Prince Joseph Poniatowski

Photo by Nadar
  • Born: Rome, Italy, 21 February 1816
  • Died: Chislehurst, UK, 4 July 1873

Grand-nephew of the last king of Poland, Prince Joseph (Józef Michał) Poniatowski (1814/16?–73) was in fact Italian.

His father, General Stanisław Poniatowski, moved to Italy after the abdication of his grandfather the king Stanisław August II and the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation. In Rome, the General fell in love with Cassandra Luci, an already married noblewoman, and had five children out of wedlock by her; Joseph was born in Rome in 1816. The General tried to obtain annulment of Luci’s marriage from the Catholic Church; the children were legitimised in 1822/23, when the family moved to Tuscany.

Joseph Poniatowski showed musical talent from an early age; he was taught the rudiments by a priest, Candido Zanetti, and performed piano variations in public concerts at the age of eight. In Florence, the boy studied singing and composition with Ferdinando Ceccherini (or Cevecchini).

As a young man, Poniatowski composed seven operas, some with great success. According to Golianek, Poniatowski “consciously followed the path marked out by Rossini, adopting his model of opera and his musico-dramatical solutions, but he also made abundant use of the ideas of other contemporary masters like Bellini, Donizetti, and also early Verdi”.

Poniatowski’s first opera, Giovanni da Procida, was privately performed in Florence in 1838, with the composer singing the title role; it was publicly performed in Lucca in 1840. His most successful early work was the opera buffa Don Desiderio (Pisa, 1840); it was staged in Venice, Bologna, Livorno, Milan, Rome, Naples, and Palermo, and given successfully in Paris in 1858 and 1867. Rossini congratulated the young man on his work: “I see you have studied the great masters seriously; Cimarosa would be pleased”; while Michele Carafa thought there was sunshine in the music. Poniatowski was also one of the first to bring Beethoven’s music to Italy; he conducted the symphonies in Florence.

When the French monarchy fell in 1848, the grand-duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, appointed Poniatowski diplomat (ministro plenipotenziario) to France, Belgium, and England, stationed in Paris. He also gave him the title of Conte (later Principe) di Monte Rotondo.

In 1854, Poniatowski became a French citizen, and soon a senator, mostly concerned (according to Golianek) with the financial situation of musicians, instruction at the Paris Conservatoire, and the functioning of museums, including the Louvre. He became a close friend of Napoleon III; his son married the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate half-brother of Napoleon. (See the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing?) He served as a diplomat for France; Napoleon sent him on a mission to China and Japan in 1862/3.

While in Paris, Poniatowski composed Pierre de Médicis (1860), a grand opera; two opéras-comiques, A travers le mur (1861) and L’Aventurier (1865); a mass in F major (1866); and La Contessina (1868) for the Théâtre-Italien. He chaired the Parisian Cercle de l’Union artistique, and was a member of the Academy of the Royal Institute of Music in Florence. He was also (with Verdi, Wagner, and Gounod) a candidate to compose Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal. After the fall of the Second Empire, Poniatowski accompanied Napoleon III into exile in London in 1871. To recoup his lost financial resources, he taught singing, and composed a three-act opera (Gelmina, 1872) for Covent Garden. He also intended a conducting tour of the United States, but died shortly before he was due to leave.


  1. Giovanni da Procida (Lucca, 1840)
  2. Don Desiderio (Pisa, 1840)
  3. Ruy Blas (Lucca, 1843)
  4. Bonifazio de’ Geremei (Rome, 1843)
  5. La sposa d’Abido (Venice, 1846)
  6. Malek Adhel (Genoa, 1846)
  7. Esmeralda (Florence, 1847)
  8. Pierre de Médicis (Paris, 1860) ****
  9. Au travers du mur (Paris, 1861)
  10. L’Aventurier (Paris, 1865)
  11. La contessina (Paris, 1868)
  12. Gelmina (London, 1872)


  • Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
  • Ryszard Daniel Golianek, “Politics, Music and Cosmopolitanism: The Operatic Output of Joseph Poniatowski (1816–1873) in its Social and Political Contexts”, Studia Musicologica Vol. 52, No. 1/4, December 2011