Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Aug. 2003

urat, Gioacchino

Statue of Murat along the west facade
of the Royal Palace in Naples

The shortest-lived dynasty to rule the Kingdom of Naples in its long history was the one installed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. It was the second time in less than a decade that the French had "liberated" Naples from the Bourbons. Earlier, in 1799, the forces of the revolutionary French Republic had set up and shored up the Pathenopean Republic in Naples; however, this sister republic to the south lasted a mere six months before the Bourbon rulers returned from Sicilian exile to restore their monarchy.

In 1806, however, France was firmly in the hands of Napoleon, who, this time around, was taking no chances. He chased the King and Queen of Naples back to Sicily and installed his own brother, Joseph, as King of Naples. Two years later he moved Joseph over to the throne of Spain and installed as King of Naples his sister Carolina's husband, Joachim (Gioacchino, in Italian) Murat, a  trusted military aide. (The royal couple of Bonapartist Naples, image right.) Murat already had a reputation as a daring cavalry leader, having distinguished himself in support of the French Republic and, later, Napoleon's meteoric rise to power. Murat's role in the Egyptian campaign (1798-99) and then in the battles of Austerliz and Jena was heroic. His rule in Naples would last until 1815 and would produce sweeping political and social changes way out of proportion to the few brief years involved.

The changes that took place in Naples under Murat more or less paralleled the changes in the rest of Europe brought about through the imposition of the so-called "Napoleonic Code," a legal system as monumental in human history as the codes of Hammurabi and Justinian, or the Magna Carta. In the Kingdom of Naples, the Napoleonic Code dismantled the 1000-year-old social structure of feudalism. It also instituted a civil service based on merit, one through which even modest citizens of the kingdom could advance. Those two items mark the beginning of an economic middle class. truly the end of one age and the beginning of another. (It is important to remember that in spite of Napoleon's ultimate defeat, these changes helped shape subsequent European history.) 

Murat also revamped the former Bourbon military academy, the Nunziatella, so as to make the military less alienated from the people. He encouraged citizens to avail themselves of military careers and rise through the ranks. He, the king, himself, was the prime example, having started life as the son of an inn-keeper. University reform and the beginnings of scientific facilities such as the observatory and the Botanical Gardens are all part of the innovations in Naples under Murat. Physically, the city acquired broad new roads such as via Posillipo and the boulevard leading from the National Museum out to Capodimonte. (The original name of that splendid thoroughfare was, fittingly, Corso Napoleone.) Additionally, the mammoth structure in what is now Piazza Plebiscito, the Church of San Francesco di Paola, was begun under Murat. It was planned to be but the beginning of an enormous civic center, a forum.

What most fascinates about Murat, however, is not the social change he wrought in Naples, substantial though that may be. It was his political ambition. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the main actors in what is termed the Risorgimento —the movement to unify Italy— Mazzini, Cavour, Garibaldi, were still a generation in the future. The first rumblings of the Risorgimento were already being heard, however. The famous patriotic phrase of Italian patriots in the 19th century, "We shall not be free until we are one," was borrowed from Vincenzo Cuoco, a Neapolitan writer and social philosopher very active during Murat's reign. Additionally, secret societies such as the Carbonari first took hold in Italy in the south at the time of Murat; their avowed aim was constitutional government and eventual unification of Italy. Interestingly, Murat encouraged these groups, for he apparently saw himself as the fulfillment of their vision—he would be the unifier and King of Italy! 

As grandiose as such ambitions were, they were piddling next to those of his brother-in-law's, who was worried about continents and not mere nations. Thus, Murat found himself back at Napoleon's side, serving as valiantly as ever in the Russian campaign of 1812. In the face of Napoleon's setbacks, however, Murat grew concerned about his own Kingdom of Naples and returned in early 1813.

The "Neapolitan War"

This little-used term refers to Murat's activities after Napoleon's exile to Elba in May of 1814. With the Emperor defeated, Murat figured that he, the ruler of a French client-state, would not be far behind. Indeed, there was already talk of restoring the Bourbons to the throne of Naples. Murat thus signed a treaty with Austria, the terms of which stipulated that his Neapolitan army would help Austria against the remnants of Napoleon's Italy, namely the French "vice-realm of Italy," much of the northern peninsular, ruled by Prince Eugène, Napoleon's step-son. Murat did that. He moved north, taking over the Papal States and Tuscany, unifying a large portion of the peninsula on his own. In return for that, the treaty with Austria assured that he would remain on the throne of Naples. It seems to most historians that Murat was intent on much more than that, however. He would unite the peninsula and, as noted above, indeed be the first king of a united Italy.

