Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Sept. 2003

Maria Sophia, the Last Queen of Naples 

Victors write the history books and inevitably give short shrift to the losers. In this case, the victors —the unifiers of Italy in the years 1860-70— have described that process as an unstoppable fulfillment of Italian destiny. They certainly have not spent much time on one loser, Maria Sophia (1841-1925), the last queen of Naples, a woman whose life reads like one of those novels that young girls, maybe in 1900, used to read furtively in convent boarding schools late at night when the nuns thought everyone was asleep. 

By the age of 19, Maria Sophia had been a queen, lost her kingdom, rallied soldiers around her in the hopeless defence of a lost cause, and had had men —even her enemies— writing reams of romantic slush about her. She was "the angel of Gaeta" who would "wipe your brow if you were wounded or cradle you in her arms while you died". D'Annunzio called her the "stern little Bavarian eagle" and Marcel Proust spoke of the "soldier queen on the ramparts of Gaeta". She was intelligent, lovely, and headstrong; she could ride a horse and defend herself with a sword. She was everything you could ask for —a combination of Amazon and Angel of Mercy. 

Maria Sophia was from the royal Bavarian house of Wittelsbach and was the younger sister of the better-known Elizabeth ("Sissi") who married Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. In 1859 Maria Sophia married Francesco II of Bourbon, the son of Ferdinand II, King of Naples. Within the year, with the death of the king, her husband ascended to the throne and Maria Sophia gave up the frivolous court pursuits of a princess and took on the full-time responsibilities as the queen of a realm that was shortly to be overwhelmed by the forces of Garibaldi and Italian unity.

Fortress of GaetaTo avoid bloodshed in the major city of Naples, the king and his army retreated to Gaeta (photo, right) to make what turned out to be a last stand. In late 1860 and early 1861, the forces of Victor Emanuel II lay siege to the stronghold of Gaeta (on Monte Orlando) and eventually overcame the defenders. It was this brief episode that gained Maria Sophia the reputation that stayed with her for the rest of her life. She was tireless in her efforts to rally the defenders, caring for the wounded, and daring the attackers to come within range of the fortress cannon. She refused the chivalrous offer from the attacking general that if she would but mark her residence with a flag, he would make sure not to fire upon it with artillery. Go ahead and shoot at me, she said; I will be where the men are. In one lighthearted episode—if anything at all can relieve the horrors of a four-month siege—she assembled the men on the seaside rampart, had them turn around, pull down their trousers and "moon" the attacker fleet. She was worshipped unto idolatry by her men.

The defense was in vain. There are many accounts of the Bourbon defense of Gaeta, written at the time or shortly thereafter. Among the most interesting is Journal du siège de Gaëte by the Belgian journalist, Charles Garnier (published in Brussels in 1861). The author was in the besieged fortress town for the duration, his daily journal entries running from November 4, 1860 through February 14, 1861. His diary of the siege is an entirely sympathetic account of heroism in the face of certain defeat; it is grim in the details of constant bombardment, disease, and hunger, yet upbeat in the description of the optimism of the defenders, who were cheerful enough to dress up for carnevale and scurry about with artillery shells landing nearby. The account skimps on personal descriptions of King Francis and Queen Maria Sophia, "so as not to place vain ornaments at the foot of the pedestal for which the Bourbons of Naples are destined." Yet, the few details are kind, describing how the Queen placed her own food at the disposal of the wounded, and so forth. Garnier's last image of the Queen is after the surrender, as the French ship, Mouette, leaves Gaeta to carry the royal family into exile: "The queen remained by herself at the prow, leaning on the railing and contemplating the cliffs of Gaeta." When it was over, the Bourbon officers and men could choose to go home or even take leave and then return to be part of the new all–Italian army.

Francis II, the last king of Naples

King Francis II, the Last King of
                  NaplesInterestingly, the defense of Gaeta was not the last gasp of the Bourbons, militarily speaking. That honor goes to the fortress of Messina in Sicily and, in the northernmost part of the kingdom, the hill-top fortress of Civitella di Tronto near the Adriatic. They surrendered on March 15 and March 20, respectively, over a month after the King and Queen of Naples had left Gaeta.

Maria Sophia and her husband went into exile in Rome, the capital of what for 1,000 years had been the sizable Vatican States —a large chunk of central Italy. By 1860, however, the "Patrimony of Saint Peter," as it was also called, had been reduced to the city of Rome, itself, as the armies of Victor Emanuel II came down from the north to join up with Garibaldi, the conqueror of the south.

