Evviva Paoli ! Evviva Mirabeau !.

On December 26, 1789, Hubert Casimir Rousseau de la Férandière, the Commander of Ajaccio, denounced Napoleon to the Minister of War as a troublemaker, in the following terms: This officer was raised at the Military School, his sister at Saint-Cyr and his mother showered with benefits from the government; he would be much better off in his Corps, because he is constantly fomenting.

Napoleon, wishing that the cannons of the citadel, facing the city, be dismantled, wrote to him with the support of all the members of the municipality: We do not doubt your attachment to the Constitution; however, we can do no less than point out to you that if you rejected our request, which is none other than to put the citadel in the situation in which it was always found in times of peace, we could hardly help having as a suspicion, which suggests that you are in correspondence with people interested in the conservation of the strongholds of France for any event whatsoever. La Férandière complied and dismantled the cannons.

Napoleon went from April 11 to 20, 1790 to the convent of Saint-François d'Orezza [Cunventu San Francescu d'Orezza] , in Castagniccia [building seriously damaged in 1943 during World War II] , where he accompanied his elder brother Joseph, deputy of Beyond the Mountains [Pumonti] for a Higher Committee.

Saint-François convent in Orezza
The Saint-François convent in Orezza

In the same month of April, Napoleon authored a manifesto calling for the French to be driven out of Ajaccio [this letter is lost]. As a result, at the beginning of May [and not in July as sometimes reported], while walking in the company of Philippe (Filippu) Masseria, lieutenant of Pascal Paoli, and Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo, he was attacked by a gang who accused him of having called for the massacre of the French. A cousin of Napoleon from Bastelica, Nunzio François Costa, managed to put the attackers to flight.

In the spring of 1790, through his uncle Joseph Fesch, he obtained false baptism certificates for Joseph and himself, in order to age his brother so that he could run for municipal elections.

The two young brothers liked, at this time, to spend their days in discussions and walks, for example to the Chapel of the Greeks [Capella di i Grechi]  and beyond on the road to the Sanguinaires Islands [Ìsuli Sanguinarii]  , as well as Joseph would remember it .

On July 17, 1790, Joseph and Napoleon went to cheer Pascal Paoli  who had landed in Bastia , and obtained an interview with him a few weeks later; but the two brothers returned disappointed, due to differences of points of view.

From September 9 to 27, 1790, Napoleon returned to the Saint-François d'Orezza convent  for the Consulte (Large assembly, meeting to deal with a question of general interest) which set up the new departmental administration, giving all powers to Pascal Paoli.

On January 6, 1791, the Patriotic club of Ajaccio, located at Casa Pô, U Borgu [at no. 44 of the current Rue Fesch] , asked Lieutenant Napoléon Bonaparte to stigmatize, in writing, the "Letter to Pascal Paoli" that the deputy Matteo Buttafoco (Matteu Buttafocu had distributed in October 1790 in the corridors of the French National Assembly, in which he treated Paoli as Machiavelli and a political charlatan. Napoleon moved to the Milelli  to write it.

On January 23, Napoleon read, to the Patriotic club , the "Letter from Mr. Bonaparte to Mr. Buttafocu, deputy of Corsica in the National Assembly": … Ô Lameth! Ô Robespierre! Ô Pétion! Ô Mirabeau! Ô Barnave! Ô Bailly! Ô La Fayette! Here is the man who dares to sit next to you dripping with the blood of his brothers, stained by crimes of all kinds... He dares to call himself the representative of the nation, he who sold it, and you suffer him!. This letter would be printed in Dôle on March 15 and the next day Napoleon would send copies to Corsica, in particular to Pascal Paoli.

On January 30 (or 24?) 1791, Napoleon left Corsica to join his regiment in Auxonne.

Fourth leave and first command in Corsica

A new stay in Corsica began for Napoleon when he arrived in Ajaccio on October 1, 1791. Napoleon intended to apply for a senior officer rank within one of the recently created departmental volunteer battalions.

On January 4, 1792, he was appointed adjutant-major of a battalion of the National guards of Ajaccio by General Antoine François (Antone Francescu) de Rossi, interim Commander of the military division of Corsica.

Napoleon remained in his hometown until February 13, 1792, then, via Bocognano [Bucugnà] , went to Corte [Corti] , historical and cultural capital of Corsica:

Corte and its citadel
Corte: the citadel and the city below

Following eventful elections between March 28 and 31, Napoleon became Second Lieutenant-colonel of the second battalion of the national guard for the districts of Ajaccio and Tallano [Tallà], on April 1, 1792, elected to the detriment of Jean (Ghjuvanni) Péraldi (from a rich Ajaccian family) and Mathieu (Matteu) Pozzo Di Borgo, younger brother of Charles André.

