It's a known fact that Loretta and I have a Thing for shoes (it says so right up there, under the blog's title.) When we come across shoes that also have a history - like these or these - we're in heaven. And when there may be a mysterious romance tossed in with the history – well, we can't ask for more, can we?
Dating from the 1820s, the leather slippers, trimmed with now-faded silk, left, were recently "rediscovered" in the King's Museum, University of Aberdeen. As occasionally happens in even the best of collections, these shoes had been long ago tucked away and forgotten, until an enterprising curatorial assistant, Louise Wilkie, came across them, and researched their background to be able to identify them as they prize they are.
The slippers have been identified as having belonged to Pauline Bonaparte Borghese (1780-1825), below right, Princess of Sulmona and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. One clue was an old engraving on the shoes' soles: "Pauline, Rome Jan 20 1824." Another was the diminutive size of the shoes themselves, equivalent to a UK child's size 2; Pauline was famously known to have very small feet.
But Ms. Wilkie discovered a much stronger connection. The shoes were included in a collection of belongings of Robert Wilson (1787-1871.) Born in Banffshire, Scotland, Wilson served for several years as a ship's surgeon with the Honorable East India Company. The experience quelled his interest in medicine, but made him into an intrepid traveller. His journeys took him throughout Europe as well as to Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and India - all the more extraordinary given the unsettled times in which he was travelled.
While visiting Italy in 1820, he met and formed a close friendship with Pauline. Exactly how close they became remains a tantalizing mystery, even given Pauline's reputation for sexual adventures with many lovers. Still, entries like this one in Wilson's diary hint at their intimacy: "I passed a fortnight in the vicinity of Pisa with the Princess Borghese in a state of almost perfect seclusion, and afterwards accompanied her to the Baths of Lucca."
Perhaps the Princess found the straight-forward Scotsman a refreshing change from her more exotic lovers. Perhaps they simply were friends, and no more. But she did give him many gifts, including these slippers, as mementos – mementos that he carefully packed away and saved for the remainder of his long life, and bequeathed with his papers to the university at his death.
Above left: Slippers belonging to Pauline Borghese, King's Museum, University of Aberdeen. Bottom right: Princess Pauline Borghese, by Robert Lefevre, c. 1808. Palace of Versailles.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.