Naples:life,death &
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  Dec 2010

Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel

The following two items appeared on separate pages in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia on the dates indicated. They have been consolidated here onto a single page. The first item is very short; the second one is quite long and was the main entry on "Eleonora." The second item is also indexed under, and linked from references to, the Neapolitan Republic (also known as the Pathenopean Republic).

entry Dec. 2002

They are making a film about Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the tragic heroine of the  short-lived Neapolitan Republic, which overthrew the Bourbon monarchy in 1799. The life of Eleonora has always attracted scholarly attention, including that of Benedetto Croce, who wrote a monograph about her in 1887. More recently, in 1999, as part of general 200th-anniversary observance of the failed Republic, Neapolitan composer and musicologist, Roberto de Simone, composed an oratorio, "Eleonora, " for the San Carlo Theater in Naples. More popular attention includes at least two novels: Cara Eleonora [Dear Eleonora], by Maria Antonietta Mocciocchi and Il resto di niente [The rest of nothing] by Enzio Striano. The latter is the basis for the screenplay of the film currently under production in Naples as well as providing the title for the film, itself.

Il resto di niente is directed by a Neapolitan, Antonietta De Lillo, who bought the rights to the book in 1997, planning the film to coincide with the anniversary of the Republic. Various production difficulties have drawn that out, but the film should be ready for release by the middle of 2003. The cast is mostly Neapolitan and the filming, itself, is done locally, with much effort going into avoiding the visual anachronisms of Naples 2000 versus Naples 1800. Some of the shooting is along the coast at Licola, north of Naples, where "unspoiled" shots of the bay and  the island of Ischia in the background are still possible. The scene of the execution of Eleonora, for example—an event that really took place at Piazza Mercato near the Church of the Carmine—is shot on the premises of the largely abandoned Hospice for the Poor, parts of which, today, look as they did in the early 1800s. The role of Eleonora is played by Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros, perhaps some sort of tribute to the Portuguese descent of Eleonora, herself.  


entry Oct. 2003
Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel;
  Pathenopean Republic

"Forsan et haec olim meninisse juvabit"

(A relevant item on this period is  Bourbon rule in Naples)

Failed revolutionaries usually wind up as footnotes in history books. Certainly, the period between 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) and 1805 (the year in which Napoleon crowned himself emperor) is one of such turmoil in Europe that it is easy not to see any but those who are larger than life. Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel is one such overlooked person. She was a major figure, but on a small stage, connected with the little known and  failed Neapolitan revolution and subsequent short-lived Neapolitan republic of 1799. It was a sister of the French republic and one of many set up in the 1790s in Europe, all of which —the Neapolitan version included— have been relegated to the status of  "also-rans" in history.

Eleonora was an unlikely revolutionary. She was born in Rome in 1751 of  Portuguese nobility and would be hanged in Piazza Mercato in Naples in 1799 in a grotesque caricature of an execution. Her executioner, Maria Caroline of Hapsburg, Queen of Naples during the Neapolitan Revolution was also born in 1751. That was also the decade of the great Lisbon earthquake, about which an anonymous poet wrote lines as if describing the dramatic events that would soon shake Europe the way the earth had shaken Portugal:

"With her last earthquake this round world shall rise,
 The sun shall lose his fires in endless night,
 And the moon turned to blood, glare horrid light,
 When comets dire shall sweep athwart the sky,
 And stars like leaves before the tempest fly."

Certainly, the last days of one of Portugal's daughters, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, are contained in that verse.

In 1760, Eleonora's family moved to Naples as a result of political difficulties between the Vatican States (of which Rome was the capital) and its Portuguese citizens, which included the Fonseca Pimentels. As a child in Rome, she had already shown precocious talent, even brilliance. She enjoyed the tutelage of a scholarly uncle and wrote poetry, read Latin and Greek, and was well versed in the monuments of the Eternal City.

