Joseph Fesch bigraphy, stories - Catholic cardinal

Joseph Fesch : biography

January 3, 1763 - May 13, 1839

Joseph Fesch (January 3, 1763 – May 13, 1839) was a French cardinal, closely associated with the family of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was also one of the most famous art collectors of his period.

Paintings owned by Fesch

The Fesch collection included almost 16,000 paintings (not all at the same time). The core was Italian works of the Renaissance to the 18th century, but Fesch also had a number of Dutch Golden Age paintings and contemporary French works, as well as a number of classical sculptures. Fesch was a fairly early collector of Quattrocento paintings, or "Italian Primitives". The Musée Fesch, Ajaccio contains much of Fesch's collection, including works by Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Titian and others. Another part, including the works considered most important, was sold by auction in 1845. Paintings not in Lyons or Ajaccio include:

  • The Entombment (Michelangelo), National Gallery, London
  • St. Jerome in the Wilderness, Leonardo da Vinci, Vatican Museums
  • Adoration of the Shepherds (Giorgione), NGA, Washington, who also have a Nativity by Perino del Vaga, Saint Martin Dividing His Cloak by Jan Boeckhorst and The Larder by Antonio Maria Vassallo.
  • Mond Crucifixion, Raphael, National Gallery, London
  • Portrait of a Seated Woman with a Handkerchief, now attributed to Carel Fabritius rather than Rembrandt, Art Gallery of Ontario, Totonto.
  • Adoration of the Magi, Bramantino, National Gallery, London, who have other works including a Philippe de Champaigne Vision of St Joseph, a Vincenzo Foppa & a Botticelli.
  • Last Judgement Fra Angelico, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
  • The Broken Mirror, Greuze, Wallace Collection, London, who have another Greuze, an Anthony van Dyck Virgin and Child, a Philippe de Champaigne Annunciation, and a Hobbema.
  • Hunting in the Lagoon, Vittore Carpaccio, Getty Museum, originally part of the same composition as his Two Venetian Ladies
  • Saints George and Dominic, side panels from an altarpiece, Carlo Crivelli, Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Lamentation of Christ, Scipione Pulzone, MMA



Cardinal Joseph Fesch. Fesch was born at Ajaccio in Corsica. His father, a Swiss officer in the service of the Genoese Republic, had married the mother of Laetitia Bonaparte, after the death of her first husband. Fesch therefore fulfilled the role of an uncle to the young Bonapartes, and after the 1791 death of Luciano Buonaparte, archdeacon of Ajaccio, he became for a time the protector and patron of the family. In 1789, when the French Revolution broke out, he was archdeacon of Ajaccio, and, like the majority of the Corsicans, he felt repugnance for many of the acts of the French government during that period; in particular he protested against the application to Corsica of the act known as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790). As provost of the "chapter" in that city he directly felt the pressure of events; for on the suppression of religious orders and corporations, he was constrained to retire into private life. Thereafter he shared the fortunes of the Napoleon Bonaparte family in the intrigues and strifes which ensued. Drawn gradually into espousing the French cause against Pasquale Paoli and the Anglophiles, he was forced to leave Corsica and to proceed with Laetitia and her son to Toulon, in early autumn, 1793. Failing to find clerical duties at that time (the Reign of Terror), he took several posts in civil life, until on the appointment of Napoleon Bonaparte to the command of the French "Army of Italy" he became a commissary attached to that army. This part of his career is obscure, but his fortunes rose rapidly when Napoleon became First Consul, after the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (November 1799). When the restoration of the Roman Catholic religion was in the mind of the First Consul, Fesch resumed his clerical vocation and took an active part in the complex negotiations which led to the signing of the Concordat with the Holy See on July 15, 1801. His reward came in being made Archbishop of Lyon in August 1802. Six months later he received a further reward for his past services, being raised to the dignity of cardinal.

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