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Keeping Up With the Joans
If you think you understand what was happening in southern Italy between the coming of the Angevin dynasty in 1200s and its departure in the 1400s, then you have not been paying attention. And even if you have, it really won’t help much. It was a complicated time. (Maybe this short version will help.)
I am wondering about a book called Queen of Night, by Alan Savage. I haven’t read the book, but I have read a plot description that includes this passage:
Queen Joanna I of Naples was the most beautiful and accomplished woman of her times. She is also remembered as a cold-blooded murderess and woman of the most questionable morals. Queen of Night is her story…[one of an]…astonishing range of intrigue, romance, warfare, rape, betrayal and sheer adventure…Queen of Night is an enthralling account of a truly remarkable woman…
I am tempted to think that the author, like many—including Neapolitans—has fused Joanna I and Joanna II into a single woman—beautiful, accomplished, cold-blooded, and immoral— kind of like Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, or, for the younger generation, the queen beast in Alien Resurrection.
To set the record straight (primarily to get poor Joanna I off the hook) here is the chronology of the Angevin dynasty in Naples:
The nitty-gritty on the two Joans:
Joanna I 1343-1382
Joanna II 1414-1435
Joanna I became sovereign of Naples in succession to her grandfather King Robert in 1343. She has no record of immoral intrigue. (OK, some say she had a hand in the murder of her first husband, but it was the 14th century—that’s a parking ticket.) She was put to death by Charles, duke of Durazzo, who regarded himself as the legitimate king of Naples. It is this woman who fits the description of “accomplished,” at least intellectually. She kept the company of the poets and scholars of her time, including Petrarch and Boccaccio.
Joanna II, on the other tentacle, is the preying mantis man-eating queen that Neapolitans still speak of when they point out this or that building and whisper, “That’s where Joanna murdered her men after making love to them.” These sites “include but are not restricted to” (to hedge my bet with some legalese) the Villa Donn’Anna at the beginning of the Posillipo coast; the no-longer extant Villa of Poggioreale; a ruined mystery villa on a chunk of rock at water’s edge in Sorrento; and the alligator-infested sub-dungeon of the Maschio Angioino (the Angevin Fortress) at the main port of Naples. Such tales are usually replete with hidden torture chambers and may include 100% un-verifiable episodes of sex with horses. This Joanna came to the throne at the age of 45 after a dissolute life. She brought with her a young lover and went through a series of others in a period that is one of the most confusing in the confusing history of Naples. The traditional view is that she was not a particularly astute woman, and that her reign was one long scandal, one which ran through even the reign of her immediate successor and did not end until the entire Angevin dynasty was replaced by the Aragonese.
Recently, historians have tended, however, to give Joanna II the benefit of the doubt. Anecdotal accounts of her personal vices are less the focus of interest than is the fact the Naples in the 1300s and early 1400s was pretty much ungovernable, especially by a woman—any woman; "Femines non sunt ut homines viriles" (“Women are not as virile as men,” said the Florentine Doppo degli Spini when asked about Giovanna, thus converting what is biologically delightful into would-be profundity about ability to govern.) She did surround herself with a lot of men, but almost all of them were potential power brokers. These, again, included but were not restricted to William of Austria, Padofello Alopo, James II of Bourbon, Sergianni Caracciolo, and Munzio Forzo, some of whom she married, some of whom she adopted and some of whom she just made love to. The Angevins had taken a risk in the mid-1200s by moving the capital of the kingdom from Palermo to Naples. True, a capital in southern Italy—once removed from Sicily—was no longer as exposed to the potential flanking pincer moves of Islam in Spain and in the Balkans; it was also closer to the dynastic homeland, France; but it was also closer to the centers of northern European military and diplomatic intrigue. Giovanna may have been doing what she thought needed to be done to stabilize her kingdom.
So, judge as you will, but at least keep them straight.
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