A Little Excursion to Ajaccio
In September last year, during a two-week holiday on the island of Corsica, I took a blue bus one day down the west coast to Ajaccio to spend a little time looking around the town, of which I knew nothing except that it was the birthplace of the Emperor Napoleon. It was a beautiful, sunlit day, the branches of the palms in the Place Maréchal-Foch moved gently in a breeze coming in off the sea, a snow-white cruise ship lay in the harbor like a great iceberg, and I wandered through the streets feeling carefree and at ease, now and then going into one of the dark, tunnel-like entrances of buildings to read the names of their unknown inhabitants on the metal letter boxes with a certain rapt attention, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in one of these stone citadels, occupied to my life’s end solely with the study of time past and passing. But since we can none of us really live entirely withdrawn into ourselves, and must all have some more or less significant design in view, my wishful thinking about a few last years with no duties of any kind soon gave way to a need to fill the present afternoon somehow, and so I found myself, hardly knowing how I came there, in the entrance hall of the Musée Fesch, with notebook and pencil and a ticket in my hand.
Joseph Fesch, as I later read on looking him up in my old Guide Bleu, was the son of the late second marriage of Letizia Bonaparte’s mother to a Swiss military officer in Genoese service, and was thus Napoleon’s step-uncle. At the beginning of his career in the church he held a minor ecclesiastical position in Ajaccio. After his nephew had appointed him archbishop of Lyon and envoy to the Holy See, however, he became one of the most insatiable art collectors of his day, a time when the market was positively flooded with paintings and artifacts taken from churches, monasteries, and palaces during the French Revolution, bought from émigrés, and looted in the plundering of Dutch and Italian cities.
Fesch’s aim was no less than to document the entire course of European art history in his private collection. No one knows for certain just how many pictures he actually owned, but the number is thought to be around thirty thousand. Among those that, after his death in 1838, and some devious maneuvers on the part of Joseph Bonaparte as executor of the Cardinal’s will, found their way into the museum especially built for them in Ajaccio are a Madonna by Cosimo Tura, Botticelli’s Virgin Under a Garland, Pier Francesco Cittadini’s Still Life with Turkish Carpet, Spadino’s Garden Fruits with Parrot, Titian’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Glove, and a number of other wonderful paintings.
The finest of all, it seemed to me that afternoon, was a picture by Pietro Paolini, who lived and worked in Lucca in the seventeenth century. It shows a woman of perhaps thirty against a deep black background which lightens to a very dark brown only toward the left-hand side of the painting. She has large, melancholy eyes and wears a dress the color of the night, which does not stand out from the surrounding darkness even by suggestion and is thus really invisible, and yet it is present in every fold and drape of its fabric. She wears a string of pearls around her neck. Her right arm protectively embraces her small daughter, who stands in front of her turning sideways, toward the edge of the picture, but with her grave face, upon which the tears have only just dried, turned toward the observer in a kind of silent challenge. The little girl wears a brick-red dress, and the soldier doll hardly three inches high which she is holding out to us, whether in memory of her father who has gone to war or to ward off the evil eye we may be casting on her, also wears red. I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time, seeing in it, as I thought at the time, an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life.
Before leaving the museum I went down to the basement, where there is a collection of Napoleonic mementos and devotional items on display. It includes objects adorned with the head and initials of Napoleon—letter openers, seals, penknives, and boxes for tobacco and snuff—miniatures of the entire clan and most of their descendants, silhouettes and biscuit medallions, an ostrich egg painted with an Egyptian scene, brightly colored faïence plates, porcelain cups, plaster busts, alabaster figures, a bronze of Bonaparte mounted on a dromedary, and also, beneath a glass dome almost as tall as a man, a moth-eaten uniform tunic cut like a tailcoat, edged with red braid and bearing twelve brass buttons: l’habit d’un colonel des Chasseurs de la Garde, que porta Napoléon Ier (The uniform of a colonel in the Chasseurs de la Garde, worn by Napoleon I).
