Naples and Sicily belonged to the Spanish Habsburgs until 1700, when the last member of that branch of the family died without choosing between French and Austrian claimants to his throne until the last moment, when he opted for Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV. During the consequent War of the Spanish Succession, armies of both the Austrian emperor and the French prince occupied Sicily. At its end the Treaties of Utrecht (1713–14) confirmed the Bourbon contender as Philip V of Spain, but France’s military defeats by the Duke of Marlborough forced it to cede territory in North America to the British and to abandon those interests in Italy it might have inherited from the Spanish crown.
After Utrecht Austria hoped to return to Sicily, but the British, illogically and incomprehensibly, persuaded its ally that the island should go to another friend in the recent war, Victor Amadeus, the ambitious ruler of Piedmont and Savoy, who now assumed the title King of Sicily. This was an unwise arrangement because no part of Italy is so unlike Sicily as Piedmont. Victor Amadeus sailed to Palermo in a British ship, the first monarch to visit the island since 1535 and the last to do so till the Bourbon Ferdinand IV fled there to escape the armies of revolutionary France. Coming from Piedmont, where the nobility had a tradition of military and state service, the new king could not understand why Sicilian aristocrats were so unwilling to be soldiers or administrators. He called their assembly in Palermo an ‘ice-cream parliament’ because eating ice-cream seemed to be its members’ most conspicuous activity. The nobles were equally contemptuous of this rustic-looking northerner and regretted the disappearance of Spain’s elegant and elaborate viceregal court. After attempting a few reforms, Victor Amadeus soon tired of trying to rule an ungrateful island from Turin and offered it to Austria provided he was compensated by somewhere else where he could be called a king; eventually he managed to get himself made King of Sardinia. Meanwhile a large Spanish force invaded Sicily, but its navy was destroyed by a British fleet while its army was defeated by Austrian troops coming across the Straits of Messina. The Treaty of The Hague in 1720 confirmed Sicily as a possession of the Austrians, who soon made themselves unpopular on the island by trying to reform institutions which the islanders did not wish to see reformed. In 1734 another Spanish attempt to seize Sicily succeeded, and the Bourbons thereafter ruled it until they were defeated by Garibaldi in 1860.
Each change of Sicilian ruler between 1700 and 1734 was a consequence of a wider European conflict, of the contest between Habsburg emperors (Spanish and Austrian) and French monarchs (first Valois, then – in Spain as well as France – Bourbon) that had been dragging on for 200 years. In the process the chief antagonists altered Italian boundaries and dynasties, usually at treaties negotiated in the Netherlands, with no regard for the wishes or interests of the inhabitants. Sicilians could watch Spanish, Austrian or Piedmontese armies tramping over their island just as they could spy the British navy supporting one force or another off their coasts, yet they had no say in what might happen when the fighting was over.
The rest of Italy was also affected by mysterious decisions taken in the north. Like the Medici in Tuscany, the Farnese in Parma died out in the 1730s through the failure of its last males to procreate. The succession correctly went to the last duke’s acquisitive niece, Elizabeth Farnese, although, as she was living in Madrid as Queen of Spain, the duchy was assigned to her son, Don Carlos, whom the European states had simultaneously selected to be the next Grand Duke of Tuscany. Rushing to Florence with an army ready to take over, the young Spanish prince displayed his life-long obsession with hunting by shooting arrows at the birds woven into the tapestries in the Pitti Palace. But Gian Gastone de’ Medici failed to die as soon as everyone expected, and, by the time he did expire, the War of the Polish Succession (1733–5) had upset all plans and altered Don Carlos’s ambitions. Now, at a moment of Austrian military weakness, Elizabeth Farnese revived Spanish claims to the crowns of Naples and Sicily and told her son to overrun those kingdoms, which he soon did. As Charles VII, he ruled in Naples from 1734 to 1759, when he succeeded his half-brother as Charles III of Spain, the nation he ruled until his death in 1788.
After Charles had taken Naples from Austria, the vanquished power annexed Parma but was soon forced to return it to a Bourbon-Farnese ruler, Philip, a younger brother of the new Neapolitan king. A condition of European acceptance of Charles in Naples was the separation of the southern crowns from Spain, a proviso that later allowed his younger son Ferdinand to create his own dynasty in Naples. A similar condition was attached to the succession in Tuscany that finally settled on Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, who had to be recompensed for the loss of his own duchy, given to ex-King Stanislaw of Poland, the loser in the War of the Polish Succession and the father-in-law of the French monarch Louis XV. Shortly before his death in 1737, the last Medici insisted that Tuscany must never form part of the Habsburg Empire whose heiress, Maria Theresa, was the wife of Francis Stephen. After yet another war over another succession (this time the Austrian), the long game of musical thrones was finally stopped in 1748 at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The peninsula remained dominated by foreign dynasties – the Bourbons in Parma and the south, the Habsburgs in Milan (since the War of the Spanish Succession) as well as Tuscany – but it had now achieved a certain equilibrium of power. A half-century of war was giving way to a half-century of peace.