In Naples, she fit right in. She was young, intelligent, wealthy, and extremely well educated. She was primed to be part of that great movement in human history known as the Enlightenment. Science, progress, and reason were the by-words of the mid-1700s. The words of Rousseau's Social Contract (1762) were taking hold. He wrote that government is justified only if sovereignty stayed with the people and said that "Man is born free, yet everywhere is in chains." His solution spoke of the "natural rights of man."

Charles III (statue at Piazza Plebiscito)

In the 1770s and into the '80s Naples was one of the most open societies in Italy, well exposed to the ideas of Enlightenment Europe. It had been a free and independent kingdom since the 1730s and for most of that time had enjoyed the reign of Charles III of Bourbon, by all accounts a benevolent monarch.

The Neapolitan Enlightenment had the likes of  Vincenzo Cuoco (1770-1823). He believed in educating the people towards liberty; he was to take part in the 1799 revolution and suffer exile. He would write the first account of the revolution, Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. There was Vincenzo Russo, somewhat of a Neapolitan Rousseau, born in 1770 and who wrote in his Pensieri Politici [Political Thoughts] (1798) of revolution as the “regenerator of human virtue.” He would be part of the Neapolitan Republic and one of those executed with Eleonora in 1799. And, then, Gaetano Filangieri (1752-1788). His 7-volume The Science of Legislation was widely translated and was of monumental influence in a Europe on the verge of change. (Filangieri was so enamored of democracy that, for a short time, he carried on correspondence with Benjamin Franklin following the American Revolution about the possibility of emigrating to America, where "certain inalienable rights" had just been codified into the social contract.)

                CapuanoIn short, Naples had the beginnings of an intelligentsia and educated middle-class. It still had, to be sure, a large underclass—the lazzaroni (from "Lazarus," the patron saint of lepers —those whom Victor Hugo called les miserables in France), those largely unaffected by the social strivings of the Enlightenment. Unlike their Parisian counterparts —and this was crucial in the ultimate failure of the Revolution— they were not the revolutionaries. When the time came in 1799, there would be no peasant rabble storming a Neapolitan bastille. The peasant rabble remained loyal to their king. (The Neapolitan Bastille, by the way, was the prison in Castel Capuano, where today's Hall of Justice is housed [photo].)

In the 1770s, Eleonora became an important part of  literary circles of the day. She joined discussions of literature, politics and science. She wrote poetry and carried on the type of correspondence so popular among intellectuals of that period, the kind destined to wind up in some distant future anthologized as "The Collected Letters of...". These groups, themselves, were in imitation of the French salon of the day, as was the participation of women. It was the beginning of the age of the liberation of women— education, participation and, eventually, suffrage.

Ferdinand IV (statue at Piazza Plebiscito)

On the political scene back in Naples, Charles III had returned to Spain in 1759, leaving his kingdom in the hands of his good-natured, but not very bright son, Ferdinand (photo), still a minor. Ferdinand ruled through a regent, Tanucci, until he was old enough to marry, in 1767. He married Maria Carolina of Hapsburg, daughter of the Empress Maria Teresa and sister of Marie Antoinette. The King eventually became known as King Lazzarone (see above)—perhaps "Beggar King"—a term of endearment, really, since it showed how much the people considered him one of them. He was quite content to wander down to the fish market and sell fish with the merchants, leaving his young, brilliant wife to rule Naples —which she did. In 1776, she junked Tannuci, who had ably stayed on as Prime Minister. Then, she replaced him in 1778 with John Acton (1736-1811), born in France of English origin and described as an "admiral" in some sources, but in others as a "freebooter."  She later made him Secretary of State and, apparently, her lover. During these years, Queen Caroline spared no effort to make Naples another Vienna and Paris, at least in the glittering, aristocratic sense. 

