Someone in the long history of the Hapsburg dynasty coined the witty Latin phrase,
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube!
It was a description of, and prescription for, the best way to expand an empire. It means, "Let others make war. You, fertile Austria, marry!
The empress of Austria, Maria Theresa (1717-1780), did that very well. She had 16 children. Unfortunately, even the best medicine that money could buy didn't get you much in Vienna in 1750—maybe a better brand of leech; thus, of her brood, five died in infancy or childhood. She made good Fertile Austrian use of the others, however, marrying many of them off into other royal lines in Europe. One of these was the famous Marie Antoinette; another was a younger sister and subject of this article, her Majesty Queen Marie Caroline Luise Josephe Johanna Antonie of Naples and Sicily, Archduchess of Austria, Princess Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, and Princess of Tuscany—or, to her friends, Caroline. From all that has been written about her over the years, Caroline had more personality traits than a pantheon of Hindu deities. She was kind, vicious, intelligent, vindictive, generous, arrogant, petty, vicious and tender. Don't forget long-suffering, for she, too, eventually had 16 children.
She was not even her mother's first choice to marry into the Bourbon line of Naples. The Austrians had ruled the kingdom of Naples earlier in the 1700s as a vice-realm, then lost it, and then saw a Fertile Austrian way to get back into southern Europe: marry the king. The king of Naples was a minor, the very young Ferdinand, whose father Charles III had abdicated to return to Spain. After years of bargaining between Madrid and Vienna, Charles agreed to let his son marry Theresa's daughter, Johanna Gabriela, who promptly died of smallpox—well before the wedding. Second choice went to Maria Josepha, who was packed and ready to go when she, too, became ill and died. One more trip to the well produced Maria Carolina.
She and Ferdinand, now of age, were married by proxy in 1768, and she was off to Italy to become the queen of Naples also known as the Two Sicilies). She met her husband for the first time in the palace of Caserta, where they honeymooned. She spoke Italian poorly; he spoke no German and not much Italian, for he was known as the "Re Lazzarone", the "Beggar (or rascal) King", a man who enjoyed hanging out on the streets with the unwashed masses and who spoke mainly their dialect. Ferdinand was, by all accounts, a good-natured lunkhead and vulgarian. After their first night together, he told his servants that Caroline "slept like the dead and snored like a pig."
By the marriage contract the
queen was to have a voice in the council of state after
the birth of her first son. She produced a son, Francis,
in 1777, and began her rise to power and influence in
Naples. (Francis would then
wait almost 50 years to become king. It would be in
post-Napoleonic Europe, not only a different century,
but in political and social terms, a different age.) Caroline marginalized Bernardo Tanucci, the
minister of state who had been Ferdinand's regent; she
very adroitly became the de facto decision maker in the
kingdom, while her husband retreated into those things
that made him happy —selling the morning's catch with
the fishermen down at the port and hunting in the large
game preserve in the nearby Astroni crater. It's good to
isn't clear how much effort Caroline really put into
trying to civilize her husband. He loved the traditional
Neapolitan dialect comic operas
—such things as The Enamoured Monk and
Old Maids in Prison (yes, those are real
names of real comic operas!)— but she had to drag him to
the opera house his father
had built (thus named San Carlo) for anything more
serious. He would often sit and
eat spaghetti in the royal box, spooling and dangling
it into his mouth with his fingers just the way his
street buddies did. Caroline would then leave in
disgust. Her brother, the future Holy Roman Emperor,
visited her once and found her unhappy (but it wasn't
her job to be happy, just to be married). He wrote
back to Vienna a horrified account of Ferdinand's
court, recounting one scene in which the king had his
morning bowel movement in front of the assembled royal
lackies and then laughingly passed the pot around for
them to view and judge the results!
Caroline was intelligent and
absolutely bent on turning the kingdom into a valuable
asset to her relatives in Austria. She acquired the
services of John Acton an Englishman who had
served with valour in the service of the Spanish and
Tuscan naval expedition against Algiers in 1775. He
reorganized the Neapolitan navy, became its commander,
then the minister of finance, then the prime
minister—and according to many sources—the queen's
lover. The queen was not the reactionary that some would
claim (based on later events). Her husband's father had
been the proverbial "benevolent monarch" in Naples, and
her own family in Vienna was progressive for the times.
By the 1770s, the kingdom of Naples had developed its
own home-grown version of the French Enlightenment, a
nest of progressive social thought, literature, the
arts, etc. with most of it supported by the queen. The
intellectual roster included Vincenzo
Cuoco, Vincenzo Russo
(called the "Neapolitan Rosseau") and Gaetano Filangieri (Ben
Franklin's pen-pal!). And, certainly,
under Caroline's aegis, life at the court of Naples no
doubt took on a bit of Viennese glitter and glamour; it
was the age of Admiral Horatio Nelson and
Lord and Lady Hamilton, and the age of the Grand Tour, which Goethe and the young Mozart to Naples.
Caroline was not at all
antithetical to the ideals of the French Revolution when
it broke out in 1789. Things changed, however, when the
monarchy was abolished in France in September of 1792
and when her beloved sister, Marie Antoinette, was beheaded in October of
1793. From that point on, she is said to have kept a
small portrait of her sister in her room and to have
scrawled on it that she would revenge her sister's
execution. She convinced her husband that the kingdom of
Naples should join the
First Coalition against France.
Peace broke out with the French Republic in 1796. Naples then enjoyed its own brief version of the French Republic when revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy in January of 1799 and set up the Neapolitan Republic (also known as the Pathenopean Republic). Caroline, the king and court fled and holed up in Sicily for six months, protected by the British fleet. When the fortunes of war changed, she got her revenge; when royalist forces retook the kingdom later in the year, she was the guiding force behind the treachery that brought about the final republican surrender and the ensuing, ferocious reprisals. There were 100 executions by hanging or beheading (of about 1000 republicans tried for treason).
A few years later, Napoleon
sent troops into the kingdom. She and Ferdinand knew the
drill, and back to Sicily they went. The subsequent decade of French rule
on the mainland essentially ended her political life.
She retained her status and power in Sicily until 1812,
when her husband abdicated, appointing his son, Francis,
regent. That deprived Caroline of her influence, and she
returned home to Austria, where she died on September 8,
1814. By then, Napoleon was in captivity on Elba. She
probably died thinking that the crowned heads of Europe
had been suitably restored. She had certainly carried on
the family tradition by supplying children for marriages
into a number of other royal families.
There are not a great number of biographies dedicated solely to Maria Carolina, though she plays prominently in any literature about the Naples of that period. She and Lady Hamilton often exchanged letters, and the published epistolary has led some to conclude that they may have been more than mere friends. Who knows? Whatever the case, her life was interesting enough not to need embellishment.-------------