Aix-la-Chapelle was signed at a time when the ideas of the French philosophes and other writers of the Enlightenment were just beginning to percolate through the minds of Italian rulers and some of their subjects. People were coming to expect more from their monarch, not that he should share power with them but that he should act wisely, as a philosopher-king, educating his subjects, reining in the Church and the nobility, taking a leading part in promoting agriculture and trade. Thus arrived the era of ‘enlightened despotism’, a term applied to an age during which, at least in retrospect, the sovereigns of Europe are made to appear as if they had been competing hard to personify the notion: digging canals and draining marshes, constructing roads and abolishing tolls, reading Voltaire and Montesquieu before expelling the Jesuits and dissolving the monasteries – and all the time building an enlightened paradise with schools, hospitals, universities and academies.
The prince most closely resembling the stereotype in Italy was the second son of Maria Theresa, Peter Leopold, the Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. Intelligent and energetic, he was driven by the desire for reform in both economic and humanitarian affairs. He attacked monopolies and encouraged free trade, built roads and bridges, made taxes both lower and fairer, and reduced the public debt; he also made a valiant attempt to drain the Maremma’s marshes. In consultation with the Milanese writer Cesare Beccaria he drew up a penal code that made Tuscany the first state in Europe to abolish the death penalty and burn the gallows – a measure so audacious and encouraging to the cause of enlightenment that a Spanish reformer implored his own progressive sovereign to turn his eyes to Tuscany, to ‘reflect upon the mildness of the penalties’, upon ‘the small number of crimes’ committed there, and to ‘read over and over again the penal code’ of its prince. Among his other merits, Peter Leopold was conscientious and loyal to a state that had had no connection to either of his parents’ families before 1734. Although from 1770 he was heir to the imperial throne in Vienna, the grand duke kept his father’s promise to defend the rights and maintain the autonomy of his duchy. In 1790 he became the penultimate Holy Roman emperor after the death of his brother, Joseph II, who was the greatest and most innovative of all enlightened monarchs, an emancipator of serfs as well as Jews, although unlike Catherine of Russia and Frederick of Prussia he has not been known as ‘the Great’ – perhaps because at the end of his life he was defeated by the forces of Belgian conservatism. During his brief reign in Vienna, Leopold II (as Peter Leopold became) retained his reforming zeal, abolishing various punishments and ordering the police to be kind to prisoners; he even gave his subjects ‘something of the principle of habeas corpus’.
Enlightened despotism would not have lasted even without the French Revolution. The phrase is after all an oxymoron, though it seemed to make sense for half a century; ultimately, the ideas of the Enlightenment were bound to lead to demands for constitutional reform and the abolition of despots. Besides, however enlightened the rulers were, there was a limit to how despotic their behaviour could be, even without parliaments. Wherever reforms were attempted – in Florence, Milan, Naples or elsewhere – there were nobles and clerics always ready to dilute, delay and otherwise obstruct them.
The first half of the eighteenth century had been a great age for Italian scholarship, a time when the peninsula housed some of Europe’s finest philosophers and historians, men of the stature of Giambattista Vico, Lodovico Muratori and Pietro Giannone. Later in the century, their followers flocked to the enlightened courts, especially to Florence, the favourite rallying-point for reformers from Spain as well as Italy. They were eager to advise and cooperate with rulers on practical projects and simultaneously to establish a peninsular intelligentsia that could function across Italy’s many boundaries, creating in the process what they hoped would be ‘a republic of letters’. This was a flourishing era for cultural and scientific academies and also for journals, which could disseminate ideas and discoveries beyond the frontiers.
Contemporary intellectuals sometimes talked of a cultural Italy but not of a political patria: nationalism did not exist before the French Revolution. Most of them accepted what the despots gave in the way of reforms and did not ask for much more. Like the Piedmontese writer Vittorio Alfieri, they might write plays attacking tyranny but they did not criticize the enlightened despots. As Guicciardini had done in the sixteenth century, some accepted and even revered the political disunity and consequent diversity and cosmopolitanism of their country. When one intellectual suggested the possibility of a single Italy, another remarked that he did not want ‘love of country to affect our impartiality as good cosmopolites’.
