Possible remains of Napoleonic king of Naples to be DNA tested

In his short life Joachim Murat rose from modest beginnings as an innkeeper’s son in the small southwestern French town of Labastide-Fortunière to the King of Naples at 41 years of age. In between he became one of Napoleon’s best generals and, after his marriage to Caroline Bonaparte, Prince and Grand Admiral of France and the Grand Duke of Berg. Famous for his daring cavalry charges and for his flamboyant dress sense involving as many buttons, gold tassels, medals and feathers as can be crammed onto a uniform, Murat fought in approximately 200 battles and looked great doing it.

In her memoirs, Caroline Murat, daughter of Joachim’s second son Prince Napoleon Lucien Charles Murat, described her grandfather’s dashing style of dress and fearlessness in combat.

His form was tall, his tread like that of a king, his face strikingly noble, while his piercing glance few men could bear. He had heavy black whiskers and long black locks, which contrasted singularly with his fiery blue eyes. He usually wore a three-cornered hat, with a magnificent white plume of ostrich feathers. […]

My grandfather’s dazzling exterior made him a mark for the enemy’s bullets. The wonder is that, being so conspicuous, he was never shot down and was rarely wounded. At one battle a bullet grazed his cheek. Like lightning his sword punished the offender by carrying away two of his fingers. I have read that at the battle of Aboukir he charged with his cavalry straight through the Turkish ranks, driving column after column into the sea.

Murat’s ascent was too inextricably tied to Napoleon’s to survive his mentor’s fall. In the attempt to preserve his throne, he went so far as to enter into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813, but his Austrian allies turned out to be fair-weather friends at best, and when he realized they planned to remove him from the throne during the Hundred Days, he declared himself in favor of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated and fled, first attempting to get his old job back but Napoleon wouldn’t even see him, a choice the emperor would come to regret bitterly. (On St. Helena he said: “at Waterloo Murat might have given us the victory. For what did we need? To break three or four English squares. Murat was just the man for the job.”) After Napoleon’s rejection, Murat went to Corsica and mustered up 250 or so men with whom he planned to reconquer the throne of Naples from the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand IV.

This was not a well conceived plan, needless to say. His three ships were scattered in a storm. The one carrying him and 26 men was blown off course and landed in the southern Italian town of Pizzo, Calabria, near the toe of the boot, where he was promptly captured by Bourbon forces. Napoleon noted dryly that “Murat has tried to reconquer with 200 men the territory he was unable to hold when he had 80,000 of them.” Ferdinand ordered a show trial — the judges were appointed on the same day the order for his execution was sent by telegraph — and on October 13th, 1815, Joachim Murat was convicted of insurrection and sentenced to death by firing squad.

He died how he lived — well dressed, vain and fearless. His last request was for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children. He refused the offer of a stool to sit on and a blindfold and stood unblinking before the fusiliers, dressed to the nines and smelling terrific. The phrasing has come down in several versions, but his last words to his executioners were so epic people are still quoting them without realizing that they’re quoting anyone: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

His old friend and administrator of his duchy Jean-Michel Agar, the Count of Mosburg, eulogized him poetically: “He knew how to win. He knew how to rule. He knew how to die.” Napoleon’s final assessment was a tad harsher: “In battle he was perhaps the bravest man in the world; left to himself, he was an imbecile without judgment.”

Murat’s remains are thought to have been interred in a mass grave underneath Pizzo’s Church of St. George, but there were rumors that they had been spirited away to France. There’s a memorial grave for Joachim Murat and his family in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1899, his granddaughter Countess Letizia Rasponi Murat tried to find his remains in the St. George crypt so they could rebury them with dignity in the Certosa di Bologna cemetery. They were not successful. In 1976, the crypt was exposed during repairs to the church floor. Photographs were taken through a foot-wide hole in the trap door but all they captured was the basement full of bones and humus. Determining which parts belonged to Murat would seem a fool’s errand.