History, in a sense, is made by those who write about it. That is to say, you get widely disparate views on the same person, depending on who is doing the telling. One of the least flattering views of Eleonora is to be found in The Bourbons of Naples (Acton 1957, below in bibliography —indeed, related to the aforementioned admiral). She was a writer of "Metastasian rhapsodies"; she was "that exalted blue-stocking Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel..." one of those who "longed to deliver [her] country to the French"; one who "declaimed her latest effusion, a 'Hymn to Liberty'..."; " earnest idealist with little practical experience of mankind". At one point, in citing Eleonara's declaration that "Democracy and true liberty render people gentle, indulgent, generous and magnanimous," the author simply says that Eleonora looked at the world through "rose-colored spectacles." All in all, it is a picture of a poor little rich girl, flightily enamoured of the ideals of the French Revolution but without the foggiest idea of what really makes the world go round.

At the other extreme, a recent book entitled, Cara Eleonora [Dear Eleonora] (Macciocchi 1993), is laudatory but, at the same time, a strange mish-mash of historical fiction and good investigative journalism. The former would include a highly implausible (or, at least highly unknowable) scene of soft-core lesbian pornography between Queen Caroline of Naples and Lady Hamilton. On the other hand, the author was apparently the first, at the late date of the 1990s, to dig up the facts of Eleonora's separation from her husband in 1784, a Neapolitan officer by the name of Pasquale Tria de Solis. She had borne him a child in 1778, who died at the age of 8 months. In the course of the next few years, she was apparently beaten by her husband into the miscarriage of a second child and suffered the indignity of being forced to sleep in the same room and often in the same bed as her husband and his mistress. The royal court was sufficiently outraged to grant a separation. So much for Eleonora having "little practical experience of mankind." The documentation of this sordid episode in her life is still on record. The information either eluded earlier historians or they considered it irrelevant. (Recent women writers on Eleonora [Urgnani 1998] say that men —even great historians such as Croce— typically overlook such episodes in the lives of women. Note, however, that even a woman biographer of Eleonora [Gurgo 1935] also missed —or ignored— this episode.)

If there had never been a French revolution and a subsequent Neapolitan revolution, Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel would still be remembered as a minor poet in Italian literature of the 18th century. Her literary output starts in 1768 with an epithalamium, a nuptial hymn, on the occasion of the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina, some 600 lines of verse praising the accomplishments of the conjoined dynasties, the Bourbons and Hapsburgs. She was 16 when she wrote it, and it was so impressive that she was promptly accepted into the Arcadia, the Neapolitan poets' circle of the day, where she became the new, young voice. She wrote sonnets and verse in Latin as well as Italian, and she wrote a number of cantatas and oratorios.

metastasioMuch of her literary output, as was customary among lettered people of the day, was given over to voluminous exchanges of letters with other literati. Most prominent of these is a long correspondence in the 1770s with Pietro Metastasio (illustration), the Italian court poet in Vienna and greatest librettist of the 18th century. She had started the exchange by sending him a copy of her first work, the one written for the king and queen. Metastasio praised it, and by the end, in his seventies, was writing her letters calling her the last of the great seductress poets and how he wished he were younger!

Eleonora even tried her hand at writing original verse in the dialect of Naples, the language of the people [for a separate item on the Neapolitan dialect, see this link]. The sonnet has survived and was an expression of Eleonora's approval of the King, in 1777, abolishing the co-called Chinea (from the Italian word for "to bow down"), a holdover feudal ritual where the king presented money to the Pope once a year. It seems trivial today, but at the time, refusing to pay tribute to the Pontif was revolutionary and provoked friction between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Naples and actually endeared King Ferdinand to the social reformers in Naples—at least, for a while.

Her last writings, of course, are from 1799, when she wrote most of the material for, and edited, the Monitore Napoletano, the newspaper of the Neapolitan Republic. She had started out as the little Portuguese princess poet, darling of the court, and wound up as the fervent, revolutionary newspaper editor, writing hymns to liberty and calls for social justice. If one has to find a point at which Eleonora's efforts turned away from the lofty classicism of the 18th century literary circle, it would be in 1785. She became legally separated from her husband and returned to her father's house. Her father died in that year, and from then on she concerned herself with Enlightenment issues— economics, law, and advancement of the natural sciences. In the years following the French Revolution, she dedicated herself to translating literature of social reform and even revolution into the Neapolitan dialect so that the people she thought she was helping to transform might better understand the issues. She does truly seem to have been convinced of her lines (cited above) that "Democracy and true liberty render people gentle, indulgent, generous and magnanimous."

