Bonaparte / Buonaparte

The relationship of these family names

Napoleon Bonaparte
US Library of Congress

Napoleon Bonaparte was born as Napoleone Buonaparte, the second son of a Corsican family with dual Italian heritage: his father Carlo descended from Francesco Buonaparte, a Florentine who had emigrated in the mid-sixteenth century. Napoleon's mother was a Ramolino, a family who arrived in Corsica c. 1500. For a while, Carlo, his wife, and their children were all Buonapartes, but history records the great emperor as being Bonaparte.

Why? A growing French influence on both Corsica and the family caused them to adopt the French version of their name: Bonaparte. The future emperor changed his first name too, to just Napoleon.

French Influence

France gained control of Corsica in 1768, sending an army and a governor who would both play key roles in Napoleon's life. Carlo certainly became close friends with the Comte de Marbeuf, the French ruler of Corsica, and fought to send the elder children to be educated in France so they could rise up the ranks of the much larger, richer and more powerful French world; however, their surnames remained almost wholly Buonaparte.

It was only in 1793 that the use of Bonaparte begins to grow in frequency, thanks largely to Napoleon's failure in Corsican politics and the family's consequent flight to France, where they initially lived in poverty. Napoleon was now a member of the French military, but had managed to a return to Corsica and involved himself in the power struggles of the area.

Unlike his later career, things went badly, and the French army (and the French mainland) were soon their new home.

Napoleon soon found success, first as an artillery commander in the siege of Toulon and the creation of the ruling Directory, and then in the triumphant Italian Campaign of 1795-6, whereupon he changed almost permanently to Bonaparte.

It was clear at this point that the French military was his future, if not the government of France, and a French name would aid this: people could still be suspicious of foreigners (as they still tend to be.) Other members of his family followed as their lives became intertwined with the high-politics of France, and soon the newly named Bonaparte family ruled vast areas of Europe.

Political Motivations

The changing of the family name from Italian to French seems clearly political in retrospect: as members of an up-and-coming dynasty who ruled France, it made perfect sense to appear French and adopt French affectations. However, there's debate over the scant evidence, and it's possible there wasn't a deliberate, family-wide, decision to rename themselves, just the constant and subversive effects of living among French culture working to lead them all to change. Carlo's death in 1785, well before the use of Bonaparte became even remotely common, may also have been an enabling factor: they could well have stayed Buonaparte if he had still been alive.​

Readers may wish to note that a similar process happened to the Buonaparte children's first names: Joseph was born Giuseppe, Napoleon was Napoleone and so on.

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Wilde, Robert. "Bonaparte / Buonaparte." ThoughtCo, Jan. 10, 2018, thoughtco.com/bonaparte-buonaparte-biography-1221107. Wilde, Robert. (2018, January 10). Bonaparte / Buonaparte. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bonaparte-buonaparte-biography-1221107 Wilde, Robert. "Bonaparte / Buonaparte." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bonaparte-buonaparte-biography-1221107 (accessed January 20, 2018).