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Memory and Political Imagination

The ancestors of Napoleon descended from minor Italian nobility of Tuscan origin who had come to Corsica from Liguria in the 16th century.[11][12]His parents Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino maintained an ancestral home called “Casa Buonaparte” in Ajaccio. Napoleon was born there on 15 August 1769, their fourth child and third son. A boy and girl were born first but died in infancy. He had an elder brother, Joseph, and younger siblings LucienElisaLouisPaulineCaroline, and Jérôme. Napoleon was baptised as a Catholic.[13] Although he was born Napoleone di Buonaparte,[14] he changed his name to Napoléon Bonaparte when he was 27 in 1796 upon his first marriage.[note 2]

Head and shoulders portrait of a white-haired, portly, middle-aged man with a pinkish complexion, blue velvet coat, and a ruffle

The nationalist Corsican leader Pasquale Paoli; portrait by Richard Cosway, 1798

Napoleon was born the same year the Republic of Genoa, a former commune of Italy,[18] transferred Corsica to France.[19] The state sold sovereign rights a year before his birth in 1768, and the island was conquered by France during the year of his birth and formally incorporated as a province in 1770, after 500 years under Genoese rule and 14 years of independence.[note 3] Napoleon’s parents fought to maintain independence even when Maria was pregnant with him. His father was an attorney who went on to be named Corsica’s representative to the court of Louis XVI in 1777. The dominant influence of Napoleon’s childhood was his mother, whose firm discipline restrained a rambunctious child.[23] Later in life Napoleon noted, “The future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother.”[24] Napoleon’s maternal grandmother had married into the Swiss Fesch family in her second marriage, and Napoleon’s uncle, the cardinal Joseph Fesch, would fulfill a role as protector of the Bonaparte family for some years. Napoleon’s noble, moderately affluent background afforded him greater opportunities to study than were available to a typical Corsican of the time.[25]

When he turned 9 years old,[26][27] he moved to the French mainland and enrolled at a religious school in Autun in January 1779. In May, he transferred with a scholarship to a military academy at Brienne-le-Château.[28] In his youth he was an outspoken Corsican nationalist and supported the state’s independence from France.[26] Like many Corsicans, Napoleon spoke and read Corsican (as his mother tongue) and Italian (as the official language of Corsica).[29][30][31] He began learning French in school at around age 10.[32] Although he became fluent in French, he spoke with a distinctive Corsican accent and never learned how to spell French correctly.[33] He was routinely bullied by his peers for his accent, birthplace, short stature, mannerisms and inability to speak French quickly.[30] Bonaparte became reserved and melancholy applying himself to reading. An examiner observed that Napoleon “has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics. He is fairly well acquainted with history and geography … This boy would make an excellent sailor”.[note 4][35] In early adulthood, he briefly intended to become a writer; he authored a history of Corsica and a romantic novella.[26]