In the decade of the 1860s, Rome was a hotbed of what was then called "legitimism", those who resisted the waves of revolution that shook Europe in the mid–1800s, revolution that was eventually responsible for the death of absolutism and the rise of constitutional government throughout the continent. Stopping revolution and returning to an older order had happened before in Europe. After all, Napoleon had been overthrown in 1814, and the subsequent Congress of Vienna had, indeed, restored "legitimacy," returning kingdoms and fortunes to their previous owners. Maybe it could happen again; that thought was no doubt foremost in the minds of the royalist soldiers and adventurers who made up what amounted to a small "foreign legion" in Rome and who gathered around the ex–king and queen of Naples.

King Francis set up a government in exile in Rome that enjoyed diplomatic recognition by most European states for a few years as still the legitimate government of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Bourbons of Naples even had the sympathy and support of the Pope, himself the absolutist king of the Papal States, who had considerable support throughout Europe in his denunciations of the "–isms" of revolution: socialism, communism, republicanism, and anarchism. Indeed, the Pope's own legitimacy had been restored in 1849 when the united armies of Catholic Europe answered his call for help, overthrowing the short-lived Roman Republic and restoring the Papal State. 

The defeat of the Bourbons of Naples, their subsequent presence in Rome for 10 years, and the soon-to-be outrageously farfetched hopes for yet another general counter-revolution to restore the "legitimacy" of the old order in Italy —all this was very much discussed in the press of the day. An article by William Chauncey Langdon entitled "The Last Stand of the Italian Bourbons" appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for November 1884. The author is writing 25 years after King Francis and Queen Maria Sophia took up residence in Rome after the fall of their kingdom and only 15 years after the fall of the Papal state, when they were forced to leave Rome for elsewhere. He comments first on their defeat at Gaeta, then on "legitimist" sympathies, and then on the presence of the Neapolitan royal family in Rome during the 1860s:

    … The week subsequent to the entrance into Naples, Francis II., defeated on the Garigliano and at Capua, took refuge, with his young Bavarian queen and younger brothers and sisters, in Gaeta, where he was at once besieged by Generals Cialdini and Menabrea. On this last promontory between the Neapolitan and the Papal States young Bourbon royalty stood gallantly at bay…

    … It is strange —or at least it seems so to us now— that many of the Americans and English at the time resident in Rome not only were skeptical of the ultimate success of the Italian revolution, but even sympathized with the old regimes which were then, one by one, giving way before it. The enthusiastic new-comer was quietly assured by the better informed old resident that the apparently rising tide would soon ebb again, as in 1849; and that the inevitable reaction would re-establish more firmly than before the thrones now placed in seeming jeopardy…

    …Pius IX. welcomed the late royal family with somewhat ostentatious hospitality…The shadow of a court gathered round them there…and during the rest of the winter and in the spring which followed they were not infrequently seen driving in the Villa Borghese or on the Pincio. The young queen ever won upon [sic] the kindly interest and sympathy of every one who looked upon her almost girlish figure, her fair face and placid brow, and who thought what it must be to be the wife of an exiled king of Naples. Francis sat silent, gloomy, saturnine…

    …a last glance at this hapless pair, thus passing out of history, is found in the following extract from a journal description of the ceremonies at St. Peter’s on Thursday of Holy Week…

    At the lavanda, — that is, the formal pontifical foot-washing, —I remained long enough to see first the pilgrims come in…With the queen we were all pleased. She is perhaps not beautiful, but very bright and interesting, — a face full of spirit. Near Francis were, apparently, his three brothers, every one of whom was better looking and had a better expression than the king. His four or five young sisters also were, all but one,  pleasing-looking girls…”

    ...These last Bourbon royalties of Italy remained in Rome for some years, vainly hoping and attempting to create a favorable occasion for stirring up a reaction, or at least a conspiracy of one kind or another, in the late kingdom of the Two Sicilies…At last, one by one, they left Rome for Austria or for Bavaria. Bourbon rule in Italy was at an end forever…

Even earlier than the above excerpt, another item from the popular press contains one person's memories of Maria Sophia. The article was entitled "Royal Exiles and Imperial Parvenus." It was signed only by "An Englishwoman" and appeared in an American magazine, The Galaxy, in the issue for October 1872—just two years after the Papal State fell once and for all to the forces of Italy, and the ex-King and Queen had moved elsewhere. Her perceptions [slightly edited, here below] of the last queen of Naples are, clearly, mixed:

