(Thanks to Jeff Matthews of the Around Naples Encyclopedia for allowing us to run this abridged version of a much more detailed entry in that encyclopedia that’s well worth the read. -ed.)
Failed revolutionaries usually wind up as footnotes in history books. Certainly, the period between 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) and 1805 (the year in which Napoleon crowned himself emperor) is one of such turmoil in Europe that it is easy not to see any but those who are larger than life.
Pimentel parlayed her puissant pen into a permanent position on the salon circuit, doing late-18th-century literary things like quoting classics and maintaining voluminous correspondences.
By the revolutionary 1790’s, she’d risen to become the aforementioned Queen Maria Carolina’s librarian, but was among those inspired by the liberta, egalita, fraternita of the French Revolution. When Napoleon tore through northern Italy and conquered as far as Rome, the monarchy rode out to
reconquer the Eternal Cityget itself decimated, and Naples’ dreamers had their chance.
Pimentel turned her literary talents to the Republic’s service, including some outstandingly vituperative verse savaging the exiled Maria Caroline as a lesbian and threatening her with the guillotine.
Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel is one such overlooked person. She was a major figure, but on a small stage, connected with the little known and failed Neapolitan revolution and subsequent short-lived Neapolitan republic of 1799. It was a sister of the French republic and one of many set up in the 1790s in Europe, all of which—the Neapolitan version included—have been relegated to the status of “also-rans” in history.
Eleonora was an unlikely revolutionary. She was born in Rome in 1751 of Portuguese nobility and would be hanged in Piazza Mercato in Naples in 1799 in a grotesque caricature of an execution. Her executioner, Maria Caroline of Hapsburg, Queen of Naples during the Neapolitan Revolution was also born in 1751. That was also the decade of the great Lisbon earthquake, about which an anonymous poet wrote lines as if describing the dramatic events that would soon shake Europe the way the earth had shaken Portugal:
With her last earthquake this round world shall rise,
The sun shall lose his fires in endless night,
And the moon turned to blood, glare horrid light,
When comets dire shall sweep athwart the sky,
And stars like leaves before the tempest fly.
Certainly, the last days of one of Portugal’s daughters, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, seem contained in that verse.
Stendahl, in Rome, Florence and Naples (1826) , reports at length a conversation about the Neapolitan Revolution and its grisly conclusion with a young man he identifies only as T***, an eye-witness to the events, themselves. Stendahl concludes: “I have been careful to suppress, during the course of this narrative, all the more gruesome details. Robespierre, whatever his faults, has this at least to be said in his favor: he did not count a majority of personal friends among the total number of his victims. Those whom he sacrificed, he sacrificed to a system, however ill-founded; not to his petty, personal spite.”
In Piazza Mercato, the fortunate among those sentenced to death* were beheaded swiftly. The less fortunate, among whom was Eleonora, were hanged. In her case, it was a ghoulish affair. Her body was left dangling from the gallows for a day, exposed to further jibes and humiliation, such as the popular verse making the rounds at the execution (cited in Albanese 1998):
A signora donna Lionora,
che cantava ncopp’ o triato,
mo abballa mmiezo ‘ o mercato,
viva viva ‘u papa santo,
c’ha mannato i cannuncini,
pe scaccià li giacubini!
Viva a’ forca ‘e Masto Donato
Sant’Antonio sta priato.
To lady Eleonora
who used to sing upon the stage
and now dances in market square,
long live the Holy Pope,
who sent us the guns
to chase away the Jacobins!
Long live the gallows and Master Donato [a traditional name for the hangman]
Praise be to Sant’Antonio.
Eleonora was calm at the gallows. She asked for some coffee, and—true to her intellect to the last—her last words were in Latin: “Forsan et haec olim meninisse juvabit,” a citation from Virgil—“Perhaps one day this will be worth remembering.”
Giuseppe Boschetto, La Pimentel Conducted to the Gallows, 1869
One of the most interesting memories of the Revolution is the Palazzo Serra di Cassano, on via Monte di Dio. It was the home of Giovanni Serra, Duke of Cassano, one of Eleonora’s closest friends. Looking down at the crowd as he was about to die, he said, “I have always wanted good for them and now they cheer at my death” [cited in Albanese 1998]. The next day, his father closed the portal of the building that opens onto the Royal Palace and said it would remain closed until the ideals his son had died for were realized. The door is still closed.
The greatest memorial in recent memory, however, was when Vanessa Redgrave, the English actress, stepped out on the stage of the San Carlo Theater on Friday, January 8, 1999, and recited, in magnificent Italian, the title role in Eleonora, a 3-hour oratorio, an absolute hymn of praise to Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. It was composed by Roberto de Simone, prominent Neapolitan composer and musicologist. The production had had a two-week run-up in the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino, replete with histories of the Neapolitan revolution, fragments of Eleonora’s poetry, long citations from historical heavyweights such as Benedetto Croce, and even the news that a descendant of Eleonora’s (through her brother’s line), another Fonseca Pimentel, would be at the premiere. The production, itself, was generally well received. The next day, the critic from il Mattino called it “an allegory of all the martyrs in history” (Gargano 1999). “Art is liberty,” he wrote, “and must free itself from the bonds of time like an ever-evolving presepio,” thus comparing the production to the traditional Neapolitan manger scene that celebrates the birth of the Savior. Heady praise, indeed.
Visit the Around Naples Encyclopedia for an expanded version of this post with much more about Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel’s biography, the unfolding of the Revolution, and its legacy.
Acton, Harold. The Bourbons of Naples. London: Prion Books, 1957.
Albanese, Camillo. Cronache di una Rivoluzione, Napoli 1799. Milan: Franco Angeli, 1998.
Bradford, Ernle. Nelson, The Essential Hero. London: MacMillan, 1977.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.” Monograph. Rome: Tipografia nazionale, 1887.
Croce, Benedetto , et al. La Rivoluzione Napoletana. 1999 reprint by Tullio Pironti, ed. Naples: Morano, 1899.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e il Monitore Napoletano” in La Rivoluzione Napoletana di 1799. Bari: Laterza, 1926.
Cuoco, Vincenzo. Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. Milano: 1806.
Diana, Rosario. Forward to Vincenzo Cuoco, Pl atone in Italia. Naples: Pagano, 2000.
Gargano, Pietro. “Quei martiri nostri fratelli.” Il Mattino, January 9, 1999.
Gurgo, Bice. Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. Napoli: Cooperativa Libreria, 1935.
Irace, Clorinda. E.F.P. Le tracce, i luoghi. Naples: Lions Club, 1977.
Macciocchi, Maria Antonietta. Cara Eleonora. Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1993.
Stendahl. Rome, Florence and Naples. 1826.(Richard N. Coe, trans.) London: John Calder, 1959.
Urgnani, Elena. La Vicenda Letteraria e Politica di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. Il Pensiero e la storia. Ed. Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici. Vol. 54. Naples: La Città del Sole, 1998.