Eleonora's best remembered sonnet is a touching and short poem to her child, dead at 8 months—"...alone, my only joy is that you reign in heaven... ." The verses that helped to get Eleonora executed were undoubtedly two. One is a "Hymn to Liberty," declaimed at the proclamation of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799. That hymn has not survived. The other was written from the Bourbon prison in Castel Capuano in 1798 where Eleonora had been sent for revolutionary activities, including  the possession of censored books in her library. Times had changed since the days when Eleonora praised Queen Caroline and wrote nice little ditties, for example, on the occasion of the birth of the Queen's second child. The poem from prison starts:

"Rediviva Poppea, tribade  impura,
d'imbecile tiranno empia consorte..."

In just the first two lines (of 14) she manages to compare Caroline to Poppea (Nero's wife and a murderess), calls her "impure" and a "lesbian" and says that she is unfaithful to her husband, an "imbecile tyrant."  Indeed, times had changed.

[A complete treatment of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel's writings may be found in Urgnani 1998.]

A short reminder of what had been going on in France is in order: In 1788, the Parliament at Paris presents Louis XVI with a list of grievances. The King calls the Estates-General to assemble in May of 1789 for the first time since 1614. In July of that year, the Bastille is stormed and Louis XVI is overthrown. This is the beginning of the French Revolution. Nobility begins to emigrate. The guillotine is invented. Radicals are called "Jacobins," so-called from their meetings in the Dominican convent of St. Jacques in Paris. In 1790 the King, now merely a figurehead, accepts the constitution drawn up by the revolutionaries. Support for the idea of even a titular monarchy weakens, however, and Louis flees to the northeast frontier to gain protection from troops still loyal to him. He is recognized, captured and returned to Paris. The Paris Commune takes power under Danton in that same year, and The French National Convention abolishes the monarchy. It declares September 22, 1792 the first day of the Year One for the French Republic. The French National Convention offers assistance to all nations that want to overthrow their governments. (Read that sentence again and let what it really means sink in.)

In 1793 the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette (sister of Queen Caroline of Naples) are beheaded. France declares war on Britain, Holland, and Spain. They, in turn, form an alliance with Austria against France. The Reign of Terror in France takes hold and in 3 months, 15,000 people are guillotined. The counter-revolution in Vandea is put down brutally. Some 500,000 men, women and children are killed there and 13,000 more are executed. Napoleon gains notice for the first time as the French take Toulon from the British. The next year Robespierre crushes his rivals and has Danton and others executed. Juries may now convict without hearing evidence or argument. Opposition to Robespierre mounts. He is overthrown and executed. The Ring of Terror ends. Moderates take over and the French set about revolutionizing Europe.

It had been an exhilarating few years. Neapolitan Jacobins, sympathizers with the ideals of the French revolution now had solid evidence that a revolution could work. There were meetings and discussions and mumblings about the "natural rights of man" and how the monarchy was outmoded and should be done away with. One such sympathizer was Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, that nice little woman who had written all those nice little poems and who —in the interim— had actually become the Queen's own librarian! The monarchy in Naples started to crack down on such sympathy. Indeed, Queen Caroline kept in her study a painting of the execution of her sister, Marie Antoinette, and wrote on the picture, "I will have my revenge for this!" Just as in the poem—

"...When comets dire shall sweep athwart the sky,
 And stars like leaves before the tempest fly."

Stars, indeed, were starting to fly before the tempest.

