Bonaparte (formerly written Buonaparte, in accordance with the Italian origin, until Napoleon decided in favour of the French orthography) is the name of an Italian family which appears to have played a not inconsiderable part in Italian history, and one branch of which had established itself in Corsica in 1612, when it was a leading patrician family of Ajaccio. The most noted member of the family is, of course, Napoleon (q.v.), who of all men had the least need of ancestry, but could say, "I am an ancestor myself;" albeit he has left no posterity save his deeds. All kinds of fanciful genealogies were created for him by his admirers, who traced him back to the Comnenus and Palaeologus families of Greece, and legitimatised him as a Bourbon by making him a direct descendant of the Man in the Iron Mask. He himself stigmatised these genealogies as puerile, and said that to anyone asking the origin of the Bonaparte house, the answer was very simple - "It dates from the 18th Brumaire." Napoleon had the courage of his opinions. He thought that the world could not have too much of a good thing, and that the Bonapartes were a good thing; so he practised nepotism on a magnificent scale, and endeavoured to supply Europe with a full and complete set of Bonaparte kings. This has given the other members of the family an importance which they might not otherwise have possessed, and if they were not born great they certainly had greatness thrust upon them.
From Charles Bonaparte, of Ajaccio, and Letizia Ramolino, his wife, sprang five sons: - first. Joseph, sometime king of Spain; second, Napoleon; third, Lucien; fourth, Louis, king of Holland; fifth, Jerome, king of Westphalia. To these may be added the names of three daughters - one of whom married Marat, king of Naples - and the Beauharnais whom Napoleon adopted on his marriage with Josephine, as making up the family group who have chiefly figured in the world. The father, Charles Bonaparte, after having come to Paris as a member of a deputation of Spanish nobles, and laid the foundation of his son's military greatness by obtaining his admission to the military school of Brienne, returned to Corsica in 1779, and died in 1785. Madame Bonaparte, who lived long enough to see the rise and the downfall of the dynasty, bore her good fortune with modesty and her reverses with dignity. In 1804. when her son was crowned, she received the title of Madame Mere, and a style and state suitable to the mother of the Emperor. "Who knows," she used to say in half-prophetic jest, "if I may not one day have to give all these kings bread?" After the second abdication of Napoleon she retired to Rome, accompanied by the sympathy and respect of all Europe, and died in 1836, in her 86th year. Joseph, the eldest son, after reading law at Marseilles, with a view to taking care of his younger brothers and sisters, was successively member of the Council of Five Hundred, French ambassador to Rome, and plenipotentiary to the United States; concluded the treaty of Luneville with Austria 1801, signed the Concordat with the Pope, and the treaty of Amiens in 1802 with Lord Cornwallis. In 1805 his brother nominated him ruler of the two Sicilies, and in 1806 king of Naples, transferring him in 1808 to the throne of Spain. He was hardly the man for his brother's purposes, being much too humane, and after the battle of Vittoria he returned to his estates in France. After Waterloo he went to the United States, and became an American cititzen, returning to Europe a few years later. He is said to have lived for a time at Brettenham Hall, in Suffolk. He died in Florence in 1844. What his exact relations were with the Emperor is not quite clear. Some French writers consider that he could not submit to exclusion from the heritage, but this view is hardly consistent with the regard in which Napoleon held him, or with the constant devotion that Joseph showed to" his brother's fortunes.
The third brother Lucien, born at Ajaccio in 1775, became a member of the Council of Five Hundred, and on the 18th Brumaire, as its President, he contributed much to Napoleon's success, but afterwards his republican notions and his marriage to a stockbroker's widow stood in the way of his advancement. He retired to his estate in Italy, where he enjoyed the friendship of the Pope, who made him Prince of Canino. and devoted himself to scientific pursuits and to art, He eventually died at Viterbo in 1840. Of his sons the eldest was the well-known naturalist and ornithologist; the second, Paul, died in 1827; the third became a linguist and literary man of world-wide reputation; the fourth, Pierre, created some sensation as well as embarrassment for his cousin Napoleon III., by shooting the journalist Victor Noir, in 1870. The affair arose out of a journalistic controversy. The Prince was tried and acquitted. He died in 1881; and the youngest, Antonio, died in 1883.
The fourth son of Charles Bonaparte was Louis, afterwards king of Holland, who died In 1846. His chief claim to notice lies in the fact that by his marriage to Hortense Beauharnais, the daughter of Josephine, he became the father of Napoleon III. (q.v.). Napoleon lll.'s son. Napoleon Louis. Prince Imperial (q.v.), was killed by the Zulus, in a skirmish in 1879.
The fifth son, Jerome, king of Westphalia, was in his early life a sailor. He was perhaps a failure as a king, but was devoted to the Emperor, and fought by his side at Waterloo. A marriage that he made in America with an American lady was annulled by Imperial decree, and he afterwards married a daughter of Frederick, king of Wurtemberg, and became (in 1822) the father of Napoleon Joseph Charles Paul, commonly known as Prince Napoleon, who fought in the Crimean war, and in 1859 married Princess Clotilde, a daughter of Victor Emmanuel. He died March 17. 1891. Able, cultivated, and intellectual, his notorious cowardice and his cynical disregard for ordinary conventionalities made his prospects of the succession hopeless, and when the Prince Imperial was killed in Zululand in 1879. he was passed over by the party in favour of his son Victor, the present heir of the Napoleonic dynasty.
There is a pretty story which reads like a prose idyll, and ought to be true if it is not, of a cure', a great uncle of Napoleon, who lived simply with his sacristan Tommaso, his god-daughter Mattea, and his white hen Bianca, and refused, with true Napoleonic obstinacy, all attempts of the Emperor to draw him from his retirement.