F. J. Kinson, Paolina Bonaparte, 1808, oil on canvas
Of Napoleon’s sisters, it was Paulina who, thanks to her marriage to Camillo Borghese in Paris in 1803, was able to enjoy the rank of Roman princess. However, during the empire, she preferred to live in Paris, alternating with stays in Turin with her husband, who had been granted the office of Governor of Piedmont by the Emperor, dedicating little time to the splendid Roman residence of Palazzo Borghese. Nevertheless her celebrated portrait by Canova was kept in Camillo’s bedroom there.
It was only after the fall of Napoleon, in 1815, that the princess moved permanently to Rome. By then she was practically separated from her husband, and lived in an apartment in the Palazzo Borghese; in 1816 she acquired for herself the villa near Porta Pia, which had once belonged to Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga. The building was then renovated according to the fashion of the time, particularly in the interiors: on the ground floor, for example, one room was decorated in the Egyptian style, with scenes of the Nile and temples, almost as if to recall Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt; in this period the garden was also re-laid out, with an English style parterre, as was the park, romantically enclosed within the Aurelian Walls. The lodge, originally in a sober style of classical architecture, had its main facade, which looks out onto Via XX Settembre, enriched by a portico, decorated with six double Doric columns made from travertine marble, which make up the monumental entrance. It is not unlikely that Canina, the architecture of the Casa Borghese, was involved in the restructuring works that Paulina desired. The princess wanted to call her new property Villa Bonaparte, but her mother Letizia, advised her not to on the grounds that it would be inappropriate, and the villa, which is now the seat of the French Embassy to the Holy See, was simply called the Villa Paulina. The hospitality there was remarkable, such that Lady Morgan, a celebrated English traveller and a great admirer of the Bonapartes, was able to write: «Of all the houses that the Borghese family possesses, only one can be lived in, only one offers English propriety, French elegance, and Italian taste, united in the happiest fashion; it is the house of Paulina Bonaparte Borghese, decorated, furnished and restored by the Princess.»