1799: Francesco Conforti, regalist and republican

1 comment December 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the subversive priest Francesco Conforti was hanged in the Piazza Mercato for his role in the Naples Parthenopean Republic.

This scholar came on the scene in the 1770s penning apologias for the Enlightenment trend towards the secular authority supplanting the ecclesiastic. For Conforti, Christ had not claimed, and the Vatican ought not wield, civil power.

This was quite an annoyance to the church that had ordained him but Conforti was no red priest. His doctrine was so far from antithetical to sovereigns in the Age of Absolutism that it was known as regalism, and a notable 1771 work was dedicated to the Bourbons’ secular strongman in southern Italy and Sicily.

But clerical reaction after the French Revolution got Conforti run out of his university appointment and even thrown in prison which would drive him into the republican camp — and when those republicans took power in Naples in early 1799 he joined their government as Interior Minister, his duty to shape civil society for “the democratic and republican regime [which] is the most consistent with the Gospel.”

“Democracy is the greatest benefit God has given the human race,” Conforti once intoned. But in 1799 it was a gift to enjoy in small doses: after the Bourbons reconquered Naples that summer, executing 122 republican patriots into the bargain, the human race reverted to the second greatest benefit.

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1348: The Duke of Durazzo, all in the family

Add comment January 23rd, 2014 Headsman

The Neapolitan King Robert “the Wise”* dominated Italian politics for his 34-year reign, but his death in 1343 left a disastrously disputed succession.

Robert, who hailed from the French House of Anjou, had had only two sons, and they both predeceased him. So Robert’s will designated his granddaughter Joanna as his successor, and her sister Maria as no. 2 in line should Joanna die without an heir.

But Joanna was 16 years old, and Robert had had three brothers whose lines each coveted a taste of Neapolitan for themselves. In particular, the family of Robert’s oldest brother, whose descendants had managed to establish an Angevin ruling dynasty in Hungary, arguably had a better claim that Robert himself. So in an effort to cement the Joanna-plus-Maria succession plan, Robert married Joanna off to a child of that branch, Andrew, Duke of Calabria.

Maria, for her part, had been intended for another dynastic marriage, but after Robert’s death she got abducted by the heirs to the youngest of Robert’s brothers and married off to Charles (or Carlo), Count of Gravina and Duke of Durazzo (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). This set their branch up to be a player for Robert’s patrimony, too; as one may infer from this character’s presence on this here execution blog, the play didn’t go to plan.

Dumas reckoned Charles an inveterate, and a sinister, schemer, “one of those men who to gain their end recoil at nothing; devoured by raging ambition and accustomed from his earliest years to conceal his most ardent desires beneath a mask of careless indifference, he marched ever onward, plot succeeding plot … His cheek grew pale with joy; when he hated most, he smiled; in all the emotions of his life, however strong, he was inscrutable.”

Now that we have the dramatis personae … to the action!

Nice knowin’ ya, Andrew. 1835 watercolor of his murder by Karl Briullov.

Robert was scarcely cold in his coffin when Joanna’s husband Andrew (supported by a faction within the Neapolitan court) began maneuvering for more power. Days before he was to capture a strategic hilltop in that campaign by becoming crowned in his own right in September 1345, a conspiracy of his rivals surprised Andrew on a hunting trip and murdered him — violently subduing the resisting teenager until they could strangle him to death and pitch him out a window. Joanna cowered in her bed as her shrieking husband was snuffed; the suspicion of her involvement in the plot would follow her all the 37 years she had left on this earth, although she defeated the charge when she was formally investigated.

With this stunning act, peninsular politics got almost as messy as the Angevin family tree.

Andrew’s murder, which was succeeded by no simulation of punishing any guilty parties, opened a power vacuum and simultaneously supplied all Andrew’s power-hungry kinsmen the ideal pretext for elbowing their respective ways into it. The Hungarian Angevins, led by the murdered Andrew’s big brother King Louis I swept into Naples, routing Joanna** who was forced in 1348 to flee to the pope at Avignon, maybe on the very ships that were at this very moment introducing the Black Death from Sicily to ports all over Europe.

Cousin Charles made an expedient alliance with cousin Louis and joined the fun, angling to add Naples to his own domains once the dust settled and Hungarian affairs pulled Louis away. But almost immediately after expelling Joanna, the Hungarian king turned on Charles, too. In Dumas’s dramatic rendering, he accuses Charles of complicity in Andrew’s murder and treachery against his own royal person.