In April of 2007, Professor Pino Pagnotta, president of the Joachim Murat Association, got a hold of the pictures from the 70s and studied them closely. He had them enlarged and enhanced and was able to see more than 1976 photographic technology had allowed. He spied a broken casket made of a plain wood with a cord entwined in the boards. This matches contemporary eye-witness accounts like the one of Antonino Condoleo, a youth of 15 in 1815, who assisted in the burial of Joachim Murat. Condoleo describes a mishap on the way to the church when the plain fir casket containing Murat’s body was dropped and broken. They hastily tied the casket back together with a long cord and got it to St. George’s church where it was dumped unceremoniously in the crypt.

The discovery made news at the time and the Joachim Murat Association advocated strenuously that the remains in and/or around the broken coffin be DNA tested. Eight years later, they’ve finally gotten all the various authorities clerical and secular to sign on to the project. (I suspect Richard III was not far from their minds. Pizzo’s main tourist draw is the 15th century castle built by Frederick I of Aragon in which Murat was tried and executed. The castle was renamed after him and now receives thousands of visitors a year.)

In May, the heavy marble slab sealing the basement will be moved and biologist Sergio Romano will be lowered into the crypt where he will take pictures and samples from the broken casket. If DNA can be extracted from the samples — a very big if — it can be tested against Murat’s many descendants, among then his three times great-grandson actor René Auberjonois, aka the shapeshifter Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, whose late mother was Princess Laure Louise Napoléone Eugénie Caroline Murat.

19 thoughts on “Possible remains of Napoleonic king of Naples to be DNA tested

  1. Thanks for yet another fascinating and educational post.

    Sounds like Murat was what might be called a “drag KING” — a humble innkeeper’s son, he re-invented himself by creating a larger-than-life image out of some outrageous garb until he actually managed to become that character.

    It might be interesting if future analysis can determine what clothing he was buried in …

    1. I think the drag king concept could well apply, although his flamboyant persona was also grounded in his genuine affinity for the military. His parents wanted him to be a clergyman. He rebelled against that from a very young age to join the Guards. If you look at portraits of military leaders from the era, they are very elaborately attired and accessorized. Napoleon was the only plain one in the bunch. I wonder if the cavalryman came first and the dandy later or vice-versa. He could also have been drawn to the whole package from day one. I wish he had lived long enough to write a memoir.

  2. According to Alexandre Dumas who made a pilgrimage to Pizzo 20 years after Murat’s death, the former king didn’t foresee his demise upon capture. In addition to the perfumed bath mentioned in this interesting article, he ordered 2 new suits from a tailor who came to his cell from the nearby town of Monteleone (now Vibo Valentia). The castle is worth a visit and the gelato in this Calabrian town on the Tyrrhenian Sea is outstanding. Pizzo’s specialty is the “tartuffo,” a ball of chocolate and hazelnut gelato filled with a liqueur-infused fudge sauce and coated with cocoa powder. It wouldn’t have been part of Murat’s last meal, though, as it hadn’t yet been invented. (There’s a chapter on Pizzo in my book, CALABRIA: THE OTHER ITALY by Karen Haid.)

  3. Thank you for the extra info!

    A Google image search reveals that ‘His Mura-jesty’ not only knew how to work his military drag, he also apparently enjoyed capturing it in the 19th century equivalent of selfies: each link below is a different grand, heroic, splashily-dressed portrait!







    Based on this miniature, even his ‘civvies’ were extravagant:


    Here, extravagance gave way to outright absurdity:


    He seems to have toned things down after becoming King:


    My brief search turned up no portraits of him wearing a crown so he DID have some limits …

    What a remarkable man, and I’d never have heard of him had it not been for your blog. Thanks!

