Southern Italy had gone its own way for a thousand years, since Charlemagne's failure to reunite the entire peninsula. It is, perhaps, a strange coincidence that another conqueror, also doomed to fail, should set in motion the machinery that would lead to the south being woven back into the common fabric of Italy.
Beginning in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte swept across Europe in a virtuoso display of military genius, political ambition and radical social change. In the space of four years he made himself King of France, then King of "Italy" (a satrapy he carved out of northern Italy), and then Emperor! In so doing he forced the official emperor to abdicate, ending the Holy Roman Empire forged by Charlemagne. By shaping much of Germany into the so-called "Confederation of the Rhine" in 1806 and imposing the legal system known as the Napoleonic Code, he put an official end to feudalism in central Europe. Militarily, he took on the rest of Europe and at least on land was victorious at virtually every turn (his defeats at the hands of the British at sea were crucial, however). His goal to create a single Empire from the British Isles to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains failed. But it was close.
Napoleon was impatient with the Kingdom of Naples. In a blunt letter to Queen Maria Carolina, he told her:
What must I think of the kingdom of Naples … when I see at the head of its administration a man who is alien to the country… [referring to Acton, the prime minister]… I have therefore decided… to consider Naples as a country ruled by an English minister. I am loathe to meddle in the internal affairs of other states… yet…
With that, and further motivated by his distrust of Neapolitan professions of neutrality regarding French disputes with the Austrians and British, Bonaparte sent troops into the Kingdom of Naples, forcing the royal family to flee south again, just as during the brief period of the Parthenopean Republic a few years earlier and again hunker down on Sicily as a separate little island kingdom. Napoleon sent his brother, Joseph, to be King of Naples, then juggled Joseph over to the throne of Spain and replaced him in Naples with their brother-in-law, the dashing cavalry officer, Joachim ('Gioacchino' in Italian) Murat.
Murat was the King of Naples from 1808 to 1815. The Napoleonic Code transformed southern Italy. It dismantled the privileges of the churches and the barons, reordered the courts and set up schools for the education of the general population. Not only in the south, but all over the Italian peninsula, this autocratic imposition of the ideals of the French Revolution would outlast Napoleon, himself, and would help shape eventual national aspirations for a single nation stretching from from Sicily to the Alps. Murat even saw himself as the future King of all of Italy and, thus, he encouraged secret societies such as the Carbonari, hotbeds of pan-Italian nationalism. Ultimately, with the defeat and exile of Napoleon, Murat's fortunes crumbled. His own attempts to resist the restoration of the Bourbons dictated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 failed when his southern army was defeated by the Austrians. He fled to Corsica and made one last futile attempt—truly à la Bonaparte!—to return from exile and raise an army to retake his kingdom. He was taken prisoner and shot.
After the restoration, the former Ferdinand IV returned as Ferdinand I of the united Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Times, however, had changed. First of all, his wife, who had practically run the kingdom during the entire course of their marriage, had died. Second, the growing middle class of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, military professionals, and new property owners had set their sights on representative government, a constitution. And third, all over Italy were stirring sentiments echoed by Manzoni's famous line: "We shall not be free until we are one." (Ironically, he got that phrase from Cuoco, a Neapolitan philosopher).
But Naples was suffering from—to use Croce's phrase—the "stamp of illiteracy', brought about by the flight of and persecution of intellectuals, liberals and other supporters of Murat and of the earlier Parthenopean Republic. Now, the old lazzarone, the king who had always felt most at home among the peasantry, no longer even trusted his own subjects to support him. He imported companies of Swiss mercenaries to augment his army.
Ferdinand was forced to
relinquish absolute rule and grant a constitution to
Naples in 1820 as a result of a carbonari-led
revolution. The last thing he did in his life,
however, was to reaffirm his spiritual allegiance to
another century by getting Austrian help to suppress
the constitutional government and carry out brutal
reprisals against the leaders. He died in 1825 after
one of the longest reigns (excluding Napoleonic
interruptions) in European history, having ascended
the throne in 1759. He had outlived his wife, two
capable prime ministers (Tanucci and Acton) and,
quite clearly, his time. His son, Francis I,
succeeded him for a brief period and then, in 1830,
the grandson, Ferdinand II, came to the throne.
Inauguration, in 1839, of the first
railway in Italy, from Naples to
The last thirty years of the existence of the Kingdom of Naples are marked by great strides in science, technology and industry. The first railways and iron-suspension bridges in Italy were in the south, as was the first overland electric telegraph cable. Also, the fleet of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies was the largest merchant fleet in the Mediterranean. By 1839, the main streets of Naples were gas-lit. Ferdinand II even built the cliff-top road along the Sorrentine peninsula. To some, such accomplishments define a sort of Golden Age similar to that under Charles III a century earlier. Much Bourbon achievement at mid-nineteenth century, however, was possible only because Murat had laid the groundwork decades earlier by reforming the university and founding various scientific academies.
More relevant than industry to Naples' real future, that is, its participation—or lack, thereof—in the struggle for Italian unity, was Ferdinand's inability to read the handwriting on the wall. Two of his comments bear repeating: "I don't know what is meant by an independent Italy —I only understand an independent Naples," and "My kingdom starts at seawater and ends at Holy Water," (referring to Sicily in the south and the Papal States in the north). Clearly, this mentality was at odds with nationalist sentiments of groups such as Mazzini's Young Italy, agitating all over the north to unify the peninsula.
General revolution in the name of constitutional government swept Europe in 1848. In Naples, the king, like his grandfather before him, was forced to grant a constitution. Neapolitan troops actually went north to join the fight against the Austrians in what would become known as the First War of Italian Unification, but they were recalled to the south when their King, again like his grandfather, staged a counterrevolution and revoked the constitution. At this point, thousands of intellectuals and liberals fled north to join the struggle for "Italy." It was now the only game in town, and they would be part of it—with their King, if possible, but without him, if need be.
Ferdinand, thus, denied the South the opportunity of being part of the Risorgimento, the movement for a single Italy. He became ever more absolutist and isolated. He died in May, 1859 and was succeeded by his son Francis II, destined to be the last king of Naples. Although Francis tried to stave off the inevitable by giving in to liberal demands to restore the constitution, it was much too late for such half-measures. The Kingdom of Naples had come full circle: founded by the Norman invasion of Sicily eight hundred years earlier, it was about to end by another invasion of the same island, this one led by Giuseppe Garibaldi.