| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
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main index © Jeff Matthews entry July 2003
John Francis Edward Acton
If you read a little about Naples—or just walk around it a bit—sooner or later you come across the name "Acton". Indeed, it is difficult to keep your Actons straight. This, then, may help.
The most recent Acton relevant to Naples is Sir Harold Mario Mitchell Acton (1904-1994), author of an authoritative 2-volume history of the kingdom of Naples under the Bourbons, The Bourbons of Naples (1957) and The Last Bourbons of Naples (1961). Harold Acton was one of the bright, young intellectual lights of British university life of the 1920s and such a supporter of new poetry that he once read Eliot's The Wasteland through a megaphone at a garden party at Oxford. Acton was apparently the inspiration behind Evelyn Waugh's fictional character, Anthony Blanche, in Brideshead Revisited, who pulled the same stunt in the novel.
Harold Acton was born at Villa la Pietra, his family's estate near Florence. He passed away there, as well, bequeathing his $500,000,000 estate, including his Italian Renaissance villa and art collections to New York University. A bizarre episode connected with the bequeathal is that it was contested by five Italians who claim they are entitled to the estate because their mother was the illegitimate daughter of Acton's father, Arthur Mario Acton, making her Harold Acton's half-sister, whose children would be entitled to the estate since Harold died without heirs. The bizarre part is that earlier this year, an Italian court gave permission to exhume Harold's earthly remains for DNA testing: I don't know if that has been done.
The Acton name in Naples goes back to Sir John Francis Edward Acton (1736-1811) (portrait, above), an Englishman who served with such valor in the service of the joint Spanish and Tuscan naval expedition against Algiers in 1775 that he came to the attention of Queen Caroline of Naples who acquired his services to reorganize the Neapolitan navy. He became the commander of the navy, then the minister of finance, and then the prime minister. He was also—according to most sources—the Queen's lover. On the occasions of both flights of the royal family to Sicily, first to escape the Neapolitan Republicans in 1799 and then the French invasion of 1806, Acton accompanied them and returned with them. Most notably, John Acton was responsible for the construction of the new Royal Naval Shipyards at Castellammare di Stabia. Vincenzo Cuoco, in his Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione di Napoli, remarks that Acton was an astute judge of character and the first one on the scene to really understand something that later became evident to all—in Naples, the king, Ferdinand, was an absolute dud; Queen Caroline ran the show. As an ally of the English and avowed enemy of the new French Republic, he is seen as at least partially responsible for provoking the French invasion of southern Italy that helped establish the Neapolitan—or Parthenopean—Republic in 1799.
John Acton's brother was General Joseph Edward Acton, who was also in the service of the kingdom of Naples. Presumably, Joseph had children. I know nothing about them, except that they will confuse any attempt at genealogical straight-thinking on my part. Anyway, John got a papal dispensation to marry his brother's 13-year-old (!) daughter. They had two children, one of whom was Charles Januarius Edward (1803-1847), who eventually became a cardinal in the Roman Catholic church and protector of the English College at Rome. John's other son was Richard Acton, whose only son was John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834-1902), the historian and one of the great intellects of Victorian England. He is remembered for writing The History of Freedom in Antiquity and The History of Freedom in Christianity and for being the prime mover behind the great Cambridge Modern History.
So, you say (if you are still awake), all this is how the street, via Acton—the road along the main port of Naples in front of the Maschio Angioino—got its name, right? No, that street is named for another Acton—Ferdinand. Oh, there are two of them. The first is Sir Ferdinando Acton (1801-1837), the gentleman who, in 1826, acquired the property for—and had built on that property—the magnificent Villa Pignatelli, a building that still graces the Riviera di Chiaia. I am not sure where Ferdinand came from—presumably from another Acton, possibly John's brother, Charles (above).
Via Acton, however, is named for the other Ferdinand Acton (1832-1891), an officer in the Neapolitan navy and then, following the unification of Italy, an admiral in the Italian navy and then Minister of the Navy. Sources tell me that his father's name was Charles, so that might make him the grandson or great-grandson of Charles, John's brother. Or maybe not.
Update 2010: [Luciano Mangiafico
has kindly sent me the following:
2. General Joseph Acton had five children from his German wife; one of these, Marie Ann (c.1784-1873) married her uncle John Acton, the Bourbon King's Prime Minister, in Palermo in 1800;
3. John acton had three children from his niece: Elizabeth (c. 1804-1850). She lived in England and in 1829 married Sir Robert Truckmorton, a nobleman and long standing MP; Cardinal Charles Januarius (1801-47); and Ferdinand Richard Dalberg-Acton (1803-37), the father of the historian Lord Acton.]