NapoleonIn quick succession, the French invade Italy in 1796. Napoleon enters Milano and sets up the Lombard Republic. He advances, declaring a Cisalpine Republic in Northern Italy and then takes Rome and sets up the Roman Republic in 1798. The French alienate the populace (revolutionaries are not known for their diplomacy) by arresting the Pope and taking him to France, where he dies. France and Naples break off diplomatic relations because Naples, in violation of a treaty, has supplied British ships in the port of Naples. The Kingdom of Naples prepares for a French invasion.

It is difficult to know what would have happened if Naples had not acted first. But King Ferdinand, in a show of bravado, sets off to liberate Rome from the French in 1798 and is routed. He flees back to Naples, giving the local street wags the opportunity to mock him with a paraphrase of Caesar: "Ferdinand —he came, he saw, he ran."

Lord NelsonThe King and his army are pursued back to Naples by the French army. This sets the stage for the overthrow of the monarchy in Naples. With the French at the gates, Ferdinand and Caroline flee to Sicily, accompanied by British ships under the command of their English ally, Admiral Horatio Nelson (painting, right). The French wait outside the city until the revolutionaries take the city after a week of utter chaos in the city, horrors that include manhunts, torture, and, apparently, even cannibalism. The rabble lazzaroni, seeing their king leave, hunt down and torment and murder as many Jacobins as possible. The Jacobins, in turn —the middle-class, the teachers, merchants, lawyers, writers, and rebel officers and troops— take the city from the last troops loyal to the king.

The last scene is  at the Sant'Elmo fortress overlooking the city, where a force led in person by Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel —now poet turned passionaria— obtain the capitulation of the royalist forces. The Republic is proclaimed on January 21, 1799. Liberty, Fraternity and Equality have arrived.

The Republic lasted until late August. During that time, Eleonora dedicated herself to her newspaper, Monitore Napoletano. The first issue came out with the date inscribed at the top as "Saturday, the 14th day of Piovoso in the VII Year of Liberty, Year 1 of the Neapolitan Republic, one and indivisible, (2 February 1799)." (The changes in the names of the months —Piovoso means "Rainy"— and in the calendar system were two of those French revolutionary items that have not survived—unlike the metric system!)

Eleonora's lead article began, "We are free at last, and the time has come when we, too,  can utter the scared words "Liberty' and 'Equality."  All in all, from February through August, she wrote and published 35 issues of the Monitore and two extra editions. She was well aware that the people —the street lazzaroni— had largely supported the monarchy and now distrusted the Republic. She was concerned with explaining the revolution to the people and went so far as to promote a gazette in Neapolitan dialect where social issues of the day were discussed in the language of the people. She even stood up for the people in the pages of her newspaper when the Republican government confiscated property of those who had resisted the revolution, calling the move "unjust' and illusory." 

She was optimistic to the end and, in her last issue in August, referred readers to the next issue, which of course never came. The French army had pulled back from Naples on its way to more pressing matters elsewhere. The Army of the Holy Faith, the counter-revolutionary force led by Cardinal Ruffo had fought its way up from Sicily and was now at the gates of Naples.

There is no consensus as to why the revolution failed. No, wait. The revolution failed because the people didn't support it. By "people," we mean the lazzaroni,  the masses, the Neapolitan equivalent of the Parisian Bastille stormers a decade earlier. The real question is: Why didn't they support the revolution? I know of no easy answer. Why did one of the most miserable masses of population in Europe turn away from —really, turn ON(!)— a revolution that had their best interests at heart? Croce, who has written that the Neapolitan Jacobins transplanted the new ideas of liberty to Italy, chalks up the failure of the revolution to the Neapolitans' "sense of false religiosity," carefully avoiding the word "religion". Be that as it may, the revolution was not as passive as Vincenzo Cuoco (1820) claimed; it had the support of the nascent middle-class. But it didn't have the support of the people. That much is incontrovertible.  And perhaps, here, Cuoco is not far off the mark:

Since our revolution was a passive one, the only way for it to be successful would have been to gain the opinion of the people. But the view of the patriots was not the same as that of the people; they had different ideas, different customs, and even two different languages. The very same admiration for things foreign, which held back our culture as a kingdom, formed the basis for our republic and was the greatest obstacle to the establishment of liberty. The Neapolitan nation was split in two, separated over two centuries into two very different kinds of people. The educated classes were formed on foreign models and possessed a culture quite different from one that the nation needed, one that could come about only through the development of our own faculties. Some had become French, and some English; and those that stayed Neapolitan —most of the people— stayed uneducated.
 [Cited in Diana. The above translation is mine.]