We'll never know how that might have turned out since in the midst of all this, the Emperor escaped from Elba and set out for Paris for his famous "100 Days," his last gasp before ultimate defeat at Waterloo. Murat now decided to realign himself with his brother-in-law and to wage war against the Austrians. Those battles fought by Murat's army during the 100 Days are the "Neapolitan War" and had the dual purpose of saving his own throne in Naples and also of keeping the Austrians from moving west into France to take on Napoleon. He lost a major battle at Tolentino in early May. His army was in tatters. He returned to Naples and then fled the kingdom.

With Austrian troops now advancing on the city of Naples, Murat issued his last proclamation to the people of the Kingdom of Naples appears in the Giornale delle Due Sicilie (Journal of the Two Sicilies) on May 18, 1815. He writes from San Leucio, near Caserta. He warns against fear mongers and says, "The enemy is still distant...but I shall never expose you to the terrors of warfare within our capital [the city of Naples]." Then, in what amounts to a farewell, says, "If destiny must strike, let it strike only me." With that, he was gone. The newspaper appears a few days later on May 23, 1815. The lead article is a proclamation from Ferdinand IV, welcoming himself back to his kingdom and promising love and benevolence.  It is written from Palermo, Sicily, where he had weathered, for the second time in 10 years, the storm of exile. He assumed the title of Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies (as opposed to Ferdinand IV, King of Naples). His wife, Queen Caroline, had died in Austria in 1814. Ferdinand married again. He died in 1825, having ruled Naples, with a few interruptions,  since 1759. 

In retrospect, the Neapolitan War produced one startling document. On March 1815, Murat issued the Rimini proclamation. It starts:

"Italians! The hour has come to engage in your highest destiny. Providence has called you to be an independent nation. From the Alps to the straits of Sicily, there is but one cry—"Italian independence!..."

Although there had been philosophical musing along those lines for some time, this is the first political proclamation of its kind calling for all Italians to unite into a single people and drive out the foreigners. It is seen as somewhat of the opening statement of the risorgimento. Manzoni, himself, the philosopher of Italian unity is said to have drawn inspiration from it.

After fleeing the kingdom, Murat went to Paris where Napoleon refused to see him. Then, after Waterloo, Murat's fate was sealed. His kingdom was back in the hands of the Bourbons and there was nothing he could do about it. Yet, he still wasn't through. This quixotic would–be king of a united Italy refused benevolent offers to be put out to pasture and live out his days in peace. Instead, he took a handful of men and landed at Pizzo on the coast of Calabria, no doubt imagining himself rallying the local military forces and then marching north to retake his kingdom. Instead, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. His appeals to Ferdinand, the restored King of Naples, that you just didn't shoot fellow kings, fell on deaf ears.

On October 18, 1815, Gioacchino Murat, in a last typical display of bravado, refused the blindfold and commanded his own execution. A second-hand account of the episode is found in the The Nooks and By-Ways of Italy by Craufurd Tait Ramage, which went through a single edition in 1868.

[ Click here to read an excerpt from that source.]

[A second account of the episode is from The North American Review, May 1816. Click here.]

Also, in a highly laudatory biography of Murat, the American Whig Review of June, 1845, had this to say about him:

…He had fought two hundred battles, and exposed himself to death more frequently than any other officer in Napoleon’s army. By his white plume and gorgeous costume a constant mark for the enemy’s bullets, he notwithstanding always plunged into the thickest dangers, and it  seems almost a miracle that he escaped death. His self-composure was wonderful, especially when we remember what a creature of impulse he was. In the most appalling dangers, under the fire of the most terrific  battery, all alone amid his dead followers, while the bullets were  piercing his uniform and whistling in an incessant shower around his head, he would sit on his steed and eye every discharge with the coolness of an iron statue. A lofty feeling in the hour of danger bore him above all fear, and through clouds of smoke and the roar of five hundred cannon, he would detect at a glance the weak point of the enemy, and charge like fire upon it.

As a general he failed frequently, as has been remarked, from yielding his judgment to his impulses. As a man and king he did the same thing, and hence was generous to a fault, and liberal and indulgent to his people. But his want of education in early life rendered him unfit for a statesman. Yet his impulses, had they been less strong, would not have made him the officer he was. His cavalry was the terror of Europe. Besides, in obeying his generous feelings, he performed many of those deeds of heroism—exposing his life for others, and sacrificing everything he had, to render those happy around him, which make us love his character. He was romantic even till his death, and lived in an atmosphere of his own creation.

A statue of Murat was erected in the 1880s as one of the eight in the west facade of the Royal Palace in Naples.

[Also see The Neapolitan Navy under Murat and the French.]

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