There are also many statuettes of the Emperor carved from soapstone and ivory and showing him in familiar poses, the tallest about ten centimeters high and each of the others smaller than the last until the smallest seems almost nothing but a white speck, perhaps representing the vanishing point of human history. One of these diminutive figures depicts Napoleon after his abdication sur le rocher de l’île de Sainte-Hélène (on the rock of the island of St. Helena). Scarcely larger than a pea, he sits in cloak and three-cornered hat astride a tiny chair set on a fragment of tuff which really does come from his place of exile, and he is gazing out into the distance with furrowed brow. He cannot have felt at ease there in the middle of the bleak Atlantic, and he must have missed the excitement of his past life, particularly as it seems that he could not really depend even on the few faithful souls who still surrounded him in his isolation.
Or so, at least, we might conclude from an article in Corse-Matin published on the day of my visit to the Musée Fesch, in which a certain Professor René Maury claimed that a study of several hairs from the Emperor’s head undertaken in the FBI laboratories established beyond any doubt que Napoléon a lentement été empoisonné à l’arsenic à Sainte-Hélène, entre 1817 et 1821, par l’un de ses compagnons d’exil, le comte de Montholon, sur l’instigation de sa femme Albine qui était devenue la maîtresse de l’empereur et s’est trouvée enceinte de lui. (“that Napoleon was slowly poisoned with arsenic on St. Helena, between 1817 and 1821, by one of his companions in exile, the comte de Montholon, at the urging of his wife, Albine, who had become the Emperor’s mistress and was pregnant by him.”) I do not really know what we should think of such stories. The Napoleonic myth has, after all, given rise to the most astonishing tales, always said to be based on incontrovertible fact. Kafka, for instance, tells us that on November 11, 1911, he attended a conférence in the Rudolfinum on the subject of La Légende de Napoléon, at which one Richepin, a sturdy man of fifty with a fine figure, his hair arranged in stiff whorls in the Daudet style and at the same time lying close to his scalp, said among other things that in the past Napoleon’s tomb used to be opened once a year so that old soldiers filing past could set eyes on their embalmed Emperor. But later the custom of the annual opening of the tomb was discontinued, because his face was becoming rather green and bloated. Richepin himself as a child, however, says Kafka, had seen the dead Emperor in the arms of his great-uncle, who had served in Africa and for whom the commandant had the tomb specially opened. Moreover, Kafka’s diary entry continues, the conférence concluded with the speaker swearing that even in a thousand years’ time every mote of the dust of his own corpse, should it have consciousness, would still be ready to follow the call of Napoleon.
After I had left the Musée Fesch I sat for a while on a stone bench in the Place Letizia, which is really just a small garden set among tall buildings and containing some trees, with eucalyptus and oleanders, fan palms, laurels, and myrtles forming an oasis in the middle of the town. This garden is separated from the street by iron railings, and the whitewashed façade of the Casa Bonaparte stands on the other side of the road. The flag of the Republic hung over the gateway through which a more or less steady stream of visitors was going in and coming out: Dutch and Germans, Belgians and French, Austrians and Italians, and once a whole group of elderly Japanese of very distinguished appearance. Most of them had left, and the afternoon was already drawing to an end, when I finally entered the building. The dimly lit entrance hall was deserted, and there seemed to be no one at the ticket desk either. Only when I was right in front of the counter, and was just putting out my hand to one of the picture postcards displayed there, did I see a young woman sitting, or I could almost have said lying behind it, in a black leather office armchair tipped backward.
I actually had to look down at her over the edge of the counter, and this act of looking down at the cashier of the Casa Bonaparte, who was probably only tired from much standing and perhaps had just dozed off, was one of those moments strangely experienced in slow motion that are sometimes remembered years later. When the cashier rose, she proved to be a lady of very stately proportions. You could imagine her on an operatic stage, exhausted by the drama of her life, singing “Lasciate mi morire” or some such closing aria. Far more striking, however, than her divalike figure, and something that became clear only at second glance but was all the more startling for that, was her resemblance to the French emperor in whose birthplace she acted as doorkeeper.
