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Women's role in 1799 Italian counter-revolution was crucial

Soap-opera diplomacy in late-18th-century Naples

by Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

This year marks the 200th anniversary of a revolution that is relatively little-known, probably because it was unsuccessful. However, with principal players engaged in infidelity, betrayal, revenge and a lesbian love affair, it unfolded more like a soap opera than a critical period of Italian history.

These lusty backstage shenanigans altered the course of events and affected European history in the process, according to Italian Studies Professor Filippo Salvatore, who will lecture on the 1799 Neapolitan Revolution in several Italian cities this June as part of the anniversary celebrations.

It's a subject he knows well. Born on the Adriatic coast in the Molise region that used to be part of the Kingdom of Naples, he teaches a course on 18th-century Italy, and continued studying the history of southern Italy for the past 15 years.

Naples blured"The Neapolitan Revolution was the third most important uprising [of the 18th century] after the American and French Revolutions, and a launch-pad for Risorgimento Italy's political unification in the 19th century," he said in a recent interview. "What has always fascinated me is how the relationships among the protagonists, the human element of the counter-revolution, helped shape history."

At the centre of this titillating tale is King Ferdinand IV of Naples, who, in January 1799, had fled from Naples to Palermo, Sicily, while his wife, Queen Maria Carolina, was having an affair with the bewitching Emma Lyons, wife of the British ambassador to Naples, Lord Hamilton.

With the help of peasants, bandits and royalists known as Sanfedisti (Followers of the Holy Faith), led by Cardinal Ruffo, the Bourbon King Ferdinand managed in June 1799 to reconquer Naples, where a republic had been established by Jacobin radicals with the help of French troops.

Queen Maria Carolina, sister of France's famously beheaded Marie Antoinette, was able to use her liaison with Lady Hamilton to her husband's advantage, because the adorable Emma was also having an affair with British admiral Horatio Nelson, who had just beaten Napoleon in Egypt. The Queen persuaded Lady Hamilton to convince Nelson, who was helplessly enamoured of her, to help reestablish the Kingdom of Naples.

By betraying a surrender agreement that Cardinal Ruffo had signed with the republic's revolutionaries, Nelson enabled Maria Carolina and the King to reestablish control of their kingdom. The royals soon ordered their enemies executed for treason -- more than 1,000 members of the upper echelons of society, including the Portuguese revolutionary journalist Eleonora De Fonseca Pimentel.

What makes the Neapolitan saga historically significant, Salvatore said, was the prominent role played by women. "It was also the only counter-revolution in European history that really succeeded -- and became a literally bloody affair."

He considers this a significant episode in 18th-century European politics, since most of the major players, like Nelson, Lady Hamilton, Prime Minister of Naples Acton, and the Queen were foreigners. "It was a multi-faceted event that had international ramifications."

Even with all its intrigue and complexities, Salvatore said, the Neapolitan Revolution has received little international attention. When foreign historians write about Italy's past, he said, "they seem to ignore the 18th century and focus on either the Renaissance or Fascism."

Salvatore, whose doctoral thesis at Harvard was on the development of science in 17th-century Italy, gave an interdisciplinary course last term at Lonergan College called Science and Human Values. The course introduced students not only to the thought of key scientific protagonists, such as Galileo, Newton and Darwin, but dealt with the social responsibilities of science and its ethical dimension.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.