“I was petrified to see this visage…”

Some more excerpts from the memoirs of Madame Cavaignac, with her views on the personalities of Joachim and Caroline Murat, and their quarrels and mutual infidelities in Naples. While her portrait of Murat is fairly balanced (and in my opinion, pretty astute, especially with her observations regarding his fear of Napoleon), Mme Cavaignac was clearly not enamored of Caroline.

(The first part of excerpts from Mme Cavaignac’s memoirs can be found here.)

Source: Cavaignac, Marie Julie Olivier de Corancez, Les mémoires d’une inconnue, publié sur le manuscript original, 1780-1816, 1894. Pages 267-276.


Murat, because we must speak of him, although born in the low class of people, had received some instruction; his mother, who had a sort of tavern in I don’t know which village, having wanted to make a priest of him, he was received into the seminary and did his studies there. He expressed himself with ease in French as in Italian, and my husband told me that in the Council of State, he seized the occasion to speak on all questions and did so effectively. This was a way of protesting against his origin and those who mocked him for it. He had been enlisted as a soldier, at the time of the Revolution; my husband let him in the Constitutional Guard of Louis XVI, at the time of its creation, at the same time as his compatriot Bessières. La Rouchefoucauld, I believe, said that the provincial air, which is not always lost at court, is always lost in the army. It was probably more than the provincial air that Murat had had to lose; but nothing in him announced anymore the point from which he had departed, and, arrived where he was then, he knew how to represent himself suitably and even nobly. Excellent in all the exercises of the body, one could, when he danced, mounted a horse, passed in review, apply to him, without laughing, that sobriquet of Majesty, still undoubtedly ridiculous, but not becoming moreso, this time like so often, by the one to whom it was addressed. He chatted, he received with ease and dignity, and an old German ambassador, who had run all the courts of Europe, told me he had never seen anyone play the role of king better than him. One day of official congratulations, the ambassador of Austria and that of France, disputed the pace until they arrived, pushing each other quite close to him: “Messieurs,” he said immediately, “I can only attribute what just happened between you to too vivid a desire to congratulate me, I must be grateful to you for this feeling, while blaming the manner of showing it.”

I did not see him in those extraordinary costumes for which the army reproached him. Extremely neat in his toilette, perhaps too much for a man, he had nothing particular except those curls falling on his shoulders, which have become common today and which he alone wore then. There was recognized in him a rare intrepidity, and I repeat it on word; but I saw it enough to be able to affirm that he had a mind and a lot of goodness in his heart. He was a good man, a good child, I would say, in his private relations with his old friends, even those who, like my husband, had helped him climb and had seen him start from low enough that his vanity might suffer. One day, speaking to me of his mother, whom he seemed to love very much, he recounted to me that having gone to see her, after I don’t know how many new dignities accorded him by the Emperor, and wanting to explain them to her, the good woman had exclaimed: “See, they will load the donkey so much that they will crush him under the pack!” Prophetic words, in effect.  “Isn’t that, Madame, true philosophy?” while translating for me the phrase he had repeated in patois. Povero fenno, povero fenno, he added, brought by this memory to the language of his country, in which his mother spoke. He loved his family very much and called to him several of his nephews and nieces, despite the opposition of his wife who only ever saw them with great displeasure. 

Although he had, in his youth, the fantasy of signing Marat for Murat, he had like many parvenus a great fear of democratic ideas, which he called revolutionary, and he understood very well that one was king by the grace of God and according to good pleasure. Napoleon himself had had this weakness. What I find unpardonable in him, so well born to command others, is not his despotic will, but his aristocratic penchants. Men might make laws, constitutions, charters, but they cannot prevent, in days of civil discord, a superior genius, if one exists among them, coming to dominate them, making himself their master. This is a fact that acts and speaks for itself; we submit to it out of necessity, necessity which one might adopt and bless by the good that will come out of it. The stupidity, in my opinion, that Napoleon himself was unable to avoid, he who should have known his century and his country, was to want to make it the acquired right of his family, of his posterity, to have wanted to pass on the throne in the brilliance that he alone could give it, thus abasing his work as a great man to the work of legitimacy. 


