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entry Mar 2003

Italy's First Railway

Naples in the avant guard: royal guard in the guard's van

                                                                                    by David Taylor  ©

Inauguration, in 1839, of the first railway in
Italy, from Naples toPorticii.

It has become commonplace for economic historians to look at the last fifty years of Bourbon Naples and point out as obvious all the causes of political and social crisis that rotted the kingdom from within and allowed Garibaldi a relatively easy victory in the Wars of Unification.

Things cannot have appeared so bad though in 1836 when the French engineer, Armand Bayard del la Vingtrie, approached the Bourbon Minister, Nicola Santangelo, with his plans to build a railway line from Naples to Nocera. From among all the Italian states which he could have chosen, he had opted for the one with a well established and proud dynasty that had already show great willingness to build itself a city worthy of being called a European capital. Perhaps he was also attracted by the fact that the Kingdom had embraced new naval technology in becoming the proud owner of the first steamship in the Mediterranean.

Bayard made Ferdinand II an offer he could barely refuse: the Frenchman offered to build what was to be the first railway in Italy at his own cost in return for a 99 year lease. After a series of Royal Decrees, he finally got the go-ahead -- with the terms of the lease reduced to 80 years. By the 3rd of October, 1839, the section of track running as far as Portici was ready and was duly inaugurated on that date with  the first train ever to run on Italian soil leaving Naples with carriages full of officers of the army, artillery and navy, entertained on their eleven minute journey by the Band of the Royal Guard occupying the rear coach.

Technical feats involved in the construction had included 33 bridges, and work also continued to take the line as far as Nocera. While it is clear that such a short line can have had little impact on trade and commerce, the line proved extremely popular. 58,000 people travelled its length in the first month and extra locomotives had to be ordered from England replete with drivers and engineers.

If we need to discover what was really wrong with the economics of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in what were to prove the autumn years of its existence, we can perhaps learn something from the fact that following the enormous success of the railway they actually decided to lower the prices, offering discounts to "ladies without hats, servants in livery and non-commissioned officers"!

[See also: The Royal Foundry of Pietrarsa and this short item on the railway museum.]

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