Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Long-Lost Slippers of Pauline Bonaparte Borghese, Princess of Sulmona, 1820

Thursday, April 18, 2013
Isabella reports,

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.


Fichu1800 said...

Thank you for an interesting article. I wonder though, why give the slippers as a present? It is a strange gift to be presented to a gentleman??

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I wondered about that, too, Natalie. There's also a ring that she gave him in the collection, and that makes more sense - but a pair of worn shoes? I have to think that they had some special significance to them both. Don't you wish you knew?

Quinn said...

Well done, Louise Wilkie!
Thought-provoking topic :)
To me, shoes seem like a very personal and/or intimate keepsake. But for the recipient to bequeath them along with his papers seems more odd than the original gift!

Mamie Von Doomsday said...

Fascinating! Not exactly what I picture when I picture shoes from the era with the square toes.

I do agree with Quinn that giving someone your shoes seems like a very intimate type of gift and with such tiny feet something the gentleman could tuck away and carry around easily.

LenoreJ said...

Shoes are like gloves, intimate and possibly erotic, but can be passed off as respectable momentos. I'm sure there is a story behind these shoes!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Here's a link to one of the news stories (via the BBC) earlier this year, when the shoes first went on display in Aberdeen. That's Louise Wilkie, the curatorial assistant who rediscovered the shoes, holding them in her hands. Note how VERY small they are -- so yes, a gentleman (especially a fond gentleman) could easily have tucked them into his pocket.

Jolene Rae Harrington said...

Wonderful story!
As to the shoes: Perhaps her lover was a particular admirer of Pauline's dainty feet. And shoes also have another significance--as a tradition among newlyweds, ancient rites and the sealing of a transaction. According to, it is also a token of good luck, "especially luck in making journeys." Given Wilson's penchant for world travels, this connection is possible, too.
Then again, perhaps it was simply an intimate token to remember her by. Still, it's a testament to the legendary charm and beauty of Napoleon's enchanting sibling--they certainly shared "charisma."

Sassy Countess said...

charming! I love the square toe!

sweet historical author, Donna Hatch said...

What a remarkable find!

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