    1. He does seem to have eschewed the crown, perhaps because his ostrich plume hat had become such a signature accessory for him by then. One of the portraits you found — this guy — is his royal portrait as King of Naples and he definitely hadn’t toned it down at that point. There is a crown on the stool next to him, note, but his hat is in his hand. He gets major points from me for rocking the ermine and blue velvet cape with gold and scarlet checkerboard border like nobody’s business. :notworthy:

  4. What a fascinating story! A colourful character indeed. It’s impossible to think of something further from Odo 😆

    I hope they’ll be able to find something with those tests. Did he have sisters who had daughters? In case there’s only mitochondrial DNA left.

    The story of Richard III’s reburial will probably inspire quite a few places to try and research the ‘maybe’ graves of former kings, rebels and heroes. Find him and they will come 😉

    1. Just from a quick glance at the four/five generations from Murat to the present, I think there may well be descendants down the female line. He and Caroline had two daughters who married and had children, and at least one of them had a daughter of her own. It’s such a relatively short time in genealogical terms, there is reason for optimism.

  5. Glad I could contribute in my own small way. I was pleased to come across your post with the Calabria connection. I have to admit, I only read the Calabrian section of Dumas’ Captain Arena, 1842 (Le Capitaine Arena – recounting travels from 1835), but I found it quite enjoyable. I came across it in an Italian translation by a Calabrian publisher. He was quite the adventurer – colorful descriptions, particularly his earthquake experience in Cosenza.

    1. Nobody writes adventure like Dumas. I’m glad to know the same applies to his own adventures. I haven’t been able to find Captain Arena online, much to my disappointment. I’ve become so accustomed to being able to find pretty much anything old enough to have reverted to public domain on Archive.org, Google Books or Project Gutenberg that it’s a shock when I can’t find something. I did find a fabulous account of Murat’s death from the chapter dedicated to him in Dumas’ Celebrated Crimes. I’ll have to snag a hard copy of Captain Arena. It sounds very much worthwhile.

      Speaking of worthwhile, I’ve been dreaming of Pizzo’s famous tartufo since you mentioned it. My mother and I used to treat ourselves to the tartufo at the Tre Scalini restaurant at Piazza Navona in Rome every summer. I don’t think the Roman version had hazelnut ice cream in it, though, just layers upon layers of a dozen different kinds of chocolate. So delicious.

  6. This is a truly fascinating article of Kings and warriors bygone.. Figures such as Murat have shaped the world we live in, and forma great importance to society. its excellent that they are checking DNA and giving a closure to such an important figure.

    one question.. purely down to ignorance on my part.. is Murat a Turkish name?

    1. Murat is certainly a name in Turkey, both first and family name, but the Murat last name is also a French one since at least the Middle Ages. There’s a very old aristocratic family — no relation to Joachim — called Murat d’Auvergne after the town of Murat in Auvergne that was part of their feudal fiefdom. It would be interesting to know the etymologies of the names in Turkish and French to find out if there’s any overlap between them. They could have grown entirely independent each of other, of course, or perhaps a French Murant married into a Turkish family or vice-versa.

  7. People with the right electronic equipment easily get to know that ‘Murat’ is a French tributary headstream river to the Loire, as a Turkish one to the Euphrates. Referring to the Turkish first name, it means ‘desire’ in Arabic.

    However, fiery ‘BLUE’ eyes don’t really seem reflected in those paintings, and was that ‘French innkeeper’s son’ really BORN as ‘Joachim’ or ‘Gioacchino’ ? Did they possibly call him ‘Joachim’ in French-occupied Dusseldorf ?

    To conclude, ‘Murat against the Turks’ sounds at least remarkable.

  8. Thanks for the link to Celebrated Crimes. From what I remember of the Pizzo chapter from the Calabria portion of Captain Arena, the accounts are similar. It was a library book, but I recall Dumas telling the story from his point of view, getting the facts from an eye-witness, and mentioning that he himself carried Murat’s farewell letter to his wife 20 years later.

    By the way, Pizzo calls itself the città del gelato.

  9. Fascinating. I just wrote a book on the death of Murat. Glad to see so many people interested in this incredible figure.He really was brave, foolish and ill-fated.

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