Was Napoleon French or Italian? He was both! Napoleon was born a French citizen, but his ancestors were Italian. Let’s untangle:
Corsica: the beginning
Top: Napoleon’s hometown, Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica. Bottom left: Napoleon was born and raised in that big house in Ajaccio. It belonged to his family. Bottom right, Corsica on the map. (Top photo: Mike McBey/Flickr/CCBY2.0)
During the first twenty-five years of his life or so, Napoleon did not identify as French or Italian, he identified as Corsican.
He was born in Corsica, which is a big island near Europe. The island has a great location in the Mediterranean Sea, so it has been invaded by bigger, foreign nations.
The island has never been an independent country, but not for lack of trying.
The Corsicans felt deeply Corsican, and time and again they revolted against whoever conquered them.
When Napoleon was born, the French had juuust invaded the island.
The Corsicans -including Napoleon’s parents- had put up a fight, but they had lost.
Unsurprisingly, growing up, Napoleon was a Corsican nationalist and hated the French.
Napoleon wrote about his youth:
“My relatives, my country [Corsica], and my veneration for Paoli [a famous Corsican nationalist]… were my only passions.”
Napoleon and his French classmates
Napoleon at his school in Brienne, France. His schoolmates taunted him for being a foreigner. He is the lonely one on the right. Drawing from 1895. (Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia/CC0)
When Napoleon went to boarding school in France, aged 9, he liked telling his classmates that, one day, he was going to liberate Corsica from the French. And he showed them his contempt for France.
That, of course, did not make Napoleon popular at school.
His classmates mocked him for his thick accent, for his strange foreign name, and for being Corsican. Even some of Napoleon’s teachers taunted him for his hot-headed nationalism.
In Napoleon’s words:
“I suffered infinitely from the ridicule of my schoolmates, who used to jeer at me as a foreigner. My pride and sense of honor would tolerate no insult to my country [Corsica] or to the beloved national hero Paoli.”
In his early writings, Napoleon calls the French “contemptible for their customs…, their conduct” and “monsters.”
So, in short, he does not seem to have been fond of the French at this time.
And do note that he always called Corsica “my country.” He did so even at the end of his life while exiled in St. Helena.
In his last years, he stated he wanted to be buried in Corsica, in the cathedral of his hometown, Ajaccio.
After studying in France, young Napoleon returned to Corsica.
He began writing a History of Corsica and got mixed in the local politics. He joined the resistance and fought for Corsica’s independence against France.
But that did not go well.
Those Italian genes
So Napoleon was Corsican, but his ancestors were from Italy.
They had arrived in Corsica in the 16th century or so.
Thus Napoleon had plenty of Italian blood. But that was not unusual for a Corsican.
The island had belonged to the Italians for almost 800 years, first to the Pisans, then to the Genoese.
So loads of Italians had settled on the island during that time. And they had brought their culture and language with them. The Corsicans spoke an Italian dialect.
All of Napoleon’s family was born under the Genoese flag. His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents… even his slightly older brother Joseph were born Genoese. Napoleon was the very first of his family to be born a French national.
Did Napoleon’s contemporaries consider him Italian?
Napoleon Frenchified his Italian last name. He went from BUonaparte to Bonaparte. But some of his enemies enjoyed calling him by the Italian version of his name. These French cartoons call him BUonaparte.
Plenty of Napoleon’s contemporaries were aware of Corsica’s cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties with Italy.
And many thought of Corsicans as Italians.
“We are Corsicans by birth and sentiment, but first of all we feel Italian by language, origins, customs, traditions; and Italians are all brothers…”
Napoleon’s contemporaries knew he had been born a French citizen. Yet many still associated him with Italy in one way or another.
“Napoleon, far more Italian than French -Italian by race, by instinct, imagination, and souvenir-, considers in his plan the future of Italy, and, on casting up the final accounts of his reign, we find that the net profit is for Italy and the net loss is for France…”
But it was Napoleon’s enemies who were especially delighted to bring up, time and again, the Italiannes of the French ruler. You can eye a few examples in the cartoons above.
Did Napoleon consider himself Italian?
Now this artist has represented Napoleon (in red) as either a Roman god or a Roman emperor. Allegory of Napoleon as the liberator of Italy by Francesco Alberi, c. 1800. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)
Napoleon did not usually call himself outright Italian. But he was quite aware and proud of his Italian roots.
When he was young, he showed his genealogy to a friend. It proved the Buonapartes came from Tuscany, a region in Italy.
He also mentioned his Tuscan roots during his exile in St. Helena.
And in the last years of his life, Napoleon stated: “I am Italian or Tuscan, rather than Corsican.”
The French conversion: Vive la France!
Napoleon was born a French citizen. Here, he leads the French troops in battle. Battle of the Pyramids, 1798. Painted by Antoine-Jean Gros in 1810. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)
Napoleon was also French.
Napoleon was born in 1769, one year after the French took Corsica. Thus, he was born a French citizen.
He was a first-generation French.
Who owns his heart, Corsica or France?
