For a brief — yet important — moment in history, Napoleon’s sister was one of the most powerful women in Europe. Specialist William Russell Jr. unlocks the story behind Lorenzo Bartolini’s captivating portrait busts of Elisa and her husband, Felix, in their prime
The Italian sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini’s marble busts of Maria Anna Bonaparte Baciocchi Levoy, better known as Elisa, and her husband, Felix Pasquale Baciocchi Levoy, are part of the lasting vestiges of a nearly forgotten dominion of the French Republic that lasted from 1804-1814.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s only sister with political power, Elisa was granted French lands on the western side of the Italian peninsula in 1805, as well as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1809. As the Princess of Lucca and Piombino and Grand Duchess of Tuscany, she was one of the most influential women in Europe during the first quarter of the 19th century.
‘Elisa is exactly what you would hope for — or expect from — a sibling of Napoleon. She was exceptionally beautiful, frighteningly capable, ambitious and smart. She was at the centre of Europe, yet many have never heard of her,’ says European Sculpture & Works of Art specialist William Russell Jr.
A longstanding devotee of the arts, Napoleon had given his sister the town of Carrara in 1806. Since ancient Rome, the flawless white marble found in the city’s quarries has been prized by Italian sculptors and can be found everywhere from the Pantheon to Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In Carrara, Elisa bolstered her prestige as a patron of the arts and promoted her family’s image, all while generating significant business from marble exports. She also established an Académie des Beaux-Arts in town, with the hopes of attracting the greatest sculptors.
There, she began a lifelong collaboration with Bartolini, who she appointed as the director of the academy’s sculpture school. Elisa commissioned him to create several busts of her immediate family, including these two busts of herself and her husband, Felix.
Dating from 1809, the busts show the couple at the height of the French Empire — when the Napoleonic forces seemed almost unassailable. While Napoleon would be exiled to the island of Elba only five years later (where Bartolini would join him in 1814), here, the couple appear at the most significant moment of their lives, shortly after Elisa had been elevated to Grand Duchess of Tuscany.
‘Of course, Florence was the Renaissance, and Elisa was the new Medici,’ Russell adds. ‘Elisa was remarkably modern, and very conscious — as was Napoleon — about her image. Both wanted to make sure they resembled the princes and princesses of the Renaissance. Image was everything — as is no different from today. These sculptures reflect that.’
Both portraits have been carved with delicately refined contours, revealing the sculptor’s renowned technical abilities.
‘What Bartolini really excelled at was his ability to translate antiquity and the Renaissance into a 19th century aesthetic — the Empire aesthetic,’ explains Russell. ‘He created a modern sculpture that was softer and more humanising than classical Greek, Roman and Renaissance statuary.’
While Elisa’s classical drapery is reminiscent of antiquity and the Renaissance, her elegantly modelled hair alludes to the fashions that were prevalent in France during the early 1800s. Likewise, Felix’s hair and clothing are contemporaneous to Napoleonic fashions.
The juxtaposition of textures between skin, clothing and hair, as well as his ability to blend a classical approach with modern sensibilities, exemplify the artist’s neoclassical style.
The busts’ detail and finesse were met with such acclaim, it’s believed that Elisa commissioned an additional 12 portraits of herself, based on this bust on offer at Christie’s.
While Elisa and her husband enjoyed considerable favour during the height of the French Republic, their relationships with each other, and with Napoleon, were often contentious.
When the couple assumed their roles as Prince and Princess of Piombino and Lucca in 1805 — just one year after Napoleon was voted to lead the First French Empire — Felix took only a minor position over their small army, allowing most of the power to be exercised by Elisa herself.
‘Felix was a very handsome man, but she was the real powerhouse,’ Russell explains of the couple’s relationship. ‘They had a very unequal marriage — she was just too influential within her brother’s regime. During a time when women had very few opportunities, Elisa was running the show. She was running the government, the business and the cultural scene.’
Napoleon, who was often at odds with his sister, also never approved of her marriage to Felix, a Corsican nobleman and former captain of the French army. Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich is also known to have described him as having an ‘entire want of intellectual faculties.’
While Elisa implemented legislative change inspired by the Napoleonic Code, reformed the clergy, and instituted significant public health and educational change in her principalities, the inhabitants of Piombino and Lucca had little sympathy for Napoleon, Elisa, or their attempts to ‘Frenchify’ the republic after their loss of independence.
Her relationship with her brother also grew increasingly strained. ‘She was Napoleon’s younger sister. They were the closest in temperament, in intellect and in ambition. They were peas in a pod, and they never got along.’
Indeed, in 1820, upon learning of his sister’s death, Napoleon attested that, ‘[Elisa] was a woman of a masterly mind. Had I not been in existence, what is said of the Duchess of Angoulême, that she wears the breeches of the family, might with reason be said of her. She had noble qualities and a remarkable mind; but no intimacy ever existed between us; our characters were opposed to this.’