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Chapter 21

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Empress Josephine

Ernest John Knapton

published by
Harvard University Press,
New York, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Genealogical Tables

 p333  Chapter 22

If 1812 had been a year of ominous portent for France, 1813 and 1814 were years of disaster. As Napoleon gathered another great army to meet the coalition massing against him in Saxony and Bohemia, Josephine was so far removed from events as hardly to know their nature, and certainly not to realize their catastrophic significance. While Hortense made the accustomed visit to Aix-les‑Bains, Josephine happily took care of the two grandchildren at Malmaison. As autumn approached, Napoleon's shattering defeat at Leipzig in October announced the beginning of the end. His father-in‑law, Emperor Francis I, had turned against him and thrown the full forces of Austria into battle opposing France. Bernadotte, marshal of France, husband of the Désirée who had once loved Napoleon, and now crown prince of Sweden, had brought his adopted country into the coalition and seriously coveted for himself the very throne that Napoleon occupied. In Italy Joachim Murat, king of Naples and brother-in‑law of Napoleon, was likewise contemplating abandoning the Emperor and making an approach to the coalition. Loyalties were giving way like rotted timbers in an overloaded bridge. Spain was already gone, and Wellington's armies now crossed the passes of the Pyrenees into France. Russian armies had overrun the Grand Duchy of Warsaw; Prussia had become a pillar of the great coalition; and members of the Confederation of the Rhine were turning one by one against Napoleon. 'They have betrayed me, yes, all of them,' the Emperor was to write bitterly within a year to Josephine.1

Only Eugène, it seemed, as viceroy of Italy, held firm in his loyalty to the Emperor. When his father-in‑law, the king of Bavaria, told him in October that Bavaria was about to join  p334 the coalition and suggested that Eugène do likewise, he indignantly spurned the proposal. Josephine had reason to be proud, so she told her son more than once, of his constancy. This attitude, clearly revealed in her letters to Eugène, throws a warm and favourable light upon her attitude to Napoleon in these hours of his greatest trial. Unfortunately, as the year ended and the coalition crossed the Rhine at Basel and began the invasion of France, Napoleon was too closely involved in the brilliant but unavailing battles of January, February, and March — the 'campaign of France' — to have any clear picture of Eugène's actions. He received conflicting reports about his stepson, judged him wrongly, and so imposed upon both Eugène and Josephine an altogether unfair burden of criticism and reproach.

The unhappy episode, which placed an additional strain on the last months of Josephine's life, had almost trivial beginnings. Eugène's wife, Augusta, was about to have her third child, and the husband, understandably, had tried to arrange with the Austrian commander in Italy for his wife's safety in the event that she should have to be left behind in Milan. Reports of this overture to Austria aroused Napoleon's suspicions, all the more since he had learned that Joachim Murat was in the process of going over to the enemy. In January Napoleon instructed Eugène under no circumstances to begin the withdrawal of his forces until he learned that Murat had formally joined the allies. Wishing apparently to modify his instructions, Napoleon then took the curiously unmilitary step of writing to Josephine asking her to convey to Eugène instructions to withdraw northwards to the Alps, leaving only covering forces in Mantua and the other fortresses. His letter, so Josephine told Eugène, ended with the words 'France above all! France needs all her children.'2

Eugène, however, still awaited formal word of Murat's action and until this came was unwilling to disengage. He therefore stood fast in Italy. Writing to his mother he hotly rejected any imputations upon his patriotism, and in his anger wrote simultaneously to the Emperor. Napoleon's next solution consisted of ordering poor Augusta, momentarily expecting  p335 her baby, to make the long journey to Paris. This would involve a trip over the Alps clearly impossible to a woman in her condition. The command caused Eugène to be even more outraged, and produced in addition an astonishing letter of refusal from Augusta to Napoleon:

Without any doubt [she wrote boldly to the Emperor] I know my duty and my husband's towards Your Majesty. We have given ample proof, and we have never failed. . . . It is sad to be obliged to say that for recompense we have been plunged into sorrow and mortification which nevertheless we have borne silently and patiently. . . . What have I done to deserve so curt an order for departure? When I married I never thought things would come to this. . . . In spite of all I shall obey your orders. I shall leave Milan if the enemy force me to; but my duty and my affection make it a law for me not to leave my husband. Since you require me to risk my life, I wish at least to have the consolation of finishing my days in the arms of one who has all my affection and causes my happiness. . . . In spite of the sorrow Your Majesty causes us, I shall never cease to rejoice in his happiness and wish for that of the Empress.​3