...The Palazzo Farnese in Rome was, when I knew it in 1863, the refuge of that modern Joan of Arc, the ex-Queen of Naples… She seemed to me the most lovely vision I had ever seen. Her dark hair…reached half way down her back, and seemed ready to burst the wide-meshed net that confined it. Her eyes and color added to the sprightly, bewitching beauty of her face, and her carriage was absolutely the most willowy and graceful I ever saw.… Physically brave and enduring she certainly was, having been fearlessly and boyishly brought up, inured to exercise, accustomed to adventure, and fond of all athletic exercises. But there the dream of Joan of Arc must end; the high moral resolve, the far-seeing grasp of mind, were utterly wanting… So fair a shrine, but so feeble a lamp within! It was a pity to see her thus. She was seldom in Rome, and only came in occasionally to receive her husband’s subjects and the “distinguished foreigners” who wished to be presented to the 'heroine of Gaeta'.

Pope Pius IX blessing the troops
before the last defense of the
Papal States.

Pius IX blessing troopsIn 1870, Rome fell to the forces of Italy; the Papal States shrank to a few acres on the banks of the Tiber, and the King and Queen moved into exile elsewhere. The king died in 1894. Maria Sophia spent time in Munich, and then moved to Paris. Her activities were, however, far from over. Maria Sophia, herself, said that even if she could never get her kingdom back, she could at least get revenge. 

Italy in the mid-1890s was not a stable nation. The north was shaken by domestic unrest, including one famous episode in 1898 in Milan in which the army brutally put down what the government feared —or said it feared— was the beginning of an anarchist revolution to destabilize and then fragment the state. (That "revolution" was apparently not much more than a bread riot by the unemployed.) There was, at the time, a large anarchist movement in Europe, those who remembered the failed Paris Commune of 1871 and who were ready for another try. That movement centered in Paris, and many of the anarchists gravitated to the informal court of the ex-queen of Naples. After all, they both had a similar aim: destabilize Italy.

Front page after the murder
of the king

Front page
                  after the assassination of the king.It was rumored that Maria Sophia was involved in the assassination of King Humbert in 1900. Italian historian, Arrigo Petacco, (see bibliography, below) recounts that Giovanni Giolitti (1842-1928), Italian Minister of the Interior at the time of the assassination, lent total credence to that idea. Italian government agents had infiltrated the groups of Italian anarchists in northern Italy and Paris and, as well, were well aware of the fact that Maria Sofia presided over her "Bourbon Court in Exile" at the Villa Hamilton in the Neuilly-Sur-Seine quarter of Paris. The Italian government knew the identities of the many anarchists who kept the company of the queen and, as well, knew the names of the various officials of the ex-Kingdom of Naples who still considered themselves to be in her service. That is not proof of anything, of course. The evidence of her complicity is anecdotal. That is, Petacco cites a private letter written to a third party by the prefect of Turin at the time, Guido Guiccioli: "Giolotti told me that the Italian government has proof how the plot at Monza [the city where Umberto was murdered] was carried out. It was inspired by, facilitated by, and paid for by Maria Sofia... ."

Hearsay, your honor! Indeed, if that is so, the defense might claim, why did neither Giolitti nor the Italian government ever present the proof or make a formal accusation? Also, why did no Italian newspaper of the day —jammed for weeks and months with nothing but news and speculation about the assassination— mention the queen's possible involvement? (The only conspiracy debate in the papers was whether the assassin, Gaetano Bresci, acted alone or was part of a larger anarchist plot.) And would the queen, out of some deranged desire for revenge on those who had taken her realm, really conspire to commit murder (!) with the very same people who had murdered her own sister a few years earlier?  Thus, the "evidence" —for whatever it is— convinces those who want to be convinced.

During World War I, Maria Sofia was actively on the side of Germany and Austria in their war with Italy. Again, the rumors claimed she was involved in sabotage and espionage against Italy in the hope that an Italian defeat would tear the nation apart and that the kingdom of Naples would be restored. All of that was rendered moot by the great political and social changes in Europe between the time of her role as a "modern Joan of Arc" in 1860 and her death in 1925: Her own Kingdom of Bavaria was taken up into a united German Empire; Italy became, irrevocably, a single nation state; some four million Italians (most of them from the south, the ex-kingdom of the Two Sicilies) emigrated to America between 1880 and 1920 (the possible relationship between the unity of the nation and massive emigration is fascinating, but a topic for another time); and European nations were devastated by the Great War. She lived to see Mussolini take power in Italy and to see Hitler make his first move in Germany. (Maria Sophia was still active enough in her 80s to stand at the window of her apartment in Munich and look at anarchists and police battling in the streets. She wanted "to see if young people of today still have the stuff they had when I was young.”)

