By the time Jerome Bonaparte (1784–1860), the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, took up residence in Florence in 1831, first at Palazzo Serristori and then at the sumptuous Palazzo Orlandini del Beccuto, he had long since divorced his American wife, Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Patterson, and sent her packing back to Baltimore with their baby son. He had done so on his brother’s orders: the marriage
interfered with the emperor’s expansionist dreams, including having Jerome crowned king of Westphalia, which he accomplished in August 1807. To secure Jerome’s position on the throne, later that same month, Napoleon arranged for him to marry Catherine, daughter of Frederick I, king of Württemberg.
However, seven years later, after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814, Jerome and Catherine were forced to take refuge in Switzerland and northern Italy. Once he learned that his brother had left Elba, Jerome returned to Paris, where he fought with French troops, notably at the battle of Waterloo. With Napoleon’s second abdication and then death in 1821, the couple, calling themselves the Count and Countess of Monfort, began roaming between Austria and Italy. All of their three children—Prince Jerome de Monfort (1814–1847), Princess Mathilde (1820–1904) and Prince Napoléon (1822–1891)—were born in Trieste, where, on the dictate of the Austrians, they lived as virtual prisoners. When finally free to leave Trieste, the family stayed in Rome with Jerome’s mother, Maria Letizia Ramolino (known as Madame Mère). But because of agitation whipped up by the Bonapartist movement, they were obliged to leave, and so moved to Florence.
It was there that Princess Mathilde grew into a beautiful and, thanks to the efforts of her mother, intelligent and educated young woman. One of her father’s guests wrote, ‘she is entirely French, heart and soul,’ with dark hair and the strong features of the Bonapartes. But the gaiety and high life at Palazzo Orlandini ended when Catherine died of dropsy in 1835. Always living far beyond his means and now without his wife’s annuity, Jerome was desperately short of money. He sent his offspring to relatives in Germany and moved into a villa at Quarto under Monte Morello. After her father failed to engineer a match between her and her cousin Louis-Napoleon, heir to the imperial throne, Mathilde returned to live with him in Florence.
On November 1, 1840, Mathilde married the fabulously wealthy Russian count, Anatole Demidoff (1813–1870), whom the Grand Duke of Tuscany had recently elevated to the rank of Prince of San Donato (see TF 146 at http://tinyurl.com/mflj3so).
Although Demidoff had a reputation for being brutish and ill mannered, and was said to have taken every opportunity to mistreat his servants, the idea of marrying his daughter to someone who greatly admired Napoleon Bonaparte, and who, being very rich, would buy from him not only one of Catherine’s magnificent diamond and pearl necklaces for his bride to wear on her wedding day but would also purchase the villa at Quarto convinced Jerome he had made the right choice—for himself, if not for his daughter. For her, Mathilde knew that as Countess Demidoff she would live lavishly and, above all, be able to travel, especially to Paris (unlike the rest of her exiled family).
But she would pay a high price for these privileges. Embittered by Jerome’s failure to pay Mathilde’s dowry, as he had promised, and by his father-in-law’s constant demands for loans, Demidoff soon resumed his former bachelor ways, flaunting in public his lover, Valentine de Sainte-Aldegonde, wife of the Third Duke of Dino. Exasperated, Mathilde insulted the duchess at a costume ball they were both attending—only to be resoundingly slapped across the face then and there, in front of everyone, by her irate husband. This scandalous episode put an end to their relationship. After she left Demidoff, taking the contested jewels with her, Mathilde turned to Tzar Nicholas I for help. He granted her a separation in 1846 and ordered her former spouse to pay her an allowance of 200,000 rubles a year.
Back in Paris, she sought solace in the arms of her own lover, the French sculptor, Count Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, whom she had met a year earlier at Villa San Donato, her palatial marital home in Florence. She also set about helping her cousin Louis-Napoleon, in his bid to be elected president of France, putting her jewellery up as collateral to finance his successful campaign. Following a coup d’etat in December 1851, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became Napoleon III, ruler of the Second French Empire, making Mathilde, after Eugénie, the emperor’s wife, the second most important woman in France. A patron of the arts and literature, Mathilde soon established a glittering salon in Paris, frequented by, amongst others, Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Auguste Ingres.
With the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, Mathilde went into temporary exile in Belgium before returning to Paris where she died, aged 83, on January 2, 1904. She is buried in Saint-Gratien, in Val-d’Oise, where, in her later years, she spent every summer.