Eugène, deeply moved on learning of his wife's courage and devotion, wrote exultantly to her, swearing that it would be impossible for any letter to do more than hers had done. If Napoleon, as we may suspect, was touched, he managed to conceal his feelings. He wrote gruffly to Eugène, calling the letters from him and his wife 'extravagant', and declaring that they must have lost their heads. 'I paid you no compliments for your letter,' he added, 'because you only did your duty.'​4 To Augusta he wrote that he was touched by the sympathy of her heart and the vivacity of her spirit. 'I only thought,' he explained lamely, 'that with your disposition you would have a difficult confinement in a country which is a theatre of war and in the midst of enemies. It would be better for your safety to come to Paris.'5

Nothing upset Josephine so easily as an imputation against Eugène. She had been deeply shocked, and the happy outcome of this flare‑up only intensified, if that were possible, her devotion to him. In the difficult weeks that were ahead of her  p336 this devotion gave her strength and helped to carry her through the tragic crisis of the Emperor's downfall.

The Campaign of France, in which Napoleon won victory after victory against a coalition that somehow never ceased to advance, ended at the gates of Paris. By the last week of March the allies were within striking distance of the capital. Most unwisely Napoleon left his brother Joseph in command and went himself to Fontainebleau. Josephine, who had spent these anxious weeks at Malmaison, was very close to the path of the allied advance. 'I'm tormented by the position you are in,' she wrote to Eugène in Italy on 24 March, 'and by our own. However, they have been speaking since yesterday at Paris of an English courier coming from London who has told everyone that he brings England's signature to a peace treaty. God grant that this news is true. France never had greater need for peace.'​6 The rumour was false, yet the end was very near.

For greater safety, Josephine left Malmaison on 29 March for the long trip to the château of Navarre, journeying with her diamonds and pearls sewn in her skirts and her other jewellery packed in strong boxes. The cortège was considerable, for Josephine had assembled all her carriages, and since post-horses could not be counted upon en route she took all the horses from the Malmaison stables. The journey was adventuresome, for no one knew what enemy patrols might be encountered. The party spent the night at Mantes and then, pushing on, reached Navarre on the evening of the 30th, the very day of the surrender of Paris. Hortense arrived breathless from Versailles with her two sons, having defied an order from Marie Louise, whom Napoleon had made regent, to go to Blois. En route the prize had the excitement of seeing one lone Cossack, who emerged momentarily from the forest of Rambouillet and then disappeared back into it. Soon, however, with the surrender of Paris, the arrival of the allied monarchs in the capital, and the proclamation of a provisional government under Talleyrand, the physical dangers threatening Josephine and Hortense disappeared.

Despite the plaintive note in Josephine's letters, the tragedy of these days was most assuredly not hers, but rather that of  p337 Napoleon, who had seen his armies defeated, his Empire crumble, his marshals one by one desert him, and his Hapsburg empress disappear into the east. On 2 April the senate had declared Napoleon and his family deposed from the throne. At Fontainebleau he soon saw that he could offer little further resistance, and thus on 6 April he signed in profound gloom the famous Act of Abdication, renouncing for himself and his heirs the crowns of France and Italy. 'Once more,' recorded the faithful Caulaincourt who was with him, 'he spoke of the Empress and his son, and of the Viceroy and the Empress Josephine, whose interests he asked me to bear in mind.'​7 The allies then quickly drafted a definitive treaty, which was received by Napoleon late on 12 April. He deferred his decision concerning this ultimate step and talked instead of his companions. 'Eugène,' he asserted during his reminiscences to Caulaincourt on this sad evening, 'is the only one of my family who has never given me a single cause for dissatisfaction. His mother made me very happy. Those are the sweetest recollections of my life.'​8 During the night he attempted suicide by taking poison, but was revived. 'You are to tell Josephine,' he instructed Caulaincourt who attended him as he hoped unavailingly for death, 'that she has been very much in my thoughts.'9