After Florence and Austrian-ruled Milan, Naples was the best place for intellectuals to be, living under the sympathetic eyes of its new Bourbon monarchs and their talented ministers. Rome or Turin would not have tolerated the presence of Antonio Genovesi, who inspired many people with his advocacy of radical economic and humanitarian reforms. Yet in the tolerant atmosphere of Bourbon Naples he could enjoy a successful public career as a professor of metaphysics and a professor of ethics before becoming in 1754 the first professor of political economy in Europe.
Charles of Naples was an unusual enlightened despot. He promoted learning, so long as it did not affect himself or his children. He constructed a great opera house, although he disliked music and slept or chatted during performances. He was a keen builder, but mostly of palaces in places convenient for the hunting which he did every afternoon regardless of the weather. Yet however unread and unlearned he was, Charles was an intelligent and conscientious ruler – at least in the mornings – with the knack of picking able ministers to carry out sensible policies. Although he was not greatly interested in economics or legislation, his rule oversaw a doubling in revenue and a decrease in taxation; and he made Naples one of the great capitals of Europe.
As the king’s eldest son was an imbecile and his second was heir to the Spanish crown, the Neapolitan throne went to the third brother, Ferdinand, who was left alone at the age of eight when his parents went to Madrid. While a Council of Regents directed his realm, Ferdinand emerged as a boisterous, bonhomous, rough-edged youth who loved hunting as much as his father and hated reading, writing and even signing his own name. His first complaint about his wife, a Habsburg princess, was that she liked books. His rustic manners and earthy vocabulary may have been ill-suited to the palace of Caserta – ‘the Italian Versailles’ – but they made him popular; he was called the lazzarone king because he empathized with the city’s famous underclass known as lazzaroni, and like them he enjoyed eating maccheroni with his fingers. As in the time of his father, intelligent advisers carried out reforms that the monarch often cared little about. ‘If he remained ignorant,’ observed the aesthete and historian Harold Acton, ‘at least his subjects were becoming enlightened.’
Ferdinand presided over a huge capital city, containing perhaps half a million people, most of whom lived precariously in the shadow of famine, earthquakes and of course Vesuvius. Its poorest inhabitants were famous for l’arte di arrangiarsi, the skill of getting by, somehow acquiring enough coins for a bowl of maccheroni without worrying too much about where the next one was coming from. Northern Italians have seldom liked Naples, but northern Europeans have usually been more generous. Goethe admired l’arte di arrangiarsi and denied that its practitioners were idlers; Naples was ‘a happy country’, he thought, a ‘paradise’ where everyone lived ‘in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness’, himself included. The eighteenth-century city teemed with beggars and vagrants but it was not a violent place. As witnesses and statistics testify, the Neapolitans seldom got drunk or rioted, and the murder rate was low.
For the German poet, Palermo was also a paradise, and Sicily as a whole was ‘the clue to everything’. ‘To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily,’ he bizarrely warned, was ‘not to have seen Italy at all.’ Yet to see Sicily in the eighteenth century was to see a place with no trace of that epoch except in the profusion of its buildings, for the island was immune to the spirit of the Enlightenment. As the Sicilian historian Rosario Romeo observed, the only European development that the island welcomed was the Counter-Reformation; the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had virtually no impact. Unlike Naples, Sicily contained only a handful of reformers, and even they were too timid and tepid to advocate the abolition of feudalism. King Ferdinand had outstanding ministers in Naples who were unable to do anything with an island where the landed classes wanted nothing to change: if the Prince of Palagonia accepted the abolition of his droit du seigneur (which was nominal in most places anyway), he felt justified in imposing a marriage tax on his vassals for having made an apparent sacrifice. Aristocrats in other parts of Italy were showing increasing interest in visiting their estates and making them more productive, but in Sicily landowners did not follow the trend. Instead of riding from time to time over their latifondi, seeing what was happening on their farms, they stayed in Palermo, trundling up and down the marine front each afternoon in their carriages, attended by their liveried footmen. When the great Neapolitan viceroy, the Marquess of Caracciolo, arrived in Palermo in 1781, the nobles united to impede his reforms, especially those that might have led to a reduction of their feudal powers.
