Beautiful and immoral, Napoleon’s sister, Pauline broke hearts all over Europe. It was said of her that she and Napoleon were both going to conquer Europe, but Pauline was going to do it one man at a time! There are many legends about the behavior of this scandalous woman.
Napoleon found his flirtatious young sister difficult to control and managed to marry her to the much older General Leclerc, who was the opposite of Pauline. Wealthy, serious and sickly, he was in charge of the French expedition to put down a black rebellion in Haiti.
When Pauline was ordered to accompany him she refused but Napoleon had her carried on board in a litter! She soon tired of the General, who must have bored her, and continued to have affairs on the island. When he became sick with yellow fever, however, she comforted him and when he died she cut off her beautiful hair which she buried with him.
Pauline traveled back in France and Napoleon again saw his scandalous sister’s behavior as a problem. When he noticed the incredibly wealthy Prince Camillo Borghese’s interest in his sister he saw it as the answer and Pauline married the Prince in 1803. The Prince owned the largest collection of diamonds in the world and a large art collection, part of which Napoleon purchased for the Louver at a discount.
During the marriage Pauline posed for the famous sculptor, Canova, as Venus. She had no qualms about modeling without her clothes which was regarded as very indecent at that time, especially for a member of the European nobility. According to Joan Marble in Notes from a Roman Terrace: “When a shocked friend asked her how she could bear to pose naked for the great artist, the lady replied that it was no trouble as the studio was heated.”
This sculpture which can be seen at the Borghese Gallery has been described thus: “Pauline Borghese’s smoothly sinuous flesh, and the plumped-up cushions on which she rests, are miracles of carving in marble – a skill in which Canova is unequalled among neoclassical sculptors.”
Prince Borghese, like Napoleon, found Pauline difficult to tame and even placed her under house arrest at one stage. He certainly didn’t care for her liking for spending money. Napoleon attempted to please her by having her made the Duchess of Guantella, but the spendthrift Pauline soon sold the Duchy to Parma for six million francs.
This marriage didn’t work out either. Pauline separated from her husband and continued to indulge her liking for parties and beautiful clothes. She also had many lovers. One of these was the great French actor, Talma. When they met at the French spa town of Aix-Les-Bains the actor was immediately smitten by the lovely and charming Pauline. Gossip arose which Talma deflected by pretending that the Princess made him read Moliere every night, but in his letters afterwards he begged her to meet him again. “…Pauline, Pauline, my heart is torn to pieces…,” he wrote when she wouldn’t see him. (Some of his letters are quoted in the article, ‘Talma and the Princess’ at TheatreHistory.com.) In these letters he wrote that he wrapped Pauline’s tresses in the handkerchief that she gave him and placed them next to his heart. Pauline eventually relented, agreeing to see the love-struck Frenchman, but their affair was not destined to end happily. The actor was just one of the many men with whom Pauline had affairs.
In spite of her promiscuous ways, Pauline was the only one of Napoleon’s siblings to remain faithful to her famous brother. She visited him on Elba, helped him with money, and wanted to help restore him to power. But she became ill and was forced to return to Italy where she died of cancer at only forty-four. A generous person, she left bequests to all of her large family.