Violent clashes between the volunteers and the Ajaccian population occurred in the following days, aggravated by the former's desire to occupy the city's citadel, which its commander, Colonel François Charles de Maillard, refused.

On Easter Day, April 8, during a riot following a dispute during a bowling game, volunteer lieutenant Rocca-Serra, standing alongside Napoleon in front of the cathedral, was killed by a rebel. The next day, a clergyman from the Peraldi family was mortally wounded by the national guards under the orders of Napoleon. It seems that these dramatic events were at the origin of the unfailing hatred that Charles André Pozzo di Borgo would forever devote to Napoleon.

Napoleon went again to Bocognano on April 13 and 17 to meet the commissioners of the department, Arrighi and Cesari, then went with his battalion to stay in Corte from April 18 to May 9, 1792.

The Pasciola viewpoint, between Corte and Bocognano
The Pasciola viewpoint, between Bocognano and Corte

On May 10, he embarked at Ajaccio for the continent; in fact, encouraged by his brother Joseph to leave the Isle of Beauty, he had to go to Paris to defend himself against the accusation of having been one of the main people responsible for the troubles in Ajaccio.

Second command in Corsica

After having received the order to resume his command in Corsica, Napoleon landed in Ajaccio  on October 15, 1792 from Toulon.

He spent four days in the city where he was born, then went to Corte  where he stayed from October 21 to December 13, 1792.

From December 15, 1792 to February 17, 1793, he stayed again in Ajaccio.

Napoleon then went to the south of the island with a view to the planned landing in Sardinia organized by Pascal Paoli at the request of the French Convention. On February 18 and 19, he was in Bonifacio [Bonifaziu] :

A view of Bonifacio

From there, Napoleon embarked under the orders of Colonel Pierre-Paul Colonna de Cesari Rocca (Petru Pàulu Colonna Cesari della Rocca) with a view to attacking the Sardinian archipelago of Maddalena. On February 22 he landed on the islet of San Stefano and the next day installed the three cannons for which he was responsible at Fort San Giorgio [41.19368, 9.40190], facing the Maddalena. On the 24th he bombed the village.

But the next day Colonel Colonna Cesari, who had to face a mutiny on one of his boats, the corvette "La Fauvette", gave the order for evacuation and retreat, leaving on the island the three artillery pieces of Lieutenant-Colonel Bonaparte... On the 26th and 27th, the small fleet anchored in the Gulf of San Amanza [Sant' Amanza] . February 28 was the return to Bonifacio.

On March 1, 1793, Napoleon wrote a protest regarding the failure of the expedition, his heart filled with confusion and pain. We have done our duty and the interests and glory of the Republic demand that we seek out and punish the cowardly traitors who caused us to fail. At the beginning of March, at Doria Square, he was the victim of an attempted murder by sailors from “La Fauvette”.

On March 14, he wrote to Colonel Colonna Cesari, assuring him of his friendship and promising to enlighten public opinion on the events in Sardinia.

Napoleon remained in Bonifacio until April 17, 1793. Note, however, that on the house where he resided, Rue Piazzalonga [number 7 of the current Rue des Deux-Empereurs] , a commemorative plaque  indicates that Napoleon stayed there from 22 January to March 3, 1793.

From April 18 to May 2, 1793 he returned to Ajaccio and its region. On April 27, he foiled an assassination attempt on the road to the Sanguinaires Islands:

Sanguinaires Islands, west of Ajaccio
The Sanguinaires Islands, west of Ajaccio

In May 1793, the political situation in Corsica was such that the Bonaparte family had to prepare their flight from Ajaccio in the face of the threat from Pascal Paoli's supporters. On May 3, Napoleon left on horseback for Bastia  in the company of Nicolas (Niculaiu) Farinacci, a shepherd from Bocognano, but, pursued by the Paolists, had to turn back to Corte.

The return took place via Arca de Vivaria [42.17533, 9.18399], and Bocognano  which Napoleon reached on May 4. On the 5th, he was arrested there by the Paolists but managed to escape. He passed through Corsacci , Tavera , where he found refuge with the Mancini family, then reached Ucciani:

Ucciani, whose mayor offered hospitality to Napoleon Bonaparte
The village of Ucciani, whose mayor offered hospitality to Napoleon Bonaparte

In this village, he was hosted by Mayor Joseph (Ghjaseppu) Poggioli, who escorted him the next day with supporters to Ajaccio. Napoleon remained from May 6 to 8 in the city where he was born, hidden in the house   [41.92052, 8.73793] of his friend Jean-Jérôme (Ghjuvan Ghjilormu) Levie, mayor of Ajaccio.

