As Princess of Lucca and Piombino, then Grand Duchess of Tuscany, she became Napoleon's only sister to possess political power. Their relations were sometimes strained due to her sharp tongue. Highly interested in the arts, particularly the theatre, she encouraged them in the territories over which she ruled.
Élisa was born in Ajaccio, Corsica. She was christened Maria-Anna, but later officially adopted the nickname "Élisa" (her brother Lucien, to whom she was very close in childhood, nicknamed her Elisa). In June 1784, a bursary allowed her to attend the Maison royale de Saint-Louis at Saint-Cyr, where she was frequently visited by her brother Napoleon. Following the French Revolution, the Legislative Assembly decreed the Maison's closure on 16 August 1792 as it shut down institutions associated with the aristocracy. Élisa left on 1 September with Napoleon to return to Ajaccio.
Around 1795, the Bonaparte family relocated to Marseille. There Élisa got to know Felice Pasquale Baciocchi (who later adopted the surname Levoy). A Corsican nobleman and formerly a captain in the Royal Corse, he had been dismissed from his rank with the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Élisa married Levoy in a civil ceremony in Marseille on 1 August 1797, followed by a religious ceremony in Mombello, where Napoleon had a villa. He had moved there with his family in June 1797. Concerned about Baciocchi's reputation as a poor captain, Napoleon had some initial reservations about his sister's choice of spouse. Their religious ceremony was held on the same day as her sister Pauline's marriage to general Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc.
In July, Baciocchi was promoted to Chef de bataillon, with the command of the citadel at Ajaccio. In 1799, the extended Bonaparte family moved to Paris. Élisa set up home at 125 rue de Miromesnil, in the Quartier du Roule, where she held receptions and put on plays.
During the rise of the Consulate, she and her brother Lucien held an artistic and literary salon at the Hôtel de Brissac, at which she met the journalist Louis de Fontanes, with whom she had a deep friendship for several years. On 14 May 1800, on the death of Lucien's first wife, Christine Boyer, Élisa took Lucien's two daughters under her protection. She placed Charlotte, the eldest, in Madame Campan's boarding school for young women at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
At the start of November 1800, Lucien was reassigned from his job as Minister of the Interior to Madrid as French ambassador to the court of the King of Spain. He took Élisa's husband, Félix Baciocchi, as his secretary. Élisa remained in Paris, but maintained a regular correspondence with her brother.
On 18 May 1804, the French Senate voted in favour of setting up the First French Empire, and Élisa and Napoleon's other sisters were established as members of the Imperial family, both taking the style "Imperial Highness" ("Altesse impériale"). Felice Baciocchi was promoted to général de brigade and later made a senator.
Her separation from her husband in 1805 was seen favorably by Napoleon (though he soon rejoined her after her promotion to Lucca). On 19 March 1805, Napoleon awarded her the Principality of Piombino, which had been French property for some years and was of major strategic interest to Napoleon due to its proximity to Elba and Corsica. Felice and Élisa took the titles Prince and Princess of Piombino. In June 1805, the oligarchic Republic of Lucca, which had been occupied by France since late 1799, was made a principality and added to Felice and Élisa's domain, their entry into Lucca and investiture ceremony following on 14 July 1805.
Napoleon had contemptously called Lucca the "dwarf republic", due to its small size in terms of territory, but despite this it was a bulwark of political, religious, and commercial independence. Most of the power over Lucca and Piombino was exercised by Élisa, with Félix taking only a minor role and contenting himself with making military decisions. The inhabitants of Lucca, under French occupation and begrudging the loss of their independence, knew Élisa ironically as "la Madame" and had little sympathy for Napoleon, Élisa, or their attempts to "Frenchify" the republic.
Very active and concerned with administering the area, Élisa was surrounded at Lucca by ministers who largely remained in place right to the end of her reign. These ministers included her Minister of Justice, Luigi Matteucci, her Minister of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, Francesco Belluomini (replaced in October 1807 by his son Giuseppe), her finance ministers, Jean-Baptiste Froussard (head of the cabinet) and, later, Pierre d'Hautmesnil (with the budget portfolio). She also set up a court and court etiquette inspired by those at the Tuileries.
