A PAIR of tiny silk and leather slippers, hidden in the vast collection of one of Scotland’s oldest universities for 140 years, have finally been discovered to have been worn by one of the most famous women in the history of France.
• Princess Pauline Borghese was famed for her beauty, but her life was beset by scandal
• The tiny shoes are equivalent to a UK children’s size two
It was revealed today that the small pair of embroidered shoes, which had languished un-noticed in the collections of Aberdeen University, once belonged to Princess Pauline Borghese, the favourite sister of Napoleon and the only member of his family to visit the Emperor during his exile on the island of Elba.
The promiscuous Princess, famed for her beauty, was married to one of Napoleon’s leading army commanders, Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, and, following his death, became the wife of Prince Camillo Borghese, one of the richest men in Italy.
She had a string of lovers and scandalised French society when she commissioned two sculptures of herself from Florentine artist Canova, apparently posing in the nude for the famous sculptor.
The connection between the tiny shoes and the colourful Princess was finally uncovered by the dedicated detective work of Louise Wilkie, a curatorial assistant who only joined the staff of the university’s museum last June.
As one of her first major assignments Ms Wilkie was given the task of cleaning and sorting through a collection belonging to Robert Wilson, a Banff-born medical graduate and extensive traveller who died in 1871.
The decorative shoes, which are equivalent to a UK children’s size two and incredibly narrow, measuring just 40mm across the toes, captured her attention. They had been found within a chest, packed with clothes, and were simply marked on the sole “Pauline Rome.”
Ms Wilkie explained today that she had decided to investigate further. She said: “Robert Wilson left his collection of objects from his extensive travels to the museum in his will in 1871. In a list of the objects donated by Wilson is the description of ‘A pair of slippers – Pauline, Rome Jan 20th 1824’. The same inscription is on the base of the slipper.
“I began to look at other archival material held by the university and found that Wilson had a friendship with Princess Pauline Borghese, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte.
“Letters from him to Pauline show a close friendship and in his diary he describes how she spent a lot of time with him travelling in Italy and gave him many gifts, including a ring which is also held in the museum collections.”
A university spokeswoman explained: “The delicate dimensions of the slippers also fit with descriptions of Princess Pauline, who was said to have been an exquisitely beautiful but very petite woman, who was often carried from room to room.
“She was a colourful character - the youngest sister of Napoleon who became Princess Pauline when she married Prince Camillo Borghese in 1803. This marriage was not a happy one, due to Pauline’s infidelity and much of her life was riddled with scandal.
“She met Wilson, who graduated in Medicine from Marischal College and served as a ship’s surgeon with the East India Company, in the 1920s. With wealth secured through profitable trading while in the Company’s service and a driving curiosity, Wilson had become a prolific traveller.”
Ms Wilkie said: “The relationship between Wilson and Princess Pauline can only be speculated upon, however records do indicate some form of attraction and attachment.
“In his diary he wrote ‘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.’ It seems she spent a great deal of time with him in Italy and a close friendship developed. He kept the gifts she had given him for life and then they passed to the university collections.”
She added: “It is amazing to think the slippers have been here all this time but their significance was never fully realised. I was delighted to make a discovery of this kind, especially so early into my work in museums.”
Princess Pauline’s slippers and the ring she gifted to Wilson are now on display for the first time at Aberdeen University’s King’s Museum as part of a display of 100 Curiosities.
Neil Curtis, head of museums at the university, said: “The university holds huge collections and many of the items given to us over the years do not have full descriptions. It was a great piece of detective work from Louise to piece together the fascinating history behind the slippers.
“We are delighted that these significant objects are now on display and can be enjoyed by the public for the first time.”