The wealth and privilege in Maria Sophia's life were, to a certain extent, overshadowed by personal tragedies. Her only child by her husband died in infancy. Also, thanks to Armand de Lawayss, a Belgian count and officer in the foreign forces holed up in Rome, she had twins in 1862. Both of them survived and both were taken from her by her all-wise, scandal-conscious royal Bavarian relatives. It is not clear that she ever saw them again, except once or twice, briefly and under supervision. In the late 1890s, her younger sister, Charlotte, died heroically while trying to help others from a burning building. Shortly thereafter, in 1898, her older sister, Elizabeth, the wife of Franz Josef, the last Austrian emperor, as mentioned above, was stabbed to death by an anarchist.

Another image of Maria SophiaMaria Sophia died in Munich in 1925. The January 20, 1925 edition of il Mattino, the largest newspaper in Naples, the ex-capital of her ex-kingdom —65 years (!) after she had ceased to be relevant to the affairs of southern Italy— still saw fit to devote two full columns to her on the front page beneath the banner headline, "Maria Sofia, ex-queen of Naples, is dead." The write-up was almost totally positive, dwelling on the queen's personal courage, generosity, and anti-traditionalism. It pointed out how she visited and consoled Italian prisoners of war interned in Germany during WW I and how she made sure to the very end of her life when she, herself, was not well-off financially, to maintain pension payments to the last of her personal servants, a man who had served her in Gaeta 65 years earlier. The paper made no mention of any supposed connection between her and Italian anarchists nor supposed involvement in a plot to assassinate King Humbert in 1900. The article, in a single negative note, said that Maria Sophia had been responsible for "organizing banditry in the 1860s in the south." (The term "banditry," as used in that context, may be read as code for "armed resistance by Bourbon troops and sympathizers who refused to surrender to the forces of the new Italy." See this item on banditry in Italy in the 1860s.) Other than that, the paper praised her with "She was one of those European princesses who, with her great gifts, would have had another destiny but for the dramatic events of her times."

Obituaries in many others papers in Europe and America were generally favorable. The New York Times obituary on January 20, 1925, added that Maria Sophia "...distinguished herself in the Franco-Prussian Was as a Sister of Mercy."

No doubt, Maria Sophia attracted harsh criticism as well as fierce loyalty and admiration in her long life. Some of it was central to European politics and some of it was purely personal. One such interesting, personal episode involves the help she gave to the young Neapolitan tenor, Enrico Caruso, who returned her kindness with life-long admiration and affection. (Click here for details of that.)

She, her husband, and their only child found their last resting place in 1984 when their remains were brought to Naples and interred in the church of Santa Chiara.

There is a considerable bibliography on the last days of the Bourbons of Naples, but I am not aware of an original English-language biography of Maria Sophia. Some Italian biographies are: 

  • Una Regina contro il Risorgimento. F.Castiglione. Pietro Lacaita Editore. Roma. 1999.
  • Maria Sofia, ultima regina di Napoli, A. Tosti. Milano. 1947; 
  • Maria Sofia; l'eroina di Gaeta. A. Mangone. Grimaldi. Napoli. 1992; 
  • Regina del Sud, A. Petacco. Mondadori (Milano). 1992.

One interesting book, because it was written in 1905, while Maria Sophia was still alive, is Maria Sophia, Queen of Naples: A Continuation of "The Empress Elizabeth" by Clara Tschudi. The original is in Norwegian. An English translation by Edith Harriet Hearn exists. It is a sympathetic portrayal of Maria Sofia and leaves off right after the personal tragedies involving her sisters.

Also (for the section about her possible involvement with the assassination of King Umberto) see L'anarchico che venne dall'America: storia di Gaetano Bresci e del complotto per uccidere Umberto I (The Anarchist Who Came from America: the story of Gaetano Bresci and the plot to kill Humbert I), by Arrigo Petacco. Mondadori, Milano (2000).

(Also see The Bourbons in Exile)

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