On 31 March 1806 Napoleon withdrew Massa and Carrara from the Kingdom of Italy to add to Élisa's possessions. Carrara was one of the biggest white marble suppliers in Europe and Élisa bolstered her prestige by establishing an Académie des Beaux-Arts, designed to host the greatest sculptors and thus make Carrara an exporter of marble statues, which had a greater value than the raw marble. She also set up the Banque Élisienne to give financial aid to sculptors and workers on marble taxes. She reformed the clergy at Lucca and Piombino from May 1806, during which reforms she nationalised their goods and lands and closed down convents which did not also function as hotels or schools. She also carried out legislative reform in Lucca, producing laws inspired by the Code Napoleon (such as the notable "Codice rurale del Principato di Piombino", issued on 24 March 1808) and producing a new penal code which was promulgated in 1807 and first reformed in 1810.
In 1807 she set up the Committee of Public Charity for distributing charity funds, made up of clergy and lay-people, and also instituted free medical consultations for the poor so as to eradicate the diseases then ravaging Lucca's population. She demolished Piombino's hospital to build a new one in the former monastery of Sant' Anastasia, with the new building opening in 1810, and also set up the Casa Sanitaria, a dispensary in the town's port. On 5 May 1807, decreed the established of the "Committee for the Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts and Commerce" to encourage and finance the invention of new machines and new techniques to increase the territories' agricultural production and experimental plantations such as those of mulberries at Massa, where an École Normale de la Soie (Silk School) was created on 16 August 1808.
Élisa also set up many teaching establishments in Lucca and, in 1809, a "Direction Générale de l'Instruction Publique" (General Department of Public Education). On 1 December 1807 she set up the "Collège Félix", the only boys' secondary school in the principality. For girls, she began by fixing set curricula for convents that also operated as schools, then set up a body of "dames d'inspection" to verify that these curricula were being adhered to. Teaching of girls aged 5 to 8 was made compulsory, though the laws were not always well applied. On 2 July 1807, Élisa founded the "Institut Élisa" within the limits of a former convent for noble-born girls, to produce well-educated and cultivated future wives. On 29 July 1812, Élisa set up an establishment for young poor girls, the "Congregazione San Felice", though this did not long outlive Élisa's fall.
As with Napoleon, Élisa set up city improvement works in her territories, mainly to expand the princely palaces. These works were hotly contested, especially in Lucca, where the expansion of the princely palaces necessitated the demolition of the Church of San Pietro in March 1807. She also razed an entire block in Lucca to build a piazza in the French style in front of her city residence (now the seat of the province and the prefecture). That block had included the Church of San Paolo with the venerated image of the Madonna dei miracoli and so its demolition seriously affected the city's medieval architecture and almost sparked a revolt.
At Massa, she demolished a cathedral on 30 April 1807. The palace at Lucca was fully redecorated and the gardens improved, with the creation of a botanical garden with a menagerie and aviary in 1811. She also began road construction, notably the "route Friedland" to link Massa and Carrara, with work beginning on 15 August 1807 but becoming delayed and only completed in 1820. Lucca's status as a spa town was also bolstered by her improvement of the architecture and decor of the town's baths. She began construction of an aqueduct into Lucca in 1811, but this too was only completed after her fall.
On 21 March 1801, Lucien Bonaparte and the King of Spain signed the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso, which restored Louisiana to France and in exchange established the Kingdom of Etruria by dividing Tuscany. The new kingdom was initially put in the charge of the infante Maria Louisa and her husband, Louis of Etruria, but he soon proved to be a poor ruler and deceased soon after in 1803. Thus, on 29 October 1807, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau with the Spanish court. This transferred Tuscany to France, and, in November of that year, Marie-Louise left the kingdom. From 12 May 1808, Tuscany was entrusted to an intermediary governor, Abdallah Jacques Menou, a French soldier who had converted to Islam during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, but his way of life and lack of interest in the territory's affairs forced Napoleon to recall him on 5 April 1809. Élisa wished to become Governess of Tuscany in 1808, but she contracted an illness late in the year that prevented her from taking part in state affairs. She recovered in February 1809. A decree was officially created between the second and third of March that year which established the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, made Florence its capital and Élisa its grand duchess. However, the terms of the decree required Élisa to enforce the decisions of Napoleon and his ministers and denied her the power to modify any of these decisions. This was a significant difference compared to the relative autonomy Élisa enjoyed in Lucca and Piombino. The decree also promoted Félix to the rank of général de division.
