1799: Domenico Cirillo

Add comment October 29th, 2020 Headsman

Neapolitan physician and scientist Domenico Cirillo was hanged on this date in 1799, for joining the abortive Parthenopean Republic.


Statue of Cirillo at his hometown of Grumo Nevano, where a school and library also bear his name. (cc) image by Nicpac.

Cirillo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a gifted botanist and entomologist with a raft of scholarly papers to his name; he introduced smallpox inoculation in Naples.

For a time he was also the personal physician to the royal family, but as a Jacbobin-curious Freemason he also partook of the era’s emerging egalitarianism. An urban myth-sounding anecdote holds that when a faced with competing calls for his attentions he preferred to first visit a poor man rather than a rich man who would pay him, saying “the art of healing must be practiced to relieve human misery and not to procure health.”

Despite all that he was only a tardy participant when Naples made its abortive Republican turn in 1799, only reluctantly acceding to urgings to join the Parthenopean Republic.

Perhaps he anticipated the fury of the counterrevolution — or, as he represented matters later, that his cooperation was no more than apolitical civic engagement. In an appeal that he had the weakness to dispatch to Lady Hamilton, the lover of Lord Nelson who was even then anchored in harbor applying British intervention against the Jacobins,

The conduct of my life, before and after the French Revolution, was always honest, pure and loyal. I was often called to care for the French, who were sick, but I never had any intimacy with them, I had correspondence with them of any kind … For three months, I did nothing but help with my own money and that of some charitable friends the large number of [poor people] existing in the city. I induced all the doctors, surgeons and associations to go around visiting the impoverished, who had no way to cure their ailments. After this period, Abrial came to establish the new government, and insisted that I accept a seat on the Legislative Commission. I refused two or three times: in the end I was threatened and forced. What could I do? However, in the short time of this administration, I never took an oath against the king, I never wrote or spoke a single word offensive against any of the Royal Family, nor appeared in their public ceremonies, nor donned their uniform. I didn’t handle public money, and the only paper ducats they gave me were distributed to the poor …

Your Ladyship now knows the true story, not of my crimes, but of the involuntary errors to which I was driven by the strength of the French army. Now, m’lady, in the name of God, don’t abandon your unfortunate friend. Remember that by saving my life you will have the eternal gratitude of an honest family. Your generosity, that of your husband and the great Nelson are my only hopes. Obtain for me a pardon from our merciful king, and the public will benefit by my medical observations, collected in the space of forty years. Remember that I did all I could to save the Botanical Garden of Caserta, and I did my best to be of the best use to Mrs. Greffer’s [a widow whom Lord Nelson had aided -ed.] children. (Source)

No sale for Lord Nelson, who did indeed have the practical power to make decisive intercession, but refused.

Domenico Cirillo, who had been the King’s physician, might have been saved, but that he chose to play the fool and lie, denying that he had ever made any speeches against the government, and saying that he only took care of the poor in the hospitals.

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1799: Admiral Francesco Caracciolo, Neapolitan

1 comment June 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Admiral Francesco Caracciolo was hanged by the British commander Horatio Nelson from the yardarm of the Sicilian frigate La Minerve in the Bay of Naples.

Poor Caracciolo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) — and not to be confused with the Italian saint of the same name — got middled by the French Revolution.

He was a trusted admiral from a noble family, and indeed had served with the British Navy (Italian link). Caracciolo got tapped for escort duty to help King Ferdinand IV and his wife Maria Carolina* flee from a Naples threatened by French troops to the safety of a British fleet stationed at Sicily.**

But he seems to have been troubled by that flight by consciousness of a conflict between civic duty and duty to sovereign.

Carraciolo would later tell the drumhead court that condemned him that it was not he who had turned coat; rather, “the King deserted me and all his faithful subjects … The King collected everything that could be converted into specie on pretence of paying [the] army … and fled with it to Palermo, there to riot in luxurious safety. Who was then the traitor — the King or myself?”

With said King a-riot offshore, French conquest initiated in January 1799 the Parthenopean Republic, a fine obscurity for a pub bet today, but for Caracciolo a matter of life and death. He’d returned to Naples, supposedly to tend to his personal affairs; his prominence and popularity, he found, required him to choose between his allegiances.

Under whatever inducement of conscience or calculation, Caracciolo put to sea for the new Republic and engaged the Parthenopeans’ enemies, actually preventing one British landing attempting to restore his former boss.

Alas, the French — by whose arms alone was the puppet Republic supported — soon decamped for greater priorities than Naples, and the royalist elements had the city back in hand by June. While the political revolutionaries would face their own reckoning, the Jacobin admiral was caught attempting to fly and delivered to Nelson for the most summary simulacrum of justice.

“A slight breeze; a cloudy sky,” Lord Nelson’s laconic journal entry for June 29 reads. “Sentenced, condemned, and hung Francesco Caracciolo.”

Fairly or otherwise, this incident is one of the very few blots upon the beloved Nelson’s reputation. That’s partly for the haste with which it was conducted and partly for the jurisdictional matter of the British — to whom Caracciolo owed no loyalty, and against whom he had committed no treachery — doing the Bourbon monarchs’ dirty work by receiving the prisoner, conducting the trial aboard a British ship, and directing the sentence.

And it was all over under that single day’s cloudy sky.

Caracciolo was brought aboard the Foudroyant that morning, a five-member panel of Neapolitan royalist officers rounded up to try him, given a two-hour trial, and condemned to hang that very evening at 5. (Requests for a soldier’s death by shooting, or a day’s time to make peace with one’s maker, went begging.) At sunset, the body was cut down, loaded with weights, and cast into the sea.

They figured that was the last they’d seen of the admiral, but a few days later — with King Ferdinand now having moved onto the Foudroyant — the corpse somehow bobbed up to the surface right beside the ship, like a revenant spirit come to accuse the royal still too nervous to reside in Naples.

“What does that dead man want?” the shocked king is supposed to have exclaimed as he took sight of it.

“Sire,” answered a priest, “I think he comes to demand Christian burial.”


Ettore Cercone, L’ ammiraglio Caracciolo chiede cristiana sepoltura (Admiral Caracciolo requests a Christian burial). Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton are in the foreground.

He got it. An 1881 epitaph in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Catena can still be read in his honor.

“Francesco Caracciolo, Admiral of the Republic of Naples, who fell victim of the hatred and the lack of mercy of his enemies. He was hanged at the mast on 29 June 1799. The people of Santa Lucia took it upon themselves to honour him with a Christian burial. The City Council of Naples, 1881.”

Naples’ harbor-front street, from which one would have had a fine view of Nelson’s fleet back in the day, is today known as the via Francesco Caracciolo. The Republic of Italy’s navy had a Caracciolo-class battleship type in production in the 1910s, but the line was discontinued before any of the four vessels reached completion.

* Sister of Marie Antoinette.

** Where Lord Nelson was banking the proceeds of his recent Egyptian exploits in the famously pleasing form of Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of the British envoy to Naples.

† Apropos of the preceding footnote, there’s been some grousing about Lady Hamilton’s role in all this. She was an intimate of the temporarily exiled queen, and the old Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Caracciolo slates her with having exploited her hold over the infatuated Nelson to work Maria Carolina’s vengeful will. We’re inclined to suppose that Nelson’s own reasons of warcraft-slash-statecraft, attempting to swiftly cow any potential Neapolitan resistance, suffice as explanation — whether right or wrong.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Naples,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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