On May 9 he set sail towards the north of the Isle of Beauty, rounded Cap Corse [Capicorsu] at the islet of Giraglia [Isula di a Giraglia]  and reached Macinaggio [Macinaghju]   where he disembarked on the 10th. From there he went via Rogliano [Ruglianu]   and Tomino [Tominu]   then rode along the eastern coast of Cap Corse , crossed Porticciolo [Purticciolu]  and finally reached Bastia, where he met the commissioners of the French Convention Antoine Christophe (Antone Cristofanu) Saliceti  and Jean-Pierre Lacombe-Saint-Michel .

Napoleon remained in Bastia until May 22, staying at the mayor Jean-Baptiste (Ghjuvan Battista) Galeazzini's house  .

On May 23, Napoleon, Saliceti and Lacombe-Saint-Michel embarked  with 300 men to try to capture Ajaccio. They passed through Saint-Florent [San Fiurenzu]  then sailed back down towards Ajaccio and anchored in the small port of Porto Provenzale [Portu Provinzale] [41.99402, 8.66596] in the Gulf of Lava [Golfu di Lava], north of the Ajaccian city, from May 29 to 30:

Porto Provenzale, in the Gulf of Lava
Porto Provenzale, in the Gulf of Lava, north of Ajaccio

Meanwhile, on the night of May 23, 1793, Letizia Bonaparte, her children and her brother Joseph Fesch narrowly escaped the ransacking of their house by Paolists from Corte. They fled to the Milelli, but the place was not very safe.

They then set off through the maquis   and swamps the next day, to join Napoleon, who had failed in his attempt to take Ajaccio, at the Tower of Capitello [Torra di Capiteddu]  [41.90430, 8.79904], southeast of the city, whose lands belonged to the Ramolino family.

According to certain sources, on Capitello Beach the whole family boarded boats from Bastia [a stele   commemorates this episode], which took them all to Calvi   where they arrived on June 4. According to other sources, Napoleon remained at Capitello until June 2, before setting sail to join them.

In Calvi, Napoleon and his people were hosted by his godfather Laurent Giubega  . They stayed there until June 11, 1793, when they embarked for Toulon.

Return from Egypt

On October 1, 1799, returning from the French campaign in Egypt and Syria, General Napoleon Bonaparte aboard the frigate Muiron anchored in the port of Ajaccio after forty-four days of crossing. This stopover, in no way planned, was due to a gale which forced the small squadron (two frigates and two xebecs) to take refuge there.

He disembarked the next day and went to the family home, where he stayed in the second floor room called “the alcove".

He attended a ball organized by Joachim Murat, then went to the Milelli  with him and the rest of his staff (including, among others, future Marshals Jean Lannes and Louis-Alexandre Berthier and Rear-admiral Honoré Joseph Antoine Ganteaume), to hunt there.

Napoleon took advantage of the presence of the scientists Gaspard Monge and Claude-Louis Berthollet to study on site the possibilities of capturing the sources of the Lisa valley [41.93409, 8.69393] in order to supply Ajaccio with drinking water [this project would not be completed until well later, in 1867].

The valley of Lisa
The valley of Lisa, northwest of Ajaccio

On October 5, Napoleon discreetly left Casa Bonaparte through a trap door located in one of the rooms, and re-embarked on the Muiron, which set sail for Fréjus.

He never returned to his native island, only seeing it in the distance when he sailed towards the island of Elba  in 1814, and on his return from there in 1815.

The city of Ajaccio is proud of several statues of Napoleon:

  1. On the Place d'Austerlitz, near the cave where Napoleon ventured as a child, a commemorative step pyramid [41.91646, 8.72369] known as the Casone was built and inaugurated in 1938, topped by a full-length statue of the Emperor  , copy of that located in the main courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.
  2. On Place Foch, formerly Piazza di l'Olmo, the heart of the city's urban development desired by Napoleon, a marble statue  executed by Massimiliano Laboureur has stood since 1850, representing Napoleon Bonaparte in the garb of a Roman consul.
  3. On the current Place De Gaulle (or Place du Diamant), which marks the separation between the old town and the new districts, you can admire the monument  built in memory of Napoleon and his four brothers on the plans of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The equestrian statue of Napoleon I dressed in Roman style   is the creation of the sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, that of Lucien  is the work of Gabriel-Jules Thomas, that of Joseph  was made by Aimé Millet, that of Louis  by Jean-Claude Petit and that of Jérôme  by Jacques-Léonard Maillet. The monument was inaugurated on May 15, 1865.

In Bastia, it's on Saint-Nicolas Square [Piazza Santu Niculà] that the city has chosen to honor the memory of the Emperor: the statue of Napoleon represented with the attributes of Jupiter  , work of the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, was inaugurated on June 15, 1854.

Reconstruction of a parade of Napoleonic troops

Photo credits

  Photos by Didier Grau.
  Photos by people outside the Napoleon & Empire association.

Video credits

The video of the parade in the streets of Ajaccio was kindly provided to us by Dr Philippe Tardy, from Marseille.