Two years ago while looking through a chest full of clothes that had once belonged to Robert Wilson (1787-1871) I discovered a pair of small delicate slippers which appeared out of place amongst the male travelling clothes. Robert Wilson was an alumnus of the University who travelled extensively, initially as a ship’s surgeon but afterwards on his new-found fortune. He collected considerably whilst he travelled and bequeathed his collection to the University in 1871. The slippers had ‘Pauline, Rome’ written on the sole which intrigued me, so I researched Robert Wilson’s diaries and catalogues and discovered that he had known Princess Pauline Borghese who lived in Rome. Pauline was the favourite sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and the only member of his family to visit him during his exile on the island of Elba. She was famous for her beauty, but also for her string of lovers and so developed a reputation for ‘Bacchanalian promiscuity’. She married Prince Camillo Borghese of Italy, one of the richest men in Italy at the time.
Letters from Wilson and Pauline show a close friendship and that they had travelled together in Italy. It also transpired that Pauline had also given Wilson a gold ring containing a lock of her brother’s hair, which is also in our collections. It is amazing to think the slippers have been in the collections for over 140 years and that their significance had been forgotten. This just shows how important it is to continue to research the collections as you never know what you will uncover!