Ferdinand IV of Naples

In September 1814 Napoleon’s opponents gathered in Vienna to restore the Europe with which their enemy had so compulsively tampered. Although their work was interrupted by the bogeyman’s return and the Battle of Waterloo, they completed their task quickly and without acrimony. They had set out to restore the ‘legitimist’ pre-1789 order but soon understood the need to be flexible about borders and dynasties. In Italy the three territorial units of Napoleon’s reign were transformed into nine states, two fewer than in 1789.

Some Italians, chiefly in Milan, lobbied against the new arrangements. One of them told the British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, that Italians were no longer the same people who twenty years earlier had been ‘happy and lethargic under the paternal rule of Austria’; they had now acquired ‘a greater love’ of their country and, furthermore, they had ‘learned to fight’. Castlereagh was not interested, and nor were his allies from Russia, Prussia and Austria. As in the eighteenth century, the European powers saw Italy as a diplomatic games board, a lucky resource for compensating and rewarding allies. If the Habsburgs renounced the Austrian Netherlands (which were briefly united to Holland before choosing to disunite to become Belgium), then they had to be allowed back into Italy. Since none of the powers wanted to see nationalism, independence or Jacobinism in the peninsula, they were happy to let Austria keep control and act as a barrier to the infiltration of French influence and ideas. Piedmont was awarded the republic of Genoa for a similar reason – the need to strengthen a state on the French border.

From the congress the Austrian emperor received the new kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which he ruled through a viceroy. His brother Ferdinand was returned to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, while his daughter Marie-Louise (Napoleon’s second wife) became Duchess of Parma, a move that required compensation for the Bourbons of Parma in the shape of the former republic of Lucca, a city with which they had no connection. The rest of the peninsula was rearranged along more traditional lines. The papacy got the Papal States, the Habsburg-Este family was back in Modena, and the Bourbon King of Naples returned from Sicily to his mainland capital. In 1815 all the Italian states except Piedmont were ruled by Habsburgs and their relations or by their close and dependent allies.

Its conclusions demonstrated that the congress was more concerned with security and balance of power than with a strict interpretation of legitimacy. The two entirely ‘legitimate’ states missing from the post-Napoleonic map were the ancient republics of Venice and Genoa, while the republic of Lucca had been converted into a duchy. No doubt the French example had made the powers wary of the word ‘republic’, but European leaders were surely able to differentiate between Robespierre’s gory regime and the Venetian state that had predated it by 1,100 years. Genoa did not want to become part of reactionary Piedmont any more than Venice wished to be ruled by Frenchmen, Austrians or mainland Italians. Yet since they possessed no former dynasties to clamour for restoration, both were considered disposable and so were sacrificed unsentimentally to the territorial ambitions of neighbours.

The ‘Restoration’ has traditionally been seen as the Dark Age of modern Italy, a backward-looking era of clerical control and unenlightened authoritarianism. The word soon became synonymous with ‘reaction’ and ‘repression’ and later also with ‘foreign oppression’, since the Habsburg satellites could (and did) call on Austria to send troops if insurrections threatened them. Yet the picture is only true of certain places. The Duke of Modena may have refused all change and any reform – like his father-in-law, the King of Piedmont – but his neighbour the Duchess of Parma had different views: although she was evidently not pining for her husband, imprisoned on St Helena, she retained his system of administration in her duchy.

The restoration of the pope’s temporal power was indeed a return to a Dark Age, literally so at night because street lighting was regarded as the work of the devil. So were vaccination and railways: Gregory XVI, who was pope from 1831 to 1846, made the equation ‘Chemin de fer, Chemin d’Enfer’ and banned railway construction in the Papal States. Even the conservative Austrian chancellor Metternich, the chief architect of post-Napoleonic Europe, was appalled by a ‘detested and detestable’ government that had no idea how to govern. The inhabitants of the Romagna, accustomed to the administrative efficiency of Eugène’s Italian kingdom, were dismayed to be returned to the rule of cardinal-legates. They had never had much affection for Rome on the other side of the Apennines, where the roads were so bad that they found it quicker to reach their capital by sea. As Christopher Duggan has drily observed, ‘While all roads may once have led to Rome, in the 1820s only two did, and neither was very safe.’