In the morning, recovered from his ordeal, Napoleon put his signature to the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Henceforth he would be sovereign of the island of Elba and the Bonaparte family would be most comfortably provided for. As for the Beauharnais, Hortense and her children were to be granted 400,000 francs annually — a sum less only than the 500,000 granted to Joseph and Jérôme and more than what was stipulated for the other Bonapartes. Eugène was promised a suitable establishment outside France (later fixed as the duchy of Leuchtenberg, in Bavaria). Josephine, with a guaranteed annual revenue of 1,000,000 francs was the most generously treated of all these. On the 20th Napoleon bade farewell to his Guard at Fontainebleau in what has been known ever since as the Cour des Adieux. He travelled incognito through France, took ship, and on 4 May went ashore at Port-Ferrajo to  p338 assume sovereignty of the minuscule principality of Elba.

As Napoleon's career on the ground stage of events thus seemed to be coming to an end, Josephine's life also moved into the shadows. At Navarre her entourage was royalist to the core, though Josephine kept herself apart from this newly developing trend. In the little group of her immediate companions, Madame Gazzani was Belgian, Princess Giedroye was Polish, and the two Van Berchems were Swiss. Madame de Rémusat, once so zealous in Josephine's support, was now busy distributing to all and sundry the white cockade of the Bourbons. Thus, even before Napoleon had reached Elba the times, truly enough, had changed.

At Navarre Josephine was concerned with the immediate question of the safety of her beloved Malmaison. 'I do not need to urge you to take care of Malmaison,' she wrote to her superintendent, Bonpland, 'I count on your zeal and your attachment to me. If you can arrange for a protective guard, be sure to have the officer dine with you and provide food for his soldiers.'​10 Other detailed instructions followed. A few days later she sent to a friend, the Countess Cafarelli,​a news from Navarre: 'We are brokenhearted at what is happening, above all at the ingratitude of the French. The papers are full of the most dreadful attacks; if you haven't read them don't do so, for they would make you ill.'11

Josephine's indignation at the new order did not prevent her from appealing to one of its principal architects, Talleyrand, now head of the provisional government. A powerful instinct for survival led her to write to him for some assurance concerning the settlement that had been made for her at the time of her divorce:

I learn [she wrote to Talleyrand on 8 April] that the fate of the Emperor and his family is about to be fixed. Mine was settled four years ago by the Senate. The settlement then allotted to me was my sole support in the retreat where I have lived. I wait for the Senate to act anew, and I place my interests and those of my children in your hands. Counsel me in these circumstances, and I shall follow your advice with confidence.​12

 p339  What Talleyrand replied is unknown. By this time the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau were completed, and Josephine discovered that while they were still generous (a million francs for her annually), they did not approach the three millions she had been granted in 1810. She had no alternative but to accept.

More striking than this correspondence is the famous letter of 9 April, which Joseph wrote to Eugène who was still at his post in Italy. Fighting by this time had ceased and Napoleon's abdication was nearly a reality:

What a week I have spent, my dear Eugène! How I have suffered at the way in which they have treated the Emperor! What attacks in the newspapers, what ingratitude on the part of those upon whom he showered his favours! But there is nothing more to hope for. All is finished; he is abdicating.

As for you, you are free, and absolved from any oath of fidelity; anything more that you could do for his cause would be useless; act for your family.​13

'Act for your family.' Would it have been better, as one scholar writes, if Josephine had never written this letter, or if, having received it, Eugène had at once burned it? In the course of the nineteenth century the most ardent Bonapartists, Frédéric Masson in the lead, would use this letter to demonstrate what they chose to considered the black ingratitude of one unworthy of the affection and the dignities that Napoleon had showered upon her. Such a conclusion, surely, is unfair. The all too fragmentary correspondence of the preceding months shows that she warmly supported Eugène when he stood his ground in defending Napoleon's cause. She praised her son's constancy to the Emperor, and she urged him to continue in it. She took pride in Eugène's loyalty, and in a very precise sense it seems proper to say that his loyalty was hers also. Now she had seen Napoleon's marshals turn against him; there was treason in his very family. That a woman of fifty, alone and uncertain of the future, should have kept up a mock-heroic fight for a lost cause would be asking too much. The man whom she had supported up to, and indeed after, the day of his abdication had chosen to put Josephine aside and marry another. 'Act for your family' was advice that in all reasonableness  p340 she could now give to a son whose devotion had been demonstrated beyond all doubt.

