Naples:life,death &
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             entry Aug. 2003   

Austrian Naples

                         Naples Under the Double Eagle

The great Spanish Empire founded shortly after the discovery of the New World came to an end in the year 1700 when Charles II of Spain died without an heir. He was a Hapsburg, but willed his throne to the grandson of the French King, Louis XIV, of the House of Bourbon. This potential fusion of Spain and France into a single dynasty so threatened the balance of European power that virtually all of Europe took up arms in the War of the Spanish Succession, a term so dry that it rather sounds like a description of gentleman barristers dickering over the Rule of Perpetuities. It was, however, as wars go, the real deal, the first widespread European conflict among modern rival nation states, true kin to the Napoleonic Wars of a century later and the aptly named World Wars of our own times. 

Naples, as a Spanish possession, was affected by the War of the Spanish Succession. While the war raged from 1700-1713 in northern Europe, Naples fell under the domination of the Austrians when that state successfully moved to take over Spanish territory in Italy. Naples, meaning all of southern Italy, thus became an Austrian dominion, ruled by the Hapsburgs of distant Vienna through a succession of Austrian viceroys stationed in Naples. That state of affairs lasted until the Austrians, as part of the treaty ending the War of the Polish Succession, ceded Naples to Charles III of Spain in 1734, at which time Naples became a sovereign kingdom of its own. 

The period from 1700-1734 is somewhat neglected in the history of Naples. (There is, however, a statue in Piazza Monteoliveto (photo, left) of the above-mentioned Charles II, the last Hapsburg king of the Spanish Empire. He was known as the "Reuccio," meaning the "Little King," so dubbed because he ascended the throne at the age of four.) Compared to the great Spanish period before and the equally great Bourbon period afterwards, the few years under Austria are, perhaps, less important, yet not insignificant; they produced interesting social changes and were a time of great art, music and philosophy in Naples. 

Naples in the year 1700 was almost dead in the water. Spanish rule, innovative and dynamic in the 1500s and early 1600s, had become harsh and corrupt in its last decades, and the city of Naples, itself, had just been through the mother of all wringers —the plague. The ferocious pestilences of 1656 and 1691 had reduced the population of the city from 450,000 to 140,000, and by the first decade of the 1700s Naples still had only about 200,000 inhabitants. It was a loss that crippled the working and merchant classes; sketches of the layout of the city in the early 1700s look the same as half–a–century earlier —no new buildings, no new streets. There had been no growth.

This, then, was the Naples that the Austrians inherited when they entered the city in 1707. The plight was aggravated by two factors that had traditionally been another sort of plague in Naples. One was baronial power, a feudal system of local lords wielding virtually independent power throughout the kingdom, paying but lip service to the central authority of the king. The second problem was land grabbing by the Church within the city. Some estimates set the number of clergy in the city as high as 16,000 in the early 1700s, which would make one out of every 15 persons a cleric! That many clergy needed a lot of land and even a brief trip through the Naples of today sheds light on the problem of three centuries ago: a faithful church-goer in Naples can change houses of worship once a week and run out of Sundays before Naples runs out of churches. Early Austrian critics of the church/state relationship in Naples spoke of a "church–state within a state," made worse by the centuries-old tradition of sanctuary —the premises of a church and even the surrounding area becoming ‘safe houses’ and havens for outlaws. Entire quarters of Naples were, thus, off–limits to the authorities.

In their brief time in Naples, the Austrian viceroys at least held their own against baronial privilege, a dying societal structure anyway, but one that would not crumble until Napoleon dismantled feudalism a century later. The Austrian stance against the Vatican is worthy of note, however. It was the first time in the history of Naples that the state openly challenged the Church’s presumptive right to large untaxed land-holdings. The Hapsburg emperor in Vienna rather enjoyed antagonizing the Pope in this manner, since the Vatican had been openly on the side of the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. Austrian rule made it much more difficult for the Church to wheel and deal in Naples as it had done over the centuries. 

Additionally, Austrian revision of tax laws encouraged planned rebuilding in Naples after the stagnant period at the turn of the century. The Austrians also instituted reform in the University, and, importantly, encouraged the iureconsultus, a body of experts in matters of the law, experts —lawyers— to advise the state and the people when necessary. Even those who love lawyer jokes will see how revolutionary that was in an age of absolute monarchy. As for the physical plant of the city, the Austrians built coastal roads from the city out to the slopes of Vesuvius, roads that eventually led to the modern expansion of Naples in that direction.

solimena self-portraitArtistically, Naples thrived under the Austrians. It was home to great painters of the Baroque, such as Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena (self-portrait, left). The latter's works adorn churches in Naples, Rome and Vienna and are on display in museums in Britain and the United States. His studio in Naples became a workshop for numbers of northern European painters who made the trip south just to study with him. They coincidentally got in on the beginning of the great age of the Grand Tour: northerners coming to Italy to study antiquity; for it was under the Austrians that Naples began the rediscovery of its own Greek and Roman past.

Music in the early 1700s in Europe was greatly shaped by the powerful influences of Neapolitan composers, primarily Alessandro Scarlatti, one of the innovators in early classical music, as important as his contemporary, J.S. Bach, and as important as Mozart a century later. Also, the prodigious Pergolesi changed the face of opera by composing La serva padrona, the first internationally successful piece of Neapolitan Comic Opera, music that greatly influenced Mozart and subsequent operatic and symphonic music. [For an item on Mozart and the Neapolitan Comic Opera, click here]

Statue of Vico in the
Villa Comunale

Intellectual life in Naples in the early 1700s was active. Naples was the home of the misunderstood and obscure philosopher, Giovambattista Vico, whose cyclical view of history was quaint even when he formulated it. It was overshadowed by the powerful thoughts of Hegel and Marx in the next century —their idea holding that history evolves through conflict to ever new and higher states in the human condition. It may well be that Vico’s quaint idea of a returning age, say, of great mythic heroes will never come to pass; yet, on the other hand, it doesn't take whatever passes for a rocket scientist among historians to notice that Karl Marx has been having his problems recently, too. So maybe the jury is still out.

That, then, was Austrian Naples: a brief and interesting period, with one foot in the future, a time that set the stage for the Bourbon take-over in 1734 when Naples would finally become a modern European nation.

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