No state was more proudly and profoundly reactionary than Piedmont. Its king, Victor Emanuel I, demonstrated his attitude by returning with his courtiers to Turin coiffured with powder and pigtails and wearing hats that had gone out of fashion with Frederick the Great. He then officially turned the clock back with a royal edict abolishing all laws made by Napoleon and returning his state to its unenlightened eighteenth century. His politics were almost a caricature of obscurantism: noble privileges came back along with guilds, internal customs barriers and the persecution of Jews and Protestants. Virtually nothing of the Napoleonic system was retained except an effective police force.

The successors of Victor Emanuel, his brother Charles Felix and his cousin Charles Albert, shared his conservative and intransigent instincts. Although the belated reintroduction of parts of the Napoleonic codes helped modernize the administration, Piedmont remained a benighted state until the middle of the century. Ecclesiastical courts survived, education was controlled by the Jesuits, and the government insisted on both civil and religious censorship. Newspapers were banned from printing words such as ‘nation’, ‘revolution’ and even ‘Italy’; you could use the word ‘liberty’ only if you were attacking it. Such a stultifying regime understandably encouraged writers and artists to abandon Turin for the freer and more cosmopolitan cities of Florence and Milan.

The restoration in Naples might have been an equally reactionary affair. In 1799 Ferdinand IV had sailed from Sicily intent on retribution and punishment for the defeated supporters of the Parthenopean Republic. Primitive feelings of vengeance overcame the monarch’s more usual good nature and, in violation of the terms of the surrender, he had ordered swift and drastic justice. Although often referred to as the Bourbon ‘Terror’, the repression was not quite on the scale that the dynasty’s enemies later claimed; about 200 people were executed. Yet the cost to the king’s reputation was high and enduring. One of his victims was Eleonora Pimentel, who had once written rhapsodies to the benevolence of Ferdinand’s government and who was hanged for subsequently writing in praise of liberty and equality in the republican newspaper. More dangerously for the future of his dynasty, the king alienated members of his aristocracy by executing several idealistic young noblemen. Most serious of all, his revenge was a propaganda gift for republicans and patriots because it helped to start and later sustain the myth that Italian unification was a saga of heroism and self-sacrifice.

In 1815 Ferdinand returned to Naples in a more restrained mood. He did not feel very grateful to the British, whose navy had protected him in Sicily, because they had bullied him, removed his queen from the court, appointed his more liberal son as regent and insisted on a constitution in Palermo providing for a free press and a bicameral parliament. Yet he was reluctant to antagonize the winning nations of the Napoleonic wars, some of which had flirted with the idea of retaining Murat. In any case he wanted a quieter life and no more enforced sojourns in Sicily. The process of government interested him even less than before, and he entrusted the administration to his minister Luigi Medici so that he could devote his time to the pleasures of eating, hunting and his children’s company. Sometimes he railed against the Napoleonic codes and wanted them to be abolished, as they had been in Piedmont, but he was too weak and too indifferent to overrule the astute Medici and his other ministers. The result was that feudal privileges were not brought back, the civil code was not abrogated, and Naples retained the political and institutional reforms of Murat and Joseph Bonaparte. Ferdinand derived some consolation, however, by disregarding the Sicilians and abolishing their British-inspired constitution. At Vienna it had been decided at last to unite the crowns of Naples and Sicily, and as a result he gave up his old titles (Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of Sicily) to become Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. He now had a constitutional excuse not to permit a separate arrangement for Sicily.