But I return to Murat. Despite his extraordinary bravery, he had neither firmness of character, nor strength of will. He engaged, he advanced, then retreated and tried to get away with a gasconade. He was by no means a braggart of courage, and I heard him say that he had only been wounded once and lightly enough. But, as it always happens, the qualities that he lacked were those of which he boasted. Speaking to my husband of his troubles with the Emperor: “He thinks that I will yield,” he said, “but I am a rod of iron and I will show it to him.” And what is funny is that the Emperor ended up leaving him be, either because he didn’t place much importance in him, or because he didn’t have time to worry about him. Anxious, harassed by the intrigues of his wife, instead of putting a stop to them as husband and master, he had the pretention of outwitting them, of showing himself shrewder than her. He yielded in that to the name of Napoleon, to the fear that he had of the Emperor (a well-conditioned fear, whatever he said[1]), who, however, did not get involved in these domestic quarrels. Without being faithful to his wife, who returned this in kind, he granted her a lot, a little out of affection, more out of consideration or weariness. Not daring to send away several French who served in her intrigues, he tried once to get rid of them by a general measure which failed by Napoleon’s will, with great humiliation for him.[2] (…) 

Mme Murat, young, beautiful and of Napoleon’s name, with all the pretensions, all the ambitions to which all that may give rise, exalted still, as I have said, by the example of her oldest sister who was throned by her chief. Her face was charming and even remarkable; her skin of a fairness, of a dazzling freshness, with beautiful hair, admirable hands and arms; but a little too plump for her height. Her mouth had all the charm of Napoleon’s and, when she wanted it, the most attractive physiognomy; I say when she wanted it, and that was usually; but one day, on one very grave occasion for her, the King having just appointed as Minister of Police the man who was its prefect and who had denounced to him the doubly guilty intrigues of his wife with Daure, she told me, as I approached her, “Ah well, there’s Maghella as minister; we will all be lost.” She seemed cold-blooded, and I was petrified to see this visage, ordinarily so gracious, so seductive, changing expression like a mask, taking on one of hardness, malice, hatred. The memory stayed with me and often spoiled for me this face which had pleased me so much. (…)

With less natural wit than her husband and not representing as well, Mme Murat believed herself greatly superior to him and aimed at great character, at strength of soul, in the type of Napoleon. I never saw anything, knew anything of her that justified that pretention. On her arrival in Naples, she had wanted and hoped to be admitted to the council and officially take part in the government, based on the example of Caroline of Austria, dethroned by the French. Saliceti, who, as I have said, worked for her at first, served her in that pretention, which Murat always rejected, but which she never abandoned. This mania for ambition—which probably came from her name and which was basically only vanity taking the wrong road, for the role of the pretty wife suited her better than any other—led her to great harm and great sorrows. 

Having little affection for her husband, her self-respect alone suffered from the fleeting fancies he displayed; but, out of jealousy of power, she would never have tolerated serious ones. Her first lover in Naples was the Duke de la Vauguyon; his favor did not last long, and the choice of Daure as successor seemed to indicate that the necessity for change had been for the sake of contrast this time. The first, tall, slender, rakish, with little wit, but with the expression, the manners of the ancient regime; the second, short, squat, common enough, although spiritual and having a detestable tone which announced the habit of bad company, especially in women. This liaison lasted longer and was broken only violently and with great scandal.


[1] I don’t believe Mme Cavaignac is wrong in this observation. We have an example of Murat’s fear of Napoleon admitted by Murat himself, to Napoleon himself, in a letter written all the way back in 15 April 1801. “You alone render me timid,” Murat writes, “I don’t dare to speak to you when I am near you.” Whatever had occurred earlier in their relationship to cause the original tension between them, seems to have left its mark, especially after Napoleon became Emperor. 

[2] This is a reference to Murat’s infamous Neapolitan naturalization decree in the summer of 1811, which has been mentioned in some previous posts here (here’s Louise Murat’s take on it). But this is the first time I’ve seen it referenced as being primarily motivated by Murat hoping to eliminate Caroline’s favorites. 

2 thoughts on ““I was petrified to see this visage…”

  1. Pingback: “It was feared that he had gone mad” – Project Murat

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