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Murat, Gioacchino (1767-1815)
Statue of Murat along the west facade
of the Royal Palace in Naples.
The shortest-lived dynasty to rule the Kingdom of Naples in its long history was the one installed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. It was the second time in less than a decade that the French had "liberated" Naples from the Bourbons. Earlier, in 1799, the forces of the revolutionary French Republic had set up and shored up the Pathenopean Republic in Naples; however, this sister republic to the south lasted a mere six months before the Bourbon rulers returned from Sicilian exile to restore their monarchy.
In 1806, however, France was firmly in the hands of Napoleon, who, this time around, was taking no chances. He chased the King and Queen of Naples back to Sicily and installed his own brother, Joseph, as King of Naples. Two years later he moved Joseph over to the throne of Spain and installed as King of Naples his sister Carolina's husband, Joachim (Gioacchino, in Italian) Murat, a trusted military aide. Murat already had a reputation as a daring cavalry leader, having distinguished himself in support of the French Republic and, later, Napoleon's meteoric rise to power. Murat's role in the Egyptian campaign (1798-99) and then in the battles of Austerliz and Jena was heroic. His rule in Naples would last until 1815 and would produce sweeping political and social changes way out of proportion to the few brief years involved.
The changes that took place in Naples under Murat more or less paralleled the changes in the rest of Europe brought about through the imposition of the so-called "Napoleonic Code," a legal system as monumental in human history as the codes of Hammurabi and Justinian, or the Magna Carta. In the Kingdom of Naples, the Napoleonic Code dismantled the 1000-year-old social structure of feudalism. It also instituted a civil service based on merit, one through which even modest citizens of the kingdom could advance. Those two items mark the beginning of an economic middle class—truly the end of one age and the beginning of another. (It is important to remember that in spite of Napoleon's ultimate defeat, these changes helped shape subsequent European history.)
Murat also revamped the former Bourbon military academy, the Nunziatella, so as to make the military less alienated from the people. He encouraged citizens to avail themselves of military careers and rise through the ranks. He, the king, himself, was the prime example, having started life as the son of an inn-keeper. University reform and the beginnings of scientific facilities such as the observatory and the Botanical Gardens are all part of the innovations in Naples under Murat. Physically, the city acquired broad new roads such as via Posillipo and the boulevard leading from the National Museum out to Capodimonte. (The original name of that splendid thoroughfare was, fittingly, Corso Napoleone.) Additionally, the mammoth structure in what is now Piazza Plebiscito, the Church of San Francesco di Paola, was begun under Murat. It was planned to be but the beginning of an enormous civic center, a forum.
What most fascinates about Murat, however, is not the social change he wrought in Naples, substantial though that may be. It was his political ambition. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the main actors in what is termed the Risorgimento—the movement to unify Italy—Mazzini, Cavour, Garibaldi, were still a generation in the future. The first rumblings of the Risorgimento were already being heard, however. The famous patriotic phrase of Italian patriots in the 19th century, "We shall not be free until we are one," was borrowed from Vincenzo Cuoco, a Neapolitan writer and social philosopher very active during Murat's reign. Additionally, secret societies such as the Carbonari first took hold in Italy in the south at the time of Murat; their avowed aim was constitutional government and eventual unification of Italy. Interestingly, Murat encouraged these groups, for he apparently saw himself as the fulfillment of their vision—he would be the unifier and King of Italy!
As grandiose as such ambitions were, they were piddling next to those of his brother-in-law's, who was worried about continents and not mere nations. Thus, Murat found himself back at Napoleon's side, serving as valiantly as ever in the Russian campaign of 1812. In the face of Napoleon's setbacks, however, Murat grew concerned about his own Kingdom of Naples and returned in early 1813.
On October 18, 1815, Gioacchino Murat, in a last typical display of bravado, refused the blindfold and commanded his own execution. A second-hand account of the episode is found in the The Nooks and By-Ways of Italy by Craufurd Tait Ramage, which went through a single edition in 1868.
[ Click here to read
an excerpt from that source.]
account of the episode is from The North American
Review, May 1816. Click
“…He had fought two hundred battles, and exposed himself to death more frequently than any other officer in Napoleon’s army. By his white plume and gorgeous costume a constant mark for the enemy’s bullets, he notwithstanding always plunged into the thickest dangers, and it seems almost a miracle that he escaped death. His self-composure was wonderful, especially when we remember what a creature of impulse he was. In the most appalling dangers, under the fire of the most terrific battery, all alone amid his dead followers, while the bullets were piercing his uniform and whistling in an incessant shower around his head, he would sit on his steed and eye every discharge with the coolness of an iron statue. A lofty feeling in the hour of danger bore him above all fear, and through clouds of smoke and the roar of five hundred cannon, he would detect at a glance the weak point of the enemy, and charge like fire upon it.