Beyond that, perhaps the issue is moot; the fact remains that the masses were on the side of the monarchy. They had not supported an earlier revolution in the 1600s and they didn't support this one. It doesn't take long even in the Naples of today to notice a distrust of change, an attitude that can manifest itself in cynically self-destructive behavior among the people. 

The surrender of Naples to the returning forces of the King involved a staggering bit of treachery. The royalist forces bargained their way into the city by guaranteeing safe passage to France —the revolutionary motherland— for Republican defenders of the city, meaning, largely, members of the Republican government and prominent revolutionaries, including Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, herself. The surrender took place, and those who were to leave for France were put on ships in the bay of  Naples. At that point, Admiral Horatio Nelson, acting on orders from the Queen relayed to him apparently by his mistress, Lady Hamilton, good friend of the Queen, went out and took the prisoners off the ships. They were to be tried. Queen Caroline had said a few years earlier that she "would like to be Robespierre" (cited in Albanese 1998). At long last, she was going to get her chance. She would have her revenge.

It is instructive to read a "Yes, but..." version of this episode. From Acton (1957):

...A few facts may be gleaned from such documents as the records of the Bianchi Con-fraternity, who ministered to the condemned; a few anecdotes from contemporary diarists, especially De Nicola. The rest is hearsay, much bedizened by the rich Neapolitan imagination. Of 8,000 political prisoners 105 were condemned to death, six of whom were reprieved, 222 were condemned to life imprisonment, 322 to shorter terms, 288 to deportation, and 67 to exile, from which many returned: a total of 1,004. The others were set at liberty.

Nearly all intellectuals are rebels, and it is deplorable that most of the condemned were men of culture. The howls and execrations of the populace crowding to gloat upon their final agony added a poignant horror to their executions. ‘I have always desired their welfare, and they are rejoicing at my death!’ said Gennaro Serra before he was beheaded. And De Nicola wrote that when Eleonora Pimentel was hanged, ‘the shouts of the populace rose to the very stars'. The masses to whom she and her colleagues had preached liberty and fraternity, viewed these scenes with bloodthirsty gusto to which the hangman and his clownish assistant, the tirapiedi , who clung to the prisoner’s feet and swung with him into space, pandered with gruesome relish. But this royalist Reign of Terror as it has been called, pales into a provincial side-show beside quite recent and far more systematic pogroms. Granted that the Court's  policy of revenge was cruel and unintelligent, there is little to be said in favour of the rebels, whatever their individual talents. To quote Luigi Blanch, the most balanced of Neapolitan historians, 'they were an almost imperceptible minority seeking to establish a form of government not wanted by the country and in the same year so discredited in France that it ceased amid popular applause on 18 Brumaire [the coup d’etat of November 9]. Their aims were opposed to liberal principles, based on national independence externally and on the consent of the majority internally. They were pleased by the disastrous campaign of 1798 and irritated by the vigorous resistance of the people...  Had they triumphed, they  they would have been all the more cruel as they were so few.  Sacrificed, they inspired compassion for the individuals and sympathy for the cause. As executioners they would have inspired for both.’

Since then the technique by which a minority could seize power over a state against the will of the majority has been perfected, and most of us know where it leads. After a careful examination of the short-lived Parthenopean Republic one is driven to doubt whether it could have retained the power it had usurped with the aid of French troops and civil strife, except by subjecting the majority to violence and the constant threat of violence. This would have resulted in a police state far more inhuman than that of the Bourbons.