Italians may have been dejected by the survival of foreign dynasties in the peninsula, but most of them would have recognized that the eighteenth-century representatives of the Habsburgs and Bourbons were superior to native rulers. Travellers usually identified the pope’s domains as the most misgoverned region of Italy. Goethe contrasted the public buildings in Tuscany, ‘beautiful and imposing … combining usefulness with grace’, with the squalor and disorder in the Papal States, which seemed ‘to keep alive only because the earth refuses to swallow them’. The countryside was neglected, agriculture was stagnant, and internal trade was obstructed by endless tolls; it was difficult to find signs of any real economic activity except in Ancona, which had been a free port since 1732. Rome was the most violent city in the whole of Italy, with far more murders than in Naples, which was three times the size. The French scholar and traveller Charles de Brosses considered its government ‘the worst imaginable’, exactly the opposite of what Machiavelli and Thomas More had ‘envisaged in their Utopias’. Its population of 150,000 was divided, according to him, into three portions, one-third of them being clergy, another third doing a little work, and the last third doing nothing at all.16 Yet neither popes nor cardinals made a serious attempt to improve matters except one, Benedict IV, an intelligent man who had read Voltaire and the philosophes and knew that the art of government required something beyond an attitude of rigid obscurantism. Yet despite his efforts to improve agriculture and reduce taxation, his reforms had achieved little by the time of his death in 1758.
A hundred years later, the Papal States retained their reputation for bad government and were often contrasted with Piedmont, hailed in the mid-nineteenth century as the most progressive of the peninsular states, prosperous and liberal, the only one capable of welding and leading a brave new Italy. Yet in the seventeenth and eighteenth (and early part of the nineteenth) centuries Piedmont was a very backward and reactionary place. To many Italians it seemed primitive and rather foreign; its people, including its monarchs and aristocrats, spoke in French or in local dialect. Compared to the cities of Lombardy and Emilia, those in Piedmont were culturally meagre and so out of touch with the rest of the Po Valley that even the Renaissance had had little influence; Turin itself has no true Renaissance churches except its cathedral. In many parts of northern and central Italy nobles were happy to be merchants and bankers. In Piedmont their career options were limited to three: the army (the most popular), the Church and public service.
The ruling dynasty was the house of Savoy, the Savoyards or, in Italian, Savoia or Sabaudi. They had been counts and later dukes of Savoy in the Middle Ages, ruling Nice and Savoy on one side of the Alps and parts of Piedmont on the other. In 1563 they shifted their capital from Chambéry to Turin because it was clear that the Po Valley offered more room for expansion than Savoy, which was perennially threatened and frequently invaded by France. That military expansion was the dynasty’s principal ambition can be perceived today by anyone wandering around Turin and looking at the many statues of kings, princes and generals waving their swords from the saddle. One of the most martial is in the Piazza San Carlo, where the bronze figure of Emanuel Philibert, mounted on a prancing horse, is pushing his sword back in its scabbard after the Battle of Saint-Quentin, a victory for him and his Spanish allies against the French in 1557. A century later, his successors’ persecution of the Waldensian Protestants in western Piedmont incited John Milton to ask God to avenge his
slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold …
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks …
When writing of the Savoia in Piedmont, historians have found it difficult to avoid using adjectives such as wily, unscrupulous, ruthless and opportunistic to describe rulers who merited their reputation for choosing the winning side in a conflict. All those adjectives apply to Emanuel Philibert’s son, Charles Emanuel I, who started several wars during his long reign between 1580 and 1630 and swapped sides between France and Spain depending on which seemed likely to reward him with the most territory. In his even longer reign a century later, Victor Amadeus II too played France off against Spain, and both he and his son, Charles Emanuel III, managed to snaffle large slices of Lombardy. Victor Amadeus was also the duke who, without any claim to either island, had himself made King of Sicily and then King of Sardinia, after which his territories were generally known as the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.
Such reforms as the government undertook in the early eighteenth century owed little to the Enlightenment: they were inspired by the absolutist example of Louis XIV rather than by any ideas of the philosophes. Thus the armed forces were strengthened and the tax system made more efficient for the purpose of increasing state power. Censorship and political repression were so heavy that several of Piedmont’s small number of intellectuals decided to emigrate. Vittorio Alfieri, the distinguished poet and dramatist, was one who chose to escape, preferring to write in France or Florence where he lived happily with the Countess of Albany, the wife of the Stuart pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Others, less fortunate, were prevented from leaving and confined for long periods in prison. Pietro Giannone, the great anti-papal historian who inspired Gibbon, was kidnapped by Piedmontese agents working with the Inquisition and died in gaol in 1748 after a captivity of twelve years.