Traitor! At length you are in my hands, and you shall die as you deserve; but before you are handed over to the executioner, confess with your own lips your deeds of treachery towards our royal majesty: so shall we need no other witness to condemn you to a punishment proportioned to your crimes. Between our two selves, Duke of Durazzo, tell me first why, by your infamous manoeuvring, you aided your uncle, the Cardinal of Perigord, to hinder the coronation of my brother, and so led him on, since he had no royal prerogative of his own, to his miserable end? Oh, make no attempt to deny it. Here is the letter sealed with your seal; in secret you wrote it, but it accuses you in public. Then why, after bringing us hither to avenge our brother’s death, of which you beyond all doubt were the cause,–why did you suddenly turn to the queen’s party and march against our town of Aquila, daring to raise an army against our faithful subjects? You hoped, traitor, to make use of us as a footstool to mount the throne withal, as soon as you were free from every other rival. Then you would but have awaited our departure to kill the viceroy we should have left in our place, and so seize the kingdom. But this time your foresight has been at fault. There is yet another crime worse than all the rest, a crime of high treason, which I shall remorselessly punish. You carried off the bride that our ancestor King Robert designed for me, as you knew, by his will. Answer, wretch what excuse can you make for the rape of the Princess Marie?

Charles was put to summary death upon this accusation on January 23, 1348.

As for the Princess Marie, who at this point was 18 years old and had already borne Charles five children in almost continuous succession, she wasn’t done being abducted: another nobleman, the Lord of Baux, snatched her from the Castel dell’Ovo later that same year and had four more children with her before Maria had him murdered in 1353. Then she married yet another cousin and had five more kids by him.

* Fruit of the Angevin dynasty that had dispossessed the Hohenstaufens the previous century.

** Joanna tried to shore herself up ahead of the invasion by remarrying another cousin, Louis of Taranto.

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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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1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni

5 comments May 29th, 2011 Headsman

This site is occasionally prepared to stray outside its execution-anniversary beat to cover especially fascinating manifestations of the death penalty in history.

So for this date, we observe the anniversary not of a punishment, but of the crime itself: a capital homicide in the capital of the world that changed art forever.

NNDB summarizes Caravaggio as a “temperamental painter,” but a less generous interlocutor might prefer a descriptor like “lowlife.”

Painter, he certainly was.

Caravaggio’s pioneering realism and flair for the dramatic …


Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Though the young painter on the make would hardly want for models of public decapitation in 16th century Rome, the gendered intimacy with the act invites consideration of Caravaggio’s likely attendance at the execution of Beatrice Cenci.

… made him a rock star on the canvas.

Though the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with suspicion, there were scudi enough to burst the coinpurse of a talent who could grace a chapel with awe-inspiring stuff like this:


Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, painted in 1601 for Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo.

However many souls his stark brushwork won for the Church, Caravaggio’s reverential fare belied the creator’s own distinctly profane pastimes: gambling, boozing, brawling, and whoring around. He needed the intervention of well-placed patrons to duck prosecution on several occasions.

May 29, 1606 finds our “temperamental” antihero encountering a wealthy scoundrel by the handle of Ranuccio Tomassoni and a problem that would outstrip any political pull the artist could muster.

Allegedly, the two met to settle a paltry tennis wager, although this may have been a cover story for a rivalry over a courtesan.*

On whatever pretext, the young hotheads fell into a melee. Caravaggio won … and Tomassoni bled to death from the gash his foe dealt to his femoral artery.**

Caravaggio now had mortal blood on his hands. Homicides were treated very harshly by the authorities. Caravaggio was about to have a price put on his head, and if he were caught, that head would be summarily removed from his body and hung on a public street. Allies of Ranuccio bent on revenge were likely to be after him as well. … Caravaggio, the celebrated Italian painter, was now a notorious wanted killer. (Source)

Condemned an outlaw by Pope Paul V — himself fruit of Rome’s Borghese family, great patrons of art in their own right — Caravaggio fled the Eternal City. His brilliance went with him, perhaps even amplified by the exile.

“The fall from grace was huge,” a curator of late Caravaggio works argued. “It had a profound impact. He started expressing the psychological essence of the stories he is telling.”

The painter and killer had four years left to him — an exile spent sleeping clothed and armed, forever looking over his shoulder. But what his jangled nerves could still spare for the canvas would help launch the baroque artistic epoch and still influences us today.

Flight, fancy, and fortune took Caravaggio to Malta and to Sicily, but the year or so he spent as Naples’ visiting genius would make his artistic legacy: that city’s succeeding generations of painters took enthusiastic inspiration from Caravaggio’s Neapolitan offerings — like a Seven Works of Mercy that must have carried a very personal meaning for the hunted man.

