Naples in the 1600s
It was the best of times - It was worse than
the worst of times
The decline of the Spanish Empire
from the loss of the Armada (1588) through the entire
1600s to its ultimate demise in 1700 with the death of
Charles II is complex. Some of the factors (besides the
original loss of the Armada and subsequent loss of naval
dominance) were Spain's continuing wars with the French,
English and the Dutch in the early 1600s, her
involvement in the Thirty Years War (resulting in a
disastrous defeat in 1643 at the battle of
Rocroy), and, most of all, her terrible mismanagement of
wealth from the New World.
As a Spanish vice-realm, Naples might have been expected to follow a parallel decline. For various reasons (one of which was the simple geographical distance from the battlefields of the Thirty Years War) that was not the case. The year 1600 marks the beginning of what is often called a "Golden Age" in the history of Naples. The city had been transformed in the mid-1500s into a modern city, the best defended and largest port city in the Spanish Empire, the second largest city in Europe (after Paris)—essentially being primed for just such a period of greatness. By 1600 a number of Spanish villas had begun to spring up along the Chiaia, opening the western part of the city to an incredible building boom of luxurious estates; in 1600 the cornerstone of Domenico Fontana's great Royal Palace (illustration, above) was laid; churches and public buildings went up; and the first public theaters and opera houses were built. The list of those living and working in Naples for much of the century reads like a Who's Who of Baroque genius in various endeavors from architecture to art, music and philosophy: Domenico Fontana, Caravaggio, Luca Giordano, Carlo Gesualdo, Giambattista Vico, etc.
The most important social/political event of the century and, indeed, a reflection of the profound problems affecting Spain, herself, was The Revolt of Masaniello, but, by and large, the destiny of Naples in what might have been a "Golden Age" was shaped not by corruption, upper-class sloth or mismanagement of money, but by staggering natural calamities and pestilence.
Mt. Vesuvius gave vent to a powerful eruption. By all accounts, it was a highly
explosive event that rivalled in intensity the famous
eruption that doomed Pompeii and Herculaneum in the first
century a.d. Sources say that the eruption destroyed most
of the towns in the area of Vesuvius. The event was so
terrifying that it stoked the creative imaginations of the
great painters of the day, primarily Micco Spadaro (name in art of Domenico Gargiulo,
1610-75). His "Eruption of Vesuvius in 1631" (painting,
right) shows the procession of the populace, viceroy,
church prelates and aristocracy. They carry the bust of
the Patron Saint, Gennaro, in a show of penitence,
invoking divine mercy.
earthquakes struck the kingdom of Naples in the 1600s. The
quake of 1660 destroyed many towns and villages in
Calabria. Closer in to the city —right in the
city, to be exact— the earthquake on June 5, 1688, was
frightful. People camped out for many days near the Chiaia
beach and in the open market squares and near the Maschio Angioino. Due to the risk
of buildings collapsing, streets
were blocked off, and the city could be crossed only by
The worst disaster to strike the
kingdom and city of Naples in the 1600s was the plague of 1656. The Black Death, of
course already had a long and inglorious history in
Europe, going back to the original European outbreak in
1347 (presumably traced to China in the 1330s). The
population of Europe dropped from 75 million before that
outbreak to 50 million afterwards, truly "apocalyptic" in
the minds of many chroniclers of the day.
outbreaks have not been that devastating, but even
"lesser" outbreaks can have severe repercussions on the
life of a nation. The outbreak of the disease in Naples
occurred in January of 1656 when a Spanish soldier who had
arrived from Sardinia, was admitted to the Annunziata hospital. The alarm was
sounded by Dr. Giuseppe
Bozzutto, who first diagnosed the symptoms. His
promptness was not appreciated by the viceroy's
government, which decided to imprison the doctor for
having spread the news. The plague, however, can quickly
spread its own brand of news. When bodies started piling
up, when provisions ran low, when people started fleeing
the city, the government was forced to admit the
outbreak.That was in May. By August, the plague had run
its course. It had killed about half the city's 300,000
inhabitants and at least that many again in the rest of
The economic and social effects are obvious: even the people who survived fled the city. No one worked. Even in the countryside, people fled elsewhere; farms went unattended. Law enforcement, in general, was ineffective, and lawlessness spread. Again, Spadaro was on the scene to survive and paint (above) an utterly soul-chilling scene of the Mercatello (the square that is now Piazza Dante). It is truly a scene from Hell. The city of Naples would take almost two centuries to climb back to its pre-plague population.
There is a
further entry dealing with the 17th century in Naples.
See "The Spanish Viceroyalty—The Second Hundred Years" by David Taylor.