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main index   ©Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2005

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.


In 1631, 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.

Two major 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 small carts.

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.

Subsequent 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 kingdom.

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.)



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