He was reportedly as arrogant and hot-tempered on the run as he had been in Rome, but Caravaggio’s art in exile also traces his desperate attempts to undo the consequences of his bad behavior.

Exploiting his apparent affinity for the sawing off of heads, Caravaggio rendered his own head in a severed state in at least two apparently penitential paintings during this vulnerable period.

This Salome with the Head of John the Baptist was made for the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the latter had in 1608 booted Caravaggio from that island refuge:

While David with the Head of Goliath seems to have been created shortly before Caravaggio’s own death for the pope’s art-hounding “Cardinal Nephew” Scipione Borghese, in a bid to earn a pardon. Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the dead man, and Latin inscription “humility kills pride” on the Israelite hero’s sword, suggest an attempt to effect through his creative virtuosity his own execution in effigy.

That would be, at any rate, the only execution Caravaggio ultimately had to endure. He died in the summer of 1610 under unclear — and inevitably suspicious — circumstances while attempting to return to Rome.

A few biographical books about Caravaggio …

… and some Caravaggio art books

* Ranuccio Tomassoni was the pimp and lover of a prostitute named Fillide whom Caravaggio had painted years before, and become enamored of. This Fillide was also Caravaggio’s model for Judith in the arresting painting of the Biblical heroine in mid-decapitation above.

** Possibly, if you like the love triangle angle, in a botched attempt to castrate his rival.

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1268: Conradin of Swabia

3 comments October 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1268, 16-year-old boy-king Conradin was beheaded in Naples with his best friend.

This short-lived son of German king Conrad IV inherited his call on the purple at the age of 26. 26 months.

While the infant king worked on his ABC’s in Swabia, different regents tried to keep his Sicily and Jerusalem thrones warm in the far-flung empire.

Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Conradin’s uncle and “regent” Manfred usurped him in Sicily, tipping over the first domino in a peninsular political chain that would fell both relatives. With Manfred’s accession, the rival power of the papacy now faced an active military strongman at its doorstep — and it, in turn, sponsored French noble Charles of Anjou to oppose, and eventually overthrow, Manfred.

By the time all this played out, Conradin was, if not exactly a seasoned man of the world, at least old enough to hear his voice cracking and start noticing girls. By the standards of medieval Europe, that was plenty old enough to press his injured rights in battle.

Accordingly, Conradin — Corradino, to the Italians — led Hohenstaufen boots down the boot to reclaim Sicily. No dice.

His captor’s attitude was summed up in the sentiment, Conradi vita, Caroli mors — “Conrad’s life is Charles’s death,” somewhat doubtfully ascribed to the counsel of Pope Clement IV — so when you think about it, it was no more than self-defense to cut short that vita. And his buddy’s, too, since the scaffold was already hired for the day.


Conradin of Swabia and Frederick of Baden Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples, by Goethe buddy Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Did either try the Sicilian Defence?

He turns to clasp with longing arms his friend,
And turning, sees the fatal blow descend,
Then presses with his lips the severed head,
Last greeting of the dying to the dead.
One quivering flash, a shock that is not pain,
And those he parted death unites again.
So perished Conradin, but legends tell
That as the trenchant blade descending fell,
An eagle, that, unseen by human eyes,
Had poised aloft, down swooping from the skies,
For one short instant hovered o’er the slain,
And dyed his pinions with a crimson stain,
Then wildly shrieked, and upward soaring sped
To witness for the blood unjustly shed.

-Tribute in purple poetry by William John Rous (Here’s a more prose-y review of Conradin’s campaign and demise)

This upward-soaring, crimson-pinioned raptor saw off the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the unstable years that followed, as rival princes and factions jockeyed for influence, there’d be some serious nostalgia for the bygone Hohenstaufens. But there is opportunity as well as peril in change, and though it may be that this fractious realm was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, it emerged from its interregnum with its first Habsburg ruler — of many.

What’s left of Corradino di Svevia (and Frederick of Baden) lies entombed at a Neapolitan church, watched over by a monumental 19th century marble sculpture of the youth.

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1815: Joachim Murat, Napoleonic Marshal

5 comments October 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1815, French Marshal-cum-Neapolitan King Joachim Murat was shot in Pizzo, Italy, for a failed attempt to regain his throne.

The charismatic cavalryman cuts a snazzy figure in the Napoleonic era, from its very infancy: it was Murat who secured for the 26-year-old Bonaparte the cannon used to deliver the “whiff of grapeshot” whose odor set Napoleon on the path to becoming Emperor.

Murat knew a good thing when he had it, and thereafter zipped around with the peripatetic conqueror, finding time between dashing mounted charges to marry Napoleon’s sister Caroline.