Even so, a letter which came a few days after she had written to Eugène — a letter penned by Napoleon on 16 April as he waited at Fontainebleau in those unhappy days following the signature of the treaty — must have caused her deep emotion. This last known letter of Napoleon to Josephine concludes the joint story of their two lives:

I wrote to you on the eighth of this month (it was Friday) and perhaps you never received my letter. There was still fighting and possibly it was intercepted; now communications are re‑established. I have made my decision and I have no doubt that this letter will reach you.

I shall never repeat what I then told you; I complained then of my institution; now I congratulate myself; my mind and my heart are free of an enormous burden; my fall is great, but at least, according to what they say, it serves a useful purpose.

In my retirement I shall substitute the pen for the sword. The narrative of my reign will be surprising; people have only seen me in profile, and I shall show myself full-face. What things are there for me to make known! What men there are about whom they have wrong opinions! I have showered benefits on thousands of wretches! What did they do, in the end, for me?

They have betrayed me, yes, all of them. I except only our dear Eugène, so worthy of you and of me. May he be happy under a king who can appreciate the instincts of nature and of honour!

Adieu, my dear Josephine. Resign yourself, as I am doing, and never lose the memory of one who has never forgotten you, and never will forget you.​14

By mid‑April 1814, Josephine made her last return to Malmaison. The complaints of loss of weight that appear in her letters are confirmed in the last portraits and by the comments of contemporaries. Although she may not fully have realized it, she was becoming seriously ill. Nevertheless, the social demands coming from the new group of arrivals at Paris were soon felt at Malmaison. Josephine had learned through Madame Cochelet, lady-in‑waiting to Hortense, that many of the distinguished Russians in Paris, including the great Alexander himself, were eager to pay her visits. She had warm  p341 messages from Metternich, from the Duke de Berry, nephew of Louis XVIII, and from members of the provisional government. All were one in their desire to greet her cordially, and not to count her among the Bonapartes whom they had succeeded in overthrowing.

Such attention to Josephine raises interesting problems. Why should so unpolitical a figure command such great interest? Curiosity, both about the Empress and about Malmaison, had something to do with it. In the case of Tsar Alexander, a great ladies' man, there was also the desire to meet the romantic figure who had risen so high and her daughter, the former queen of Holland. For other leaders of the coalition it might have been simply an anti-Napoleonic gesture, in so far as Josephine had been separated from the Emperor. In the case of the Bourbons, shrewd calculations of political expediency were involved. La bonne Joséphine had her following, as pamphlets sold on the streets of Paris soon were to show. The temper of France was uncertain, Bonapartism was not dead, and what better way could there be to rally support than by showing respect to a woman who had been a product of the ancien régime, a victim of the Revolution, and for a decade the most glittering ornament of imperial France?

Alexander I came to Malmaison on the day after Josephine's arrival, first having ascertained politely through an aide whether his visit would be acceptable. Hortense made her appearance during the visit and found her mother walking in the garden with the tsar. Alexander was all charm, and Josephine responded warmly. Yet Hortense, still not accustomed to the new state of affairs, greeted him with much reserve. Following this first Russian visit Alexander wrote to Josephine as follows:

It is with the keenest regret that I noticed your Majesty had some anxieties; but I have every reason to hope that you will convince yourself that they have no foundation. Though I do not wish to exploit the permission you have been kind enough to accord me, Madame, I look forward to presenting my respects to you on Friday at your dinner hour.​15

Alexander came again, and still again. Josephine was quick to  p342 order new clothes from Paris and to prepare at Malmaison to give elegant dinners for her guests. Perhaps, at long last, a new age would be dawning for her. Although the burden must have been most tiring, she received the king of Prussia, the grand duke of Baden, the prince of Bavaria, the prince of Mecklenburg, visitors from England, and a sprinkling of Russian grand dukes.

To Josephine's inexpressible delight, Eugène arrived on 9 May from Italy, having taken his wife and children, including the month‑old daughter who had been born in Mantua, to visit Augusta's family at Munich. Eugène was in high favour with the Bourbon court, for was he not, after all, the son of that Viscount de Beauharnais who had lost his life under the Terror, and might he not under the restored monarchy in France serve his country as his father had done, and under his father's ancient title?

