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Palazzo Cirella; 1848 turmoil

A glance within the entrance of the palace of the Dukes of Cirella at via Toledo/via Roma 228 reveals a fountain with a bearded male figure rising from a reef and carrying a large jug on his left shoulder. The sculptor is unknown, but the work is in all likelihood an allegory of a river god.

The building is of interest even beyond the statuary. At the end of the 1700s, it was already in the possession of the ancient Catalano Gonzaga family. In more recent history, it is particularly remembered for its role in Neapolitan history as the site of bloody episodes during the revolution of 1848. In Italian there is an expression, “è successo il quarantotto” (roughly: “It happened just like in ‘48”), meaning “All hell broke loose,” and referring precisely to the terrible disorders that took place throughout the city in May of that year, with scenes of urban guerrilla warfare.

The year 1848, famously, had numerous episodes of violence throughout Europe generated by the forces of “liberalism.” In 19th-century Europe that word meant “anti-authoritarian” and described the forces arrayed against the absolutism of the “legitimist” re-crowned heads of Europe, restored after Napoleon. The movements were not necessarily anti-monarchical, but at least agitated for constitutional government and popular representation. Some, however, were independence movements, such as those in northern Italy, where, for example, Milan erupted in the “The Five Days of Milan”, an attempt to free that part of Italy from the Hapsburg (Austrian) Empire. In Naples, the “liberal” movement was, for the moment, concerned with wringing a constitution out of the autocratic king of Naples, Ferdinand II. (The movement failed—as had an earlier movement in 1821; after 1848 Neapolitan liberalism became irrevocably entwined with the cause of the unity of all of Italy, itself, which came to pass in 1861.)

At the time of the 1848 insurrection, the Cirella Palace was inhabited by the ducal Catalano Gonzaga family, all of whose members were fervent liberals, as well as by numerous members of the San Carlo Theater, among whom were several French dancers who joined the rebels behind the makeshift barricades erected during the most tumultuous and bloody phase of the insurrection. The more fervent liberals, headed by the owner’s family, barricaded themselves on the balconies of the palace, securing mattresses and quilts to the railings to protect themselves from gunfire. Pietro Catalano Gonzaga, the duke, organized the defense against the attacks of the Swiss forces in the service of the king. (See Swiss in Naples.) His brother, Giacomo, died in the fighting. The four Swiss regiments in the city lost a total of 205 troops in the single day of true combat in the city; also, they came under severe criticism for their brutality, investigations of which were conducted even by the respective cantonal governments back in Switzerland. The resistance within the Cirella Palace was eventually overcome, residents were dislodged, the palace requisitioned, and all of the participants in the insurrection were arrested.

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