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Everything is related to Naples
Number 12 in this series. Link to all items here.

Tosca & the Queen of Naples


Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Tosca, premiered in Rome on January 14, 1900. It was based on the novel, La Tosca, by French dramatist Victorien Sardou (1831-1908). The plot of the novel and opera revolve around the beautiful and jealous opera singer, Tosca, and her lover in an episode that takes place in Rome on precisely June 17 & 18, 1800, that is, during the tumultuous days of Republican France, Bonaparte’s rise to power and his struggle with the Papacy over the so-called “temporal power” of the Roman Catholic church, manifested in the large Vatican States, of which the Pontiff was the “Pope-King.” If you want to know more about Tosca, get out and go to the opera. We note only that in various places in the libretto, a “queen” is mentioned, most famously in Act II, where Tosca is told that by the time she seeks a pardon from the queen for her beloved Cavaradossi, he will be a corpse.

If you are a Protestant music-lover with no knowledge of history, you might just let that mention of a queen slide. (Uh, sure…queen of Rome…sounds right…I guess.) If you are an opera-loving Roman Catholic, however, you may think, “Now hold on just a minute. Queen of Rome? I know we've had some scoundrel popes, but…” (Actually, Peter and a few others were married—before they became pope.) No, you can relax. The queen in question in Tosca is not Mrs. Pope, but rather Maria Carolina, the queen consort of King Ferdinand of the Kingdom of Naples. She, the queen of Naples, was briefly “Queen of Rome.”

The background is convoluted and violent—totally normal for Europe around 1800:

In February of 1798, forces of the French Republic enter Rome and proclaim the Roman Republic. This is in line with the French Republic’s setting up of client states, “sister” republics, in the territory under French control, including the Neapolitan (aka “Parthenopean”) Republic in January of 1799.  The French demand that Pope Pius VI renounce his temporal authority; that is, that he abdicate as king of the Vatican States. He refuses. He is arrested and removed to Valence in south-eastern France. He dies in captivity in August of 1799.

There is an immediate attempt by the Kingdom of Naples to overthrow the Roman Republic in 1798. It fails miserably. Shortly thereafter, the republic in Naples is proclaimed and King Ferdinand and Queen Caroline flee to Sicily.

While Napoleon is off in Egypt, Austrian-Russian forces cross into northern Italy; between April and August of 1799 they defeat and dissolve various republics previously set up by the French. At the same time, Bourbon royalists under Cardinal Ruffo come back, overthrow the republic in Naples in June of 1799 and reinstall Ferdinand and Caroline.

Palazzo Farnese in Rome (print by
Giuseppe Vasi, 1765).

The exiled Pope Pius VI then dies in August of 1799. Now you have the still extant Roman Republic surrounded by crumbled or crumbling “sister” republics. The Roman Republic teeters and finally falls in September of 1799 when Neapolitan forces occupy Rome. Thus, the republics are gone and the pope/king can return to Rome to reclaim his temporal throne. But there is no pope; he died, remember?

Queen Caroline to the rescue. She appoints herself “regent” (for the absent Pope) of Rome, and she rules as such from September 1799 to July 1800, when the new pope (Pius VII, elected in Venice a few months earlier) reenters the Eternal City.

But before that, in June 1800, Napoleon (who has really just been warming up all this time) crosses the Alps and invades Italy again, winning a major battle at Marengo on June 14. The battle is see-saw for a while and the events in Tosca revolve around a celebration in honor of Napoleon’s anticipated defeat, a celebration at which Tosca is to sing. That never happens, of course. News trickles in of Bonaparte’s victory at Marengo. Tosca, herself, then…well, go see the opera.

Caroline’s non-fictional behavior as the “queen” of Rome has not been the subject of a lot of literature. At least one book (Le Palais Farnese: Ambassade De France, by Raoul De Broglie. 1953, Paris: Henri Lefebvre Editor), in describing the Bourbon property, the Palazzo Farnese in Rome (illustration, above) where Queen Caroline held court and where the events of Tosca take place, speaks of mass arrests of Roman republicans and executions. No numbers are given, but it is an obvious comparison with Caroline's behavior in Naples in 1799 after she and her husband retook the throne there. That she was vindictive and vicious is a matter of record, but claims that she was a wholesale butcher in Naples responsible for "thousands of executions" (as some claim) are exaggerated. In The Bourbons of Naples by Harold Acton (London: Prion Books, 1957), the author says:

Of 8,000 political prisoners 105 were condemned to death, six of whom were reprieved, 222 were condemned to life imprisonment, 322 to shorter terms, 288 to deportation, and 67 to exile, from which many returned: a total of 1,004. The others were set at liberty.

The author has a Bourbon axe to grind in his book, yes, but he is a reliable historian, and it is not likely that he simply made up those numbers. Thus, I suspect that there were certainly some anti-Republican reprisals in Rome and that Maria Carolina was responsible for them. Beyond that, I don't know.

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