Murat’s honors multiplied with his commander’s victories: “First Horseman of Europe” (whatever that means); Grand Duke of Berg and Cleves; at last, in 1808, he was appointed King of Naples and Sicily, beneficiary via Caroline of the Corsican’s policy of installing family members to helm his satellite kingdoms.

Still, that elevation didn’t mean Murat would just retire to his Mediterranean villa and his mistresses: he was on call when Bonaparte went to invade Russia.

Leo Tolstoy, undoubtedly a hostile witness in his epic War and Peace, renders Murat as something of an oblivious dunderhead:

Though it was quite incomprehensible why he should be King of Naples, he was called so, and was himself convinced that he was so, and therefore assumed a more solemn and important air than formerly. He was so sure that he really was the King of Naples that when, on the eve of his departure from that city, while walking through the streets with his wife, some Italians called out to him: “Viva il re!” he turned to his wife with a pensive smile and said: “Poor fellows, they don’t know that I am leaving them tomorrow!”

But though he firmly believed himself to be King of Naples and pitied the grief felt by the subjects he was abandoning, latterly, after he had been ordered to return to military service — and especially since his last interview with Napoleon in Danzig, when his august brother-in-law had told him: “I made you King that you should reign in my way, but not in yours!” — he had cheerfully taken up his familiar business, and — like a well-fed but not overfat horse that feels himself in harness and grows skittish between the shafts — he dressed up in clothes as variegated and expensive as possible, and gaily and contentedly galloped along the roads of Poland, without himself knowing why or whither.

Like his fellow-Marshal Michel Ney, Murat nevertheless had the realpolitik chops to get on after their thrust to Moscow had so calamitously reversed — in Murat’s case, by cutting a deal with the Austrian Empire to retain his kingship.

But also like Ney, he couldn’t resist joining Napoleon’s ill-fated 1815 reunion tour. Murat could have survived the consequent loss of his throne, but made a quixotic bid to invade with only a handful of men the former possession whose people he quite wrongly imagined would rally to his cause.

Not the realization of the day-dreams of the most dreaming youth, not the visible acting of the strangest visions which the dramatist and romance-writer have conceived, could strike us with more wonder than the simple narration of that which befel the son of the baker of Cahors in his passage from the ranks of the French army to the throne and sceptre of Naples; and, alas! one step farther, an unquiet and a mournful one, to that small court in the castle of Pizzo, where the hero of a hundred fights, — the Achilles of the chivalrous French, — gazed for a second, with uncovered eye and serene brow on the party drawn out to send the death-volley home to his heart.

Well, this depiction of Murat’s end is plainly of more sympathetic character than Tolstoy would have done.

… the disgraceful tribunal, after consultation, declared, “That Joachim Murat, having by the fate of arms returned to the private station whence he sprung, had rashly landed in the Neapolitan dominions with twenty-eight followers, no longer relying upon war, but upon tumults and rioting; that he had excited the people to rebellion; that he had offended the rightful King; that he had attempted to throw the kingdom of Naples and the whole of Italy into confusion; and that therefore, as a public enemy, he was condemned to die, by authority of the law of the Decennium, which was still in vigour.” This very law, by a strange caprice of fortune, was one which Joachim himself had passed seven years before. He had, however, humanely suspended its operations many times, at particular seasons of his rule; and yet this very law, so passed, and so suspended by him, was made the instrument of his death.

The prisoner listened to his sentence with coolness and contempt. He was then led into a little court of the castle, where he found a party of soldiers drawn up in two files. Upon these preparations he looked calmly, and refused to permit his eyes to be covered. Then advancing in front of the party, and, placing himself in an attitude to meet the bullets, he called out to the soldiers, “Spare my face — aim at the heart.” No sooner had he uttered these words than the party fired, and he, who had been so lately King of the Two Sicilies, fell dead, holding fast with his hands the portraits of his family …

* More evidence that blood is thicker than water, since Napoleon and Murat were not chummy. According to Memoirs of Napoleon, His Court and Family, by the wife of another Napoleonic general,

The Emperor did not cherish for Murat the sincere friendship which he entertained for the other officers of the army of Italy. He used frequently to make him the subject of derision; and many of us have heard him laugh at the King of Naples, whom he used to call a Franconi King.

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1799: Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Neapolitan Jacobin

2 comments August 20th, 2009 Jeff Matthews

(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.

Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel vaulted onto the Naples literary scene as a teenage pop princess with a hit poem for the nuptials of King Ferdinand and Maria Carolina (the latter was Marie Antoinette‘s sister).

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.

-ed.

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.

Roughly:

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.

Bibliography

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.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Women

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