On 2 April 1809, Élisa arrived in Florence, where she was coldly received by the nobility. Her arrival coincided with a revolt against compulsory conscription that ended after a mayor and a judge were assassinated. The conscription and many new taxes imposed on Tuscany by Napoleon were sources of conflicts in the region. As at Lucca, Élisa tried to nationalise the goods of the clergy and closed many convents.
She continued her patronage of arts and science. In 1809, she commissioned the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini to create busts of her immediate family. The first two volumes of the "Annali del Museo Imperiale di Fisica e Storia Naturale" of Florence were dedicated to her, in 1808 and 1809. The observatory at that museum of physics and natural history was the ancestor of Florence's present-day Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri.
Élisa later became unwillingly involved in Napoleon's removal of Pope Pius VII. Pius opposed the Empire's annexation of the Papal States, and he refused to renounce his temporal powers. Pius then excommunicated Napoleon in the bull Quum memoranda on 10 June 1809. In response to this intransigence, Napoleon selected a general, Étienne Radet, to remove the pope and eliminate a figure that could rally opposition against the Empire and his regime. The removal occurred on the night of 6 July 1809, and in the pope traveled toward Savona in the days following his ouster. The pope passed by Florence where Élisa did not welcome him in person and also asked Pius to leave the region soon as possible, so as not to displease her brother by being seen as welcoming his enemy.
Élisa's relations with Napoleon became increasingly strained. Napoleon frequently recalled Élisa for any irregularity in her execution of his orders in Tuscany. On 17 March 1810, Élisa arrived in Paris for Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria, but Napoleon took advantage of her visit to reclaim the payments from his grants of Massa and Carrara. When Élisa returned to Tuscany, she found Napoleon still sought to claim payment of these grants via his envoys. Élisa refused to pay a second time, arguing that the territories had too few resources to pay Napoleon's demanded 200,000 lira. Napoleon threatened to seize Carrara from Élisa and also demanded Lucca raise men by conscription. Lucca was previously spared this burden prior to May 1811, and Napoleon's demands eroded Élisa support in Lucca. Élisa returned to Lucca from Florence and restored the villa now known as the Villa Reale di Marlia, despite the cold reception of the local community.
In 1813, with Napoleon facing the allied coalition after his Russian campaign, Caroline Bonaparte's husband Joachim Murat, King of Naples, abandoned his brother-in-law and joined the Austrian cause by leading the Neapolitan to Rome. Élisa was forced to abdicate as Grand Duchess of Tuscany in favor of Grand Duke Ferdinand III's restoration and leave Tuscany for Lucca. The Neapolitans captured Massa and Carrara in March. An Anglo-Austrian force under Lord William Bentinck captured Lucca soon after, forcing the pregnant Élisa to flee on the night of 13 March 1814. Élisa made several short stays in Italy and France, notably seeking support in Marseille to return to Italy as a private individual. The former duchess' requests were denied, but she was able to stay in Austria for a time thanks to the efforts of her brother, Jérôme Bonaparte, before moving to the Villa Caprara in Trieste.
Napoleon was exiled to Elba on 1 March 1815, (??) and Élisa was arrested on 25 March (??) and interned in the Austrian fortress of Brünn. She was freed at the end of August and authorized to stay in Trieste with the title of Countess of Compignano. Élisa acquired a country house at Villa Vicentina near Cervignano after her release and financed several archaeological digs in the region. She contracted a fatal illness in June 1820, probably at an excavation site, and died on 7 August at the age of 43. Élisa became the only adult sibling of Napoleon Bonaparte not to survive the emperor. She was buried in the San Petronio Basilica of Bologna.
She married Felice Pasquale Baciocchi Levoy, a member of Corsican nobility, on 1 May 1797, created Prince Français, Duke of Lucca and Prince of Piombino and Prince of Massa-Carrara and La Garfagnana. They were parents of four children:Felix Napoléon Baciocchi Levoy (1798–1799).
Elisa Napoléone Baciocchi Levoy (1806–1869); married Philippe, Comte Camerata-Passioneï de Mazzoleni (1805–1882), and had one son:
Charles Félix Jean-Baptiste Camerata-Passionei di Mazzoleni (1826–1853)
Jérôme Charles Baciocchi Levoy (1810–1811).
Frédéric Napoléon Baciocchi Levoy (1814–1833).