The king died in 1825, sixty-six years after he had ascended the throne left to him on his father’s departure for Madrid. In his final decade he had presided over a reasonably tolerant regime and had stirred himself to combat smallpox, ordering clinics to be built in every village in Sicily and making vaccination compulsory for all (himself included). A perceptive Irish woman, Lady Blessington, who lived in Naples in his final years, described Ferdinand as ‘not a sovereign of superior mental requirements’ but ‘assuredly a good-natured man’. Although she herself was anti-Bourbon and preferred the circle that had supported Murat, she admitted that the people of Naples were not oppressed by their government. ‘We are told that Italians writhe under the despotism of their rulers,’ she wrote, ‘but nowhere have I seen such happy faces.’

The king was succeeded by his son Francis, who abandoned his liberalism at the start of his short reign, and then by his grandson Ferdinand II, who was also for some time a liberal. Like his recent ancestors, the young Ferdinand was ill-educated but on the whole humane and well-meaning, a prince who dutifully toured his dominions and renounced some of the crown’s hunting reserves. He also encouraged science, deciding to hold a Congress of Italian Scientists in Naples in 1845. Yet in the second half of his reign he became a conservative and was lambasted by liberals and later historians as a stupid, cruel and despotic tyrant. After the Sicilian revolution in 1848 he was nicknamed King ‘Bomba’ for briefly bombarding the walls of Messina, while conditions in Neapolitan prisons, which an outraged William Gladstone (at the time a Tory MP) visited in 1850 and denounced a year later, led to his ostracization by much of Europe, especially France and Britain which accepted Gladstone’s resounding though meaningless judgement of the regime as ‘the negation of God erected into a system of government’. Much of this was unfair or at least one-sided. Victor Emanuel II, King of Piedmont and later King of Italy, was not known as ‘Bomba’ although he had bombarded his own city of Genoa in the same revolutionary period; nor was his government condemned as the negation of God even though prison conditions in Piedmont were as terrible as they were in Naples. But in the 1850s Piedmont was emerging as the great European hope of British liberals, and the fate of Naples was to be cast as its antagonist.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was widely regarded, in Italy as in the rest of Europe, as a place of sloth and squalor, of grandeur and poverty, a place where landless labourers kept themselves just alive by scratching the parched soil of distant noblemen, where street urchins in the city picked the pockets of wealthy tourists and bands of brigands roamed with impunity in the hills outside, a land exploited and oppressed by an indolent monarchy, a frivolous aristocracy and a swarm of grasping clergy.

This picture was inherited and preserved by generations of historians until recently the stereotype was re-examined. Then it transpired that the kingdom was not just a land of latifondi, of vast desiccated estates in the interior that contained little except scrub for goats and some thin soil for wheat. Naples may not have had the irrigation or the natural advantages of Lombardy, but it was not an entirely backward place; wheat yields there were higher than in the Papal States. As for the latifondisti, it emerged that they were not all absentee landlords frittering away the produce of their workers by living in luxury in the capital. The latifondo was part feudal and part capitalist, part social structure and part business enterprise. Owners used their lands to feed themselves and the people who lived there, but they often grew food for foreign markets as well. The exported produce of the Barracco family, latifondisti from Calabria, included liquorice, olive oil, fine wool and cacciacavallo cheese.

The state of industry in Naples has been similarly disparaged: travel accounts of the period leave the impression that the inhabitants had never heard of the spinning jenny or the steam engine. Yet a modernized textile industry, aided by a sensible tariff policy, existed in the Apennine foothills in the early nineteenth century; not much later, an engineering industry was established around the capital. Naples in fact enjoyed a number of industrial ‘firsts’. It possessed the largest shipyards in Italy, it launched the first peninsular steamboat (1818) and it enjoyed the largest merchant marine in the Mediterranean; it also built the first iron suspension bridge in Italy, constructed the first Italian railway and was among the first Italian cities to use gas for street lighting. Admittedly, not all these achievements were as impressive as they sound. Naples may have built the first railway, but it was a short one, and its construction did not lead to a rapid expansion of the network. Most of the other states soon caught up and overtook it: by 1860, when the whole of southern Italy had only 125 miles of track, Lombardy had 360 and Piedmont, after a slow start, possessed over 500.

