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Francesco Caracciolo

Caracciolo is an old and prominent Neapolitan surname. There are at least 50 bearers of that name in the current Naples phone book. Indeed, the name has divided into various branches over the centuries—"Caracciolo–of–here" and "Caracciolo–of–there," resulting in some very impressive listings in the directory. There is a "Prince Landolfo Amrogio Caracciolo di Melissano". That is the longest one I see, although, without a title, Francesco Alberto Caracciolo di Torchiarolo" edges him out by a few letters. (From the address in the phone book, he is my next-door neighbor, although I don't know why that should matter to me.) 

There are even four different streets named via Caracciolo in Naples: Batistella Caracciolo (renowned painter of the Neapolitan Baroque, contemporary of Ribera and Caravaggio); Bartolomeo Caracciolo, about whom I know nothing; T. Caracciolo (the T stands for Tristan, I think); and the one that all Neapolitans think of when they hear the name "Caracciolo" —Francesco (portrait, above). The splendid road that runs from Mergellina to Piazza Vittoria along the sea, fronting the Villa Comunale, thus, is named for Francesco Caracciolo (1752-1799), the Neapolitan admiral whose name is dramatically linked in history with the rise and fall of the Neapolitan Republic of 1799 and with the principal players in that episode: Queen Caroline, King Ferdinand, Lady Hamilton, and, especially, Horatio Nelson.

(Besides the links in the previous sentence, other entries about this period include: The Bourbons, part 1Eleonora Fonseca PimentelCardinal Ruffo, Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and On Trial for their Reputations.)

Francesco Caracciolo was born January 18, 1752 of a noble Neapolitan family. He entered the navy at a young age and fought with distinction with the Kingdom of Naples' ally, the British, in the American Revolutionary War. He also fought the Barbary pirates and against the French at Toulon. In December of 1798, the Neapolitan monarchy fled the capital in the face of the insurgent Neapolitan republican forces backed by the French army at the gates of the city. The King and Queen fled to Sicily on Nelson's ship, Vanguard, escorted by Caracciolo on the Neapolitan frigate Sannita

Caracciolo returned to Naples in January to take care of private matters and arrived in the city after the Republic had been declared. His behavior at that point has remained the subject of speculation. Either he resented being snubbed by King Ferdinand, who had fled aboard Nelson's vessel and not Caracciolo's, or he was appalled at the cowardly flight, itself, or he was truly taken with the newly proclaimed Neapolitan Republic. Whatever the case, he took command of the naval forces of the new Republic. In other words, he betrayed his king. 

He led the Republican navy against royalist Neapolitan and British naval forces for the brief life of the Republic, his last major engagement being an attack on the British flagship, Minerva, inflicting damage on that vessel. The Republic, however, was doomed by the withdrawal of French forces from Naples and by the arrival of the royalist Army of the Holy Faith under Cardinal Ruffo. Caracciolo was captured. His trial is a matter of record and takes place against the whole backdrop of deceit by which the Royalist forces actually retook the city. The agreed to an armistice, promised safe passage to Republican defenders (presumably including Caracciolo), and then put the Republicans on trial, anyway.

The church of Santa Maria della Catena,
final resting place of Admiral Caracciolo.

There was never any doubt as to Caracciolo's fate. Queen Caroline had relayed to Nelson her wish that Caracciolo should hang, no matter what. Caracciolo was tried aboard a British ship, Foudroyant, by Neapolitan royalist officers and charged with high treason. He was not permitted to call witnesses in his defence. He was condemned to death by three votes to two. He was not given the customary twenty-four hours for personal matters of the spirit. His request to be shot was denied and he was hanged from the yardarm of the Minerva on the morning of June 30, 1799. His body was weighted and thrown into the sea. 

One of the mainstays of modern Neapolitan mythology is that the body refused to sink, floating to the surface and eerily bobbing its way towards shore. Indeed, there is even a painting showing King Ferdinand aboard his ship, aghast at the sight of the admiral's corpse floating alongside. Whatever the case, Caracciolo's body was retrieved from the sea and his remains now rest in the small church of Santa Maria della Catena in the Santa Lucia section of Naples (photo, above).

[Also see this excerpt from Robert Southey's Life of Nelson on the execution of Caracciolo.]

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