PARIS – There exist troubled destinies, where dazzling glory rubs shoulders with personal tragedy. Such was the case of Marshal Berthier – who, despite being a brilliant soldier, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff and the most important figure of the First Empire after the Emperor himself, was permanently torn between his military duties and his private life. The confidence the Emperor placed in him failed to preclude the cruellest of humiliations. For instance, the Marshal was reproached about his unalterable passion for Duchesse de Visconti, to whom he even erected an altar on the field of battle. This adoration, although reciprocated, was not to enjoy a happy outcome. The impatient Emperor frequently bade the Marshal choose from among the potential brides he advocated; in 1808, Berthier finally agreed to marry Princess Elizabeth of Bavaria. The Duchesse de Visconti’s husband died a few weeks after the wedding. Berthier was devastated by this hammer blow of fate and fell into bed-ridden depression. Empress Josephine who, despite Napoleon’s scorn, had supported this thwarted love-affair from the outset, wrote three letters to the Marshal in 1806 and 1809. They are the only ones known to have survived. This fleeting, unpublished correspondence is being unveiled at Sotheby’s during the sale of the Prince Marchal’s most personal archives. Josephine’s personal life was just as tragic as Berthier’s: she was in love with an Emperor obsessed by an heir she could not provide – an obsession just as persistent as his military conquests. In October 1806 she followed in Napoleon’s wake, prior to the Battle of Iéna. On October 15, from Mainz, she wrote to Berthier, on delicate silver paper, asking him ‘above all to take good care of the emperor… see that he is not exposed too much. You are one of his oldest friends and I trust in your devotion.’  She placed the fate of her beloved in the Marshal’s hands.

Letter from Joséphine Bonaparte to Maréchal Berthier in which she praises Berthier to care for the Emperor, 15 October, [1806]. Estimate €8,000-12,000. © Sotheby’s / Art digital studio.

Frédérique Parent is a specialist in the department of Books & Manuscripts Specialist at Sotheby’s France.

The sale of Une famille et Napoléon, Collections du Maréchal Berthier, Prince de Wagram will take place at Sotheby's Paris on 29 April.

Auction: Tuesday 29 April, 10:30 am & 2:30 pm

Final Day of Viewing: Monday 28 April