A glance at its economic statistics reveals how separate Naples as a trading partner was from the rest of Italy. In 1855 85 per cent of its exports were sent to Britain, France and Austria, while only 3 per cent crossed the border into the Papal States; Neapolitan trade with Britain was three times greater than that with all the other Italian states added together. Feelings of separateness were not confined to commerce; Naples possessed its own remarkable legal system, widely regarded as superior to any other in the peninsula. Outsiders noticed that the place was different, a distinct, cosmopolitan entity, a kingdom (with or without Sicily) with an ancient history and borders which, almost uniquely in Italy, were not subjected to rearrangement after every war. Moreover, Naples itself was still by far the largest city in Italy – indeed the third-largest in Europe after London and Paris – and had been a capital since Charles of Anjou had established himself there 600 years earlier. It was the only Italian city, thought Stendhal, that had ‘the true makings of a capital’; the rest were ‘glorified provincial towns like Lyon’. Before 1860 hardly anyone contemplated the idea that the kingdom might be destroyed and its territory annexed by an all-Italian state; and little in the subsequent history of that state indicates that the Neapolitans would have been unhappier if they had been left to govern themselves.

In their propaganda Italian patriots of the nineteenth century identified the Neapolitan Bourbons as the chief home-grown tyrants and Austrian Habsburgs as their foreign equivalents. Yet even they were unable to convince themselves that the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was an oppressive state. It was governed by Ferdinand III, son of the great Peter Leopold and brother of the Austrian emperor whose armies had lost four wars against Napoleon and whose daughter had been sacrificed to the French emperor’s desire to beget an heir. Ferdinand’s return to Florence in 1814 did not lead to a persecution of bonapartists or to the abolition of reforms. As in the eighteenth century, Tuscany was a tolerant and civilized place that preferred Jews to Jesuits and welcomed exiles from Piedmont and from other states. Tariffs were low, censorship was feeble, and the armed forces were almost non-existent, though in an emergency the state could call for Austrian troops. Ferdinand was succeeded in 1824 by his son Leopold II, another benevolent ruler until the revolutions of 1848 converted him – along with Pope Pius IX and the King of Naples – to conservatism. In the early part of his reign he reduced taxes, carried out liberal reforms, encouraged science and returned to that perennially elusive project of Tuscan rulers, the draining of the Maremma marshlands on the Tyrrhenian coast. Under Habsburg rule neither Mazzini nor Garibaldi nor anyone else could muster revolutionary support in Tuscany. Even at the time of the 1848 revolution few of their followers were found outside Florence and Livorno.

An easier target for nationalistic passion was Lombardy-Venetia, which, unlike Tuscany, was part of a foreign empire. Patriotic intellectuals fulminated against Austria not because it was a bad ruler but because it was an occupier, though for propaganda purposes they had to claim that it was both. They needed to label Austria as the oppressor to justify their title to be considered liberators. Thus a regime that matched Tuscany in providing the best government in the peninsula became the victim of myths and traducers.

The Emperor Francis had spent his childhood in Florence and retained his affection for Italy despite the repeated defeats of his armies there at the hands of Napoleon. Having no desire to revive the Ancien Régime, he presided distantly over a stable and generally peaceful state served by an efficient bureaucracy and an uncorrupted police force. Under Austrian rule Lombardy possessed the most productive agriculture and the most prosperous industry in Italy. Its inhabitants grumbled about taxation and conscription, but only a minority grumbled about the nature of the regime. The emperor’s chief error was to insist that his mentally deficient son Ferdinand should succeed him after his death in 1835.

Insurrections broke out and conspiracies were discovered in much of Italy (including Lombardy) in the 1820s and 1830s, but the Venetians showed little desire to remove a benign government and take part in them. While disappointed that they had been denied the chance to govern themselves, they were pleased that their city was the joint capital of the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia and relieved that they were no longer governed by the French. Napoleon had stolen the bronze horses of St Mark’s and displayed them in Paris, but Austria brought them back and, with due ceremony, reinstated them on the cathedral’s façade.