She had the same rounded face, the same large, very protuberant eyes, the same dun-colored hair falling in a jagged fringe over her forehead. As she gave me my ticket and saw that I could not take my eyes off her, she gave me a forbearing smile and said, in positively seductive tones, that the tour of the house began on the second floor. I climbed the black marble staircase, and was not a little surprised to be met on the top landing by another lady who also seemed to be of Napoleonic descent, or rather who somehow reminded me of Masséna or Mack or another of the legendary marshals of France, probably because I had always imagined them as a race of dwarfish heroes.
For the lady awaiting me at the top of the stairs was of strikingly small stature, a feature further accentuated by her short neck and her very short arms, which scarcely reached her hips. In addition, she wore the hues of the Tricolor: a blue skirt and a white blouse, and around her waist a red belt with a heavy, gleaming brass buckle which had something decidedly military about it. When I had reached the top step the Maréchale stepped aside, half-turning, and said, “Bonjour, monsieur.” She too wore a slightly ironic smile, indicating, as I thought, that she knew far more than I could ever guess. Rather disconcerted by my encounter with these two discreet messengers from the past, which I could not account for to myself, I wandered aimlessly around the rooms for a while, went down to the first floor, and then climbed back to the second floor again. Only gradually did I make sense of the furnishings of the place and the items on display.
On the whole, everything was still as Flaubert had described it in the diary of his visit to Corsica: rather unassuming rooms furnished in the style of the Republic; a few chandeliers and mirrors of Venetian glass, the looking glasses now spotted and dim; a soft twilight, for the tall double windows were wide open, just as they had been in Flaubert’s time, but the dark green slatted blinds had been closed. Sunlight lay in white stripes like a ladder on the oak floorboards. It was as if not an hour had passed since Flaubert’s visit. Of the items he mentioned, only the imperial cloak with the golden bees that he had seen shining in the chiaroscuro was no longer here. Family documents inscribed in handsomely curving letters lay quiet in their glass cases, with Carlo Bonaparte’s two shotguns, a couple of pistols, and a fencing foil.
On the walls hung cameos and other miniatures, a series of colored steel engravings of the battles of Friedland, Marengo, and Austerlitz, and a genealogical tree of the Bonaparte family in a heavy frame covered with gold leaf, in front of which I finally stopped. A huge oak towered up from the brown earth against a sky-blue background, and hanging from its twigs and branches were little white clouds cut from paper, bearing the names and dates of all members of the imperial house and the later descendants of the Napoleonic clan. They were all assembled here—the king of Naples, the king of Rome, and the king of Westphalia; Marianne Elisa, Maria Annunciata and Marie Pauline, the most beautiful and lighthearted of the seven siblings; the unfortunate Duke of Reichstadt, the ornithologist and ichthyologist Charles Lucien, Plon-Plon, son of Jérôme, and Mathilde Letizia, his daughter; Napoleon III with his twirled mustache, the Bonapartes of Baltimore; and many more.
Without my noticing the Maréchale Ney had come up beside me, perhaps seeing my obvious emotion as I examined this genealogical work of art, and told me in a reverent whisper that this création unique had been made toward the end of the last century by the daughter of a notary in Corte who was a great admirer of Napoleon. The leaves and sprays of flowers adorned with a few butterflies at the bottom of the picture, said Madame la Maréchale, were genuine dried plants from the maquis, sempervivums, myrtles, and rosemary, and the dark, sinuous tree trunk standing out in relief against the blue background was braided from the girl’s own hair. Whether out of love for the Emperor or for her father, she must have devoted endless hours to her work.I nodded attentively at this explanation, and stayed there for some time longer before I turned, left the room, and went down to the first floor, where the Bonaparte family had lived after they first came to Ajaccio. Carlo Bonaparte, Napoleon’s father, was secretary to Pasquale Paoli,* and after the defeat of the patriots at Corte in their unequal struggle against the French troops he had moved to the seaport of Ajaccio for safety’s sake.
Copyright © 2005 by W.G. Sebald. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.