even four different streets named via Caracciolo (for
four differentt Caracciolos!) in Naples: Batistella
Caracciolo (renowned painter
of the Neapolitan Baroque, contemporary of
Ribera and Caravaggio); Bartolomeo Caracciolo, about
whom I know nothing; T. Caracciolo (the T stands for
Tristan, I think); and the one that all Neapolitans
think of when they hear the name "Caracciolo"
—Francesco (portrait, left). The splendid road that
runs from Mergellina to Piazza Vittoria along
the sea, fronting the Villa Comunale, thus, is
named for Francesco Caracciolo (1752-1799), the
Neapolitan admiral whose name is dramatically linked
in history with the rise and fall of the Neapolitan
Republic of 1799 and with the principal players in
that episode: Queen
Caroline, King Ferdinand, Lady Hamilton, and,
especially, Horatio Nelson.
(Besides the links
in the previous sentence, other entries about
this period include: The
Bourbons, part 1; Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel;
Cardinal Ruffo, Lord Nelson
and Lady Hamilton, and On Trial for their Reputations.)
Francesco Caracciolo was born January 18, 1752 of a noble Neapolitan family. He entered the navy at a young age and fought with distinction with the Kingdom of Naples' ally, the British, in the American Revolutionary War. He also fought the Barbary pirates and against the French at Toulon. In December of 1798, the Neapolitan monarchy fled the capital in the face of the insurgent Neapolitan republican forces backed by the French army at the gates of the city. The King and Queen fled to Sicily on Nelson's ship, Vanguard, escorted by Caracciolo on the Neapolitan frigate Sannita.
Caracciolo returned to Naples in January to take care of private matters and arrived in the city after the Republic had been declared. His behavior at that point has remained the subject of speculation. Either he resented being snubbed by King Ferdinand, who had fled aboard Nelson's vessel and not Caracciolo's, or he was appalled at the cowardly flight, itself, or he was truly taken with the newly proclaimed Neapolitan Republic. Whatever the case, he took command of the naval forces of the new Republic. In other words, he betrayed his king.
He led the
Republican navy against royalist Neapolitan and
British naval forces for the brief life of the
Republic, his last major engagement being an attack on
the British flagship, Minerva, inflicting
damage on that vessel. The Republic, however, was
doomed by the withdrawal of French forces from Naples
and by the arrival of the royalist Army of the Holy
Faith under Cardinal Ruffo. Caracciolo was captured.
His trial is a matter of record and takes place
against the whole backdrop of deceit by which the
Royalist forces actually retook the city. The agreed
to an armistice, promised safe passage to Republican
defenders (presumably including Caracciolo), and then
put the Republicans on trial, anyway.
There was never any doubt as to Caracciolo's fate. Queen Caroline had relayed to Nelson her wish that Caracciolo should hang, no matter what. Caracciolo was tried aboard a British ship, Foudroyant, by Neapolitan royalist officers and charged with high treason. He was not permitted to call witnesses in his defence. He was condemned to death by three votes to two. He was not given the customary twenty-four hours for personal matters of the spirit. His request to be shot was denied and he was hanged from the yardarm of the Minerva on the morning of June 30, 1799. His body was weighted and thrown into the sea.
One of the
mainstays of modern Neapolitan mythology is that the
body refused to sink, floating to the surface and eerily
bobbing its way towards shore. Indeed, there is even a
painting showing King Ferdinand aboard his ship, aghast
at the sight of the admiral's corpse floating alongside.
Whatever the case, Caracciolo's body was retrieved from
the sea and his remains now rest in the small church of
Santa Maria della Catena in the
Santa Lucia section of Naples (photo, above).
[Also see this excerpt from Robert
Southey's Life of
Nelson on the execution of Caracciolo.]