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Vincenzo Russo

It is not widely known that there was an active Neapolitan offshoot of the French Enlightenment just as dedicated as mid–18th–century French intellectuals to discussions of the Rights of Man (and even the Rights of Woman), the decadence of monarchies, and democracy and republicanism as societal goals worth striving for—and even worth having a revolution for. The French Revolution is amply documented. The Neapolitan Revolution of 1799 is not well documented—at least in English—but there is some material in these pages at these links:

The Bourbons, part 1    Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel     Cardinal Ruffo
Two prominent figures connected with the Neapolitan Enlightenment are discussed elsewhere on this website: Gaetano Filangieri  and Vincenzo Cuoco. Another such person worth mentioning is Vincenzo Russo. 

Russo was born on June 16, 1770 in Palma Campania, a small town about halfway between Naples and Avellino. His father, Nicola, was a lawyer. His mother was Mariangela Visciano from  San Paolo Belsito. At the age of eight, he began attending the seminary in Nola, and at 13 he went to Naples with his brother Joseph to start his studies of the law. There he became a member of a Masonic lodge and was attracted to the new ideas of reform and democracy, in particular the ideals that would drive the French Revolution. He started to attend secret meetings of the "Republican clubs," so-called in imitation of those in France. These societies in Naples of that period typically immersed themselves in the works of their fellow Neapolitans, Gaetano Filangieri and Mario Pagano* [see note, below], as well as the writings of the likes of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Locke.

When the French fleet came to Naples in 1792 to try to gain diplomatic recognition of the French Republic from the Bourbons, Russo was one of those who took part in meetings with admiral Latouche Treville. Yet, with the Bourbon monarchy running scared before potential French revolutionary contagion in Naples, Russo was one of a number of local "republicans" accused of conspiracy against the monarchy in 1792.  Some were actually executed, but he was let off. Later, in 1797, under the similar circumstances of what was apparently an active Jacobin conspiracy within the kingdom, he was forced to flee the kingdom. 

He took refuge in Switzerland where he took up the study of medicine. He moved to Milan and then Rome and was in that city when the Roman Republic was declared in February of 1798. He wrote for the Monitore di Roma. He took a radical and anticlerical line. When Ferdinand IV of Naples decided to march north and liberate the Roman Republic, Russo enlisted as a doctor in a company of Neapolitan exiles serving in the French army. The Bourbon army was routed in the field and fled back to Naples, pursued by the French, which episode eventually led to the flight of the royal family to Sicily and the proclamation of the Neapolitan Republic in January 1799. At that point, Russo became active in the government of the Republic and was appointed elector for the Volturno region. On Feb. 10, because of his exceptional skill as a speaker, he was put in charge of the ministry of public instruction for the new republic, charged with explaining the actions of the government to the average citizen and with encouraging political discussion. 

He was put in charge of organizing resistance in Calabria to Ruffo's royalist Army of the Holy Faith that eventually overthrew the Republic, and he was in the front line at the Republic's "last stand", the battle of the Ponte della Maddalena, just outside of Naples. The battle and the war went against the Republic, and Russo was wounded and taken prisoner. He was put on trial with 1000 other Republicans and charged with being a zealous member of the Republican government (which he was) and with besmirching the name of his monarch (certainly true). He was sentenced to death and was hanged on the November 19, 1799 in Piazza Mercato. His last words were: "I die free and for the Republic."

During Russo's exile in Switzerland, he had started to write Pensieri Politici (Political Thoughts), the work for which he is remembered. It was eventually published in 1798 and is an expression of Russo's egalitarian interpretation of the values of the French Enlightenment. There are 45 short chapters, each bearing succinct titles such as "Revolution," "The Law," "Religion," "Education,"—in short, Russo's view on how society should be constructed. It is Rousseauvian in that he believed in an ideal and simple human condition, free from the corruption of wealth and social class. The ideal society would be egalitarian and populated by educated small farmers all working for the common good. Private property would not exist and money would eventually be unnecessary. He affirmed the necessity of achieving such economic and social transformation through revolution, revolution being an instrument of education as well as one of social change. 

He was called a "Neapolitan Saint-Just" by some of his contemporary detractors—this in reference to Antoine Louis Leon de Richebourg de Saint-Just (1767—1794), the pitiless and tyrannical "angel of death" of the French Revolution and friend of Robespierre, who apparently enjoyed sentencing people to the guillotine. Such a comparison is not warranted in the case of Vincenzo Russo. Neither he nor the Neapolitan Republic was bloodthirsty. There were no loppings-off of royalist heads in the six or seven months of life enjoyed by the Republic. Russo was, however, argumentative and uncompromising in his dedication to revolutionary ideals such as doing away with feudal land rights. He was not a hypocrite and often gave his salary back to the state, encouraging others who could afford it to do the same. He, no doubt, irritated a lot of people. As noted, he went to the battlefield when it counted, and, with the likes of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, he was one of the many bright lights of the Republic—collectively, the flower of Neapolitan culture—executed for their efforts. 

[*Mario Pagano was some 20 years older than Russo and by the time of the French Revolution already a noted jurist and legal scholar in Naples. He was a supporter of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799 and was instrumental in the drafting of the constitution. He had also been an active defender of those accused of conspiracy against the monarchy in the early 1790s. He, too, was executed when the Republic fell.]

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