Napoleon’s enemies liked pointing out his foreignness. These three cartoons call the French emperor a Corsican. One even sticks out ‘French’ and substitutes it with ‘Corsican.’ They were all published in Britain during Napoleon’s lifetime.
Young Napoleon eventually returns to Corsica and gets involved in local politics.
And he tries to expel the French from the island several times.
The French declare him a deserter in 1792, and they begin a process of high treason against him.
But Napoleon returns to Corsica and rejoins the nationalists.
Now France has had it. They issue an arrest warrant against him.
In the meantime, Napoleon has fallen out with Paoli, the head of the Corsican resistance. And he tries to bring Paoli down.
But the move backfires. Most Corsicans side with Paoli and declare Napoleon an enemy of Corsica. They burn Napoleon’s house down.
Twenty-three-year-old Napoleon and his family flee their island in 1793.
Napoleon’s Return from Elba by Charles de Steuben, 1818. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC0)
The Bonapartes land in France, penniless.
And a sort of a miracle happens. The French government gets confused by the news from Corsica.
They thought Napoleon was against them, but now they hear that the Corsican nationalists call him pro-French and burnt Napoleon’s house.
The French government thinks they have misjudged Napoleon, that he must have been loyal to France after all. Plus they have a lot of wars going on, they need officers.
They rescind the warrant for Napoleon’s arrest.
The government welcomes the Bonapartes as refugees and French patriots. And they give them a house in Marseilles along with a small stipend.
The whole episode has given Napoleon time to reflect. His childhood nationalism shaken, he now sees the picture with more clarity.
He realizes that being French can bring him many opportunities. France is a powerful country, a player on the world stage. And Napoleon did like to describe himself as ambitious and opportunistic.
Napoleon makes his calculations and embraces France.
From now on, he will call himself a Frenchman and a patriot (a French patriot).
As consul and emperor of the French, he will declare that everything he does is for the happiness of France.
Out with the old, in with the new
Napoleon altered his names so they would sound more French. His signature in 1792 (top) was still the very Italian Buonaparte. In 1796 (bottom), he marries Josephine and drops the U. He becomes Bonaparte. Napoleon has officially assimilated. Bienvenue. (Photos: Immanuel Giel/Wikimedia/CC0)
Napoleon was christened Napoleone di Buonaparte.
But now that all the family is living in mainland France, 27-year-old Napoleon and his siblings change their names.
Their last name, Buonaparte, loses the U and becomes Bonaparte, which is easier to pronounce for the French.
And all the siblings swap their given names for Frenchier versions:
Giuseppe> becomes Joseph
Maria Anna> Elisa
Maria Paola > Pauline
Maria Annunziata Carolina> Caroline
At this time, Napoleon also marries well-connected Josephine. He claimed he had partly married her so that people would stop calling him Corsican and began seeing him as French.
The Bonaparte family had, in modern lingo, successfully assimilated.
Other people, including many Frenchmen, kept seeing Napoleon as a Corsican outsider. When Napoleon stepped down as emperor of the French in 1814, the populace shouted: “Down with the Corsican!”
How good is your French?
Napoleon learned French, at school, when he was 9 years old. As an adult, he spoke French fluently and eloquently, although he made some mistakes here and there. This is a letter of surrender handwritten by Napoleon, in French, in 1815. (Photo: JiElle/Wikimedia/CCBYSA1.0)
He learned French when he was 9 years old, at school.
As an adult, Napoleon could talk fluidly in French about any subject, but he never fully mastered the language. He made grammatical mistakes, mixed-up words, and made-up words. And he retained a thick foreign accent.
All that made it difficult for his interlocutors to forget that Napoleon was not French-French.
The Italian question
Some people argue Napoleon could not have been “Italian” because the country of Italy did not exist back then. The statement is partly right.
But there had been a Kingdom of Italy in that area -with a few hiccups-, since 476 AD.
And the Italian peninsula had existed for even longer. The peninsula covers almost the same territory as the modern country.
Since ancient times, the Italian peninsula was called Italy. And the people that dwelt there were called Italians.
Somewhat like California or the Middle East, which are not countries, but exist.
The Roman writers used the words Italy and Italians a lot. And they wrote 2000 years ago.
Just one glance at old history books will show that both terms, Italy and Italians, have been long in use.
Napoleon’s contemporaries used them in their writings too. According to them, Napoleon’s first military campaigns were conducted in Italy. And they were dubbed the Italian Campaigns.
Napoleon himself uses the terms in his letters. He even established a kingdom in northern Italy, which he named the Kingdom of Italy. And he styled himself King of Italy.
So the terms are not anachronistic. There were Italians in Napoleon’s time!
What did Napoleon call himself?
In official documents, Napoleon styled himself “Emperor of the French, King of Italy, and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine.” Portrait of Napoleon I in His Coronation Robes by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1807. (Photo: Harvard Art Museums/Wikimedia/CC0)
During the first 25 years of his life or so, Napoleon called himself Corsican.
During the second half of his life, he called himself French.
So what would you call Napoleon? French, Corsican, or Italian?