A few days later Josephine went with a family party to Hortense's estate outside Paris at Saint‑Leu, where once again Tsar Alexander was present, exuding kindness and cordiality. On this occasion Josephine, true to her fondness for flimsy dresses, had worn a costume that in the tricky spring air caused her to contract a chill from whose effects she never really recovered. That afternoon, while the rest of the party drove through the forest of Montmorency, Josephine remained indoors. She told Madame Cochelet that she felt exhausted and depressed, in part through thinking of the lonely figure of Napoleon on his tiny island of Elba, in part through fearing that the promises of an endowment for her children would never be realized.

In these days a striking figure from a distant past likewise visited Malmaison. Madame de Staël, who again and again had aroused Napoleon's ire and had long been an exile from France, returned from England and quickly paid her respects to Josephine. The interview was difficult, for Germaine as always was bursting with questions that, it is said, she had been preparing ever since 1810. She flung these at the gentle Josephine in the picture gallery until at last the Empress, 'very agitated, very much moved', was constrained to dismiss her insatiable inquisitor.

 p343  A dinner for the king of Prussia and his two sons was followed by a dinner on 24 May for Alexander and the Russian grand dukes. Ill as she was, Josephine could do no less than follow the dinner by opening the ball with the tsar. She then walked out in the evening air through the gardens with him, and this walk was the beginning of the end. Two days later, when she was very hoarse, her personal physician was sufficiently concerned to begin applying plasters to her throat. On the 28th the fever was aggravated, and the doctors, now deeply concerned with the condition of Josephine's throat, prophesied a long illness.

Clearly, Josephine's condition was grave. Plans were made for the members of her family to share watches at her bedside. They were hardly needed, for on the morning of Sunday 29 May 1814 Josephine was dying. While Hortense and Eugène were away at Mass, the Abbé Bertrand, tutor to Hortense's children, administered the last sacraments. At noon, in the bedroom which overlooked the park and the great cedar of Marengo, and in the presence of her children, Josephine died.​* She was twenty-five days short of reaching her fifty-first birthday.

Josephine's obsequies were marked, as had been so many aspects of her life, with unusual elements. Royal etiquette, to be sure, stipulated that Eugène and Hortense, the two living beings closest to her, should leave Malmaison for the château of Saint‑Leu within hours of her death and be represented during the days of public mourning and at her funeral only by Hortense's two small sons, the one six and the other ten. Fate had brought it about that her first husband should lie in an unmarked grave in Paris, and that her second, to all intents a captive on the island of Elba, should learn only by chance of her death. The fortune of politics determined that the new Bourbon régime in France, nervous of its position on returning  p344 to a country where popular allegiance might still be uncertain, dared pay only timid respect to the dead Empress. And it was, surely, an irony of the gods that led those who prepared Josephine's death certificate to increase the calculated error that she had made about her age at the time of her civil marriage to Napoleon in 1796. She had then reduced the gap between their ages by four years; in death the gap still remained, and the date of her birth was still wrongly recorded, so as to make her forty-five.

Josephine's body lay in state for three days in a chamber hung with black and lit by candles. The roads from Paris were crowded with people wishing to pay their respects; twenty thousand passed by the bier of the daughter of Martinique. Louis XVIII sent a letter of condolence, and Alexander I went in person to Saint‑Leu to convey his regrets to Hortense and Eugène and to announce to Hortense that Louis XVIII had been pleased to grant her the title of Duchess of Saint‑Leu.

The funeral took place on 2 June. The coffin was carried from Malmaison to the parish church of Rueil between long lines of troops. These could hardly be French soldiers, whose allegiance to Napoleon had ended only two weeks before and whose position was uncertain. The route was guarded therefore by the militia of the canton and by Russian guard regiments in full-dress uniform. Many mourners of high rank, representatives of the tsar and the king of France, the ladies and gentlemen of Josephine's entourage, and a considerable crowd of the curious followed the coffin.