The most engaging witness of French and Austrian rule in northern Italy was Henri Beyle, the charming and irrepressible Frenchman who wrote books as Stendhal and called himself Brulard in his memoirs. As a youth of seventeen, he came over the Great St Bernard in 1800, intent on joining General Bonaparte’s army as a subaltern of dragoons. Within weeks of his arrival in Lombardy, he had encountered the three great passions of his adult life: music, love and Italy. One evening he saw Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto and was overwhelmed by the experience. ‘To live in Italy and hear such music,’ he recalled in his autobiography, ‘became the basis of all my reasoning.’ In Milan he went to La Scala several times a week; he also became addicted to falling in love with difficult and sometimes unattainable women.

Stendhal spent Napoleon’s imperial years in the army, stationed in Brunswick and later serving on the quartermaster’s staff in the Russian campaign of 1812. Throughout this time he dreamed of returning to his ‘dear Italy’, which was his ‘true country’ and ‘in harmony’ with his nature. A print of Milan cathedral made him feel so nostalgic that he could not bear to look at it; the smell of veal cutlets cooked in breadcrumbs alla milanese made his yearning still more acute. He wanted his epitaph to begin with the words, ‘Arrigo Beyle, milanese’.

After the emperor’s abdication in 1814, Stendhal returned, unemployed but delighted, to Italy, where he lived for seven years and acquired a second identity, one that was less cynical and more enthusiastic than the one he had left behind in France. A romantic, though an untypically unlyrical one, he sympathized with the nascent patriotic feelings he found in the salons of Milan. But he did not greatly admire the patriotic intellectuals or believe that their aspirations for a united Italy were practical: for him even Naples was hardly Italian while Florence had no more in common with Otranto than it did with Le Havre. He knew there was much wrong with contemporary Italy but he could not bring himself to be harsh about the land of love and music even when he tried: The Charterhouse of Parma, apparently a novel about conspiracy, despotism and imprisonment, is really a love letter to Italy.

Stendhal was a bonapartist who ensured that the style of The Charterhouse was plain and unromantic by reading a few pages of Napoleon’s civil code each morning before writing. He claimed the emperor had ‘rudely transformed’ Milan, turning a city ‘hitherto renowned for nothing save over-eating into the intellectual capital of Italy’; he also claimed, in 1818, that Milan and Florence were mourning Napoleon, though feelings of bereavement were seldom evident outside the liberal circles he frequented. Yet although he was in the anti-Austrian camp, he did not pretend that Italians were suffering under rule from Vienna, and he admitted that people were happier and freer in Milan than they were in Rome or papal Bologna. Novels and operas that would have been banned in Turin could be published and performed in the Habsburg capitals of Venice and Milan. At La Scala in 1845 Giuseppe Verdi encountered no problems with his opera Giovanna d’Arco, but in Rome the censors stripped poor Joan of Arc of her name and even of her nationality so that eventually she appeared before audiences as Orietta of Lesbos, a Genoese heroine leading Greek islanders against the Turks.

Generations of European schoolchildren were taught that Napoleon had brought the idea of unity to Italy, that his defeat had led to a dismal interlude of oppression and reaction, and that Italy’s destiny had finally been fulfilled by the heroic endeavours of its patriots. Yet the determinist theory is completely unhistorical. Italy was no more preordained to unite than Scandinavia, Yugoslavia or North America. Equally mistaken are the ideas that Naples was a foul despotism deserving of destruction, that Lombardy-Venetia was a monument to foreign tyranny and that Piedmont was the liberal knight predestined to rescue Italy and lead her to glory and to unity. Two of the most distinguished Piedmontese of the era – both of them future prime ministers in Turin – realized that the propaganda was all nonsense. Count Cavour knew the truth about Habsburg rule in Lombardy but admitted that in his journalism of the 1840s he was ‘obliged to be over-patriotic and cry out against Austria along with everyone else’. As for the Marquess d’Azeglio, a more genuine patriot than Cavour, the propaganda seemed to him grotesque. ‘To call the present rulers of Italy tyrants,’ he wrote in 1846, ‘would be a childish absurdity.’