The funeral sermon was preached by the archbishop of Tours, loyal servant of the new régime, pious remembrancer of the old. He delighted members of Josephine's family by his eloquent testimony of her charm, her sympathy, and her generosity. Unable to omit all reference to Napoleon, he likewise delighted the Bourbons by avoiding explicit use of his name, speaking of Napoleon only as 'one who did not claim for himself the immortal honour of restoring the Bourbons to the throne of their ancestors, yet by his very first actions gave people to believe that he would'.​16 The archbishop paid generous tribute to the many efforts Josephine had made to  p345 help the émigrés and to find positions for those royalists who had returned from exile to the service of their country. Louis XVIII is said to have breathed a sigh of relief and gratitude at the dexterity with which the archbishop had thus kept the balance between France's Bonapartist and Bourbon sympathies.

The truest tribute to Josephine was paid elsewhere. Paris was flooded with pamphlet literature about her. Though some of it was scurrilous, and some of it was anti-Bourbon and nothing more, by far the greatest part hailed la bonne Joséphine — Frenchwoman, wife, and companion of the great Emperor. In this way the first nostalgic surge of admiration for the exile at Elba arose, and the first step was taken in the creation of that great romantic fiction of the nineteenth century, the Napoleonic legend. Far better for Josephine's fame that she should have died in this hour, than to have lived to endure the inevitable pettiness of life in an age to which she would have been a stranger. Far better that she should have left behind as her contribution to the legend the romantic record of her kindliness and grace.

It appears that no one, not even Hortense or Eugène, acted quickly to send Napoleon the news of Josephine's death. A valet returning from Elba to France found a newspaper at Genoa with the story and sent it to the Emperor. Much later, at St Helena, Napoleon was to speak often of his wife, including candid appraisal of her weaknesses and husbandly amusement at her foibles with an evident and deep devotion.​17 His inner thoughts at Elba are unknown. 'At the news of this death,' one very close to him has recorded, 'he appeared profoundly afflicted; he shut himself up within, and would see no one but his grand marshal.'18

Long thoughts he must have had of Josephine — intimate memories going back from the unhappy present through years of imperial splendour to the fevered times of the Revolution. Through these two decades — as dramatic a twenty years as history can provide — the all too human life of the creole of Martinique had run like a fine thread, tarnished as any life may be, then mingling with the splendid golden cord of an imperial France, woven into its substance and inseparably a part of it.

The Author's Notes:

1 Bourgeat, p217.

2 Masson, JR, p310.

3 Ibid., pp316‑17.

4 Ibid., p318‑19.

5 Ibid., p319‑20.

6 Hanoteau, Empereur, p117.

7 A. J. G. de Caulaincourt, No Peace with Napoleon! (New York, 1936), p191.

8 Ibid., p244.

9 Ibid., p258.

10 Masson, JR, p330.

11 Ibid., pp331‑2.

12 Bibliothèque Thiers, Paris, Fonds Masson, no. 416 (copy).

13 Hanoteau, Empereur, p118.

14 Bourgeat, pp216‑17.

15 Mauguin, L'Impératrice Joséphine, p87.

* Josephine's complaints of a loss of weight and exhaustion, together with the doctors' anticipation of a long illness, suggest some malignancy. The autopsy, conducted by the chief anatomist of the Faculty of Medicine, reported an extreme inflammation of the whole trachea with a large gangrenous spot on the larynx. Both the bronchial tubes and the lungs were choked with blood. All other organs were completely healthy.

16 Masson, JR, p367.

17 Cf. E. A. de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (Paris, 1951), I.226; Bertrand, Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène: Journal, 1818‑1819, pp408‑10.

18 Masson, JR, p371. Madame Bertrand, who with her husband, Count Bertrand, accompanied Napoleon both to Elba and St Helena, claims to have been the one to give the Emperor the news of Josephine's death. See The St Helena Journal of General Baron Gourgaud (London, 1923), p293. The widely accepted story that Napoleon's dying exclamation at St Helena in 1821 was 'Josephine' has no better authority than that of Count Montholon, whose memoirs were not published until 1846. He is a most unreliable witness to whom the servants at St Helena gave the nickname, 'the Liar'. The evidence favours Bertrand's version: 'Who retreats? — At the head of the army!' See R. Korngold, The Last Years of Napoleon (New York, 1959), p391.

Thayer's Note:

a French sources often spell the name Cafarelli; the proper Italian spelling is Caffarelli.

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