Whatever the other merits of Acton's The Bourbons of Naples may be, that passage is astonishingly glib. First of all, the betrayal, the arrests, the trials and executions of Republicans were not simply "cruel and unintelligent." They were illegitimate, and the entire affair took even other monarchies of Europe by surprise. The Czar of Russia (hardly a revolutionary sympathizer) reproached the Bourbons for the massacre of Neapolitan Republicans, saying that he had sent troops to help regain the kingdom, not “to slaughter the flower of Neapolitan culture.” 

And Admiral Nelson's behavior was reprehensible. He gave his word and then broke it and participated in the bloodbath. He followed Caroline's instructions to treat Naples as if it were "a rebellious city in Ireland." He hanged the Neapolitan Admiral Caracciolo from the yardarm and then cut the body loose to fall into the sea. (It was recovered by fishermen and now lies in the small Church of S. Maria della Catena in the Santa Lucia section of Naples.) [Southey's Life of Nelson has a passage about the execution of Admiral Caracciolo that you may read by clicking here.] The British admiralty was shocked by Nelson's behavior (Mr Fox, in the House of Commons, referred to the "horrors" that had taken place in Naples); if one needs to look for a reason why Britain's greatest naval hero is not buried in Westminster Abbey, perhaps one need look no further than his behavior in Naples.

Cardinal RuffoSympathetic Nelson biographers, such as Bradford, simply say that Nelson was following orders: "It is difficult to see what else he could have done under the circumstances ...His job as a British admiral was to see the Bourbons restored —that and nothing else." [Bradford 1977] The "purge" (to use Queen Caroline's word) was carried out over the objections even of the leader of the royalist forces, Cardinal Ruffo (painting, right) who had given his Christian word guaranteeing safe passage to the defenders of the city. (The Cardinal was a judge on the first trial commission; when it became evident that they were going to be lenient with the revolutionaries, they were replaced by tougher judges more to Queen Caroline's liking.)

Also, the fact that the Bourbon reign of terror pales beside "recent pogroms" (Acton, writing in the 1950s, is presumably referring to Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany) is irrelevant. To say that the Neapolitan Republic, had it survived, "would have resulted in a police state far more inhuman than that of the Bourbons" is self-serving speculation. The Republic lasted for five months, and the upper- and middle-class leaders of that Republic had every opportunity to repeat the savagery of the French Reign of Terror of 1793. The fact is that they didn't.  Republican "terror" in Naples consisted of the execution, by firing squad, of a father and son team found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the Republic. Two executions in five months.

The outcome of the trials —including the trial of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel— was a foregone conclusion. No one who has ever written about the affair doubts that the trials were instigated at the will of Queen Caroline. She sent a message to the trial commission from her residence in Sicily saying that she wanted a "purge."  Her husband, King Ferdinand, was merely echoing her sentiments when he said that the commission should turn the revolutionaries into cacicavalli, referring to the cheeses that are hung up for display. And that is what happened.

Piazza Mercato, painting by A. Joli

Painting of Piazza MercatoStendahl, in Rome, Florence and Naples (1826), reports at length a conversation about the Neapolitan Revolution and its grisly conclusion with a young man he identifies only as T***, an eye-witness to the events, themselves. Stendahl concludes: "I have been careful to suppress, during the course of this narrative, all the more gruesome details. Robespierre, whatever his faults, has this at least to be said in his favor: he did not count a majority of personal friends among the total number of his victims. Those whom he sacrificed, he sacrificed to a system, however ill-founded; not to his petty, personal spite."

In Piazza Mercato, the fortunate among those sentenced to death were beheaded swiftly. The less fortunate, among whom was Eleonora, were hanged. In her case, as Acton's passage (above) indicates, it was a ghoulish affair. Her body was left dangling from the gallows for a day, exposed to further jibes and humiliation, such as the popular verse making the rounds at the execution (cited in Albanese 1998):

A signora donna Lionora,
che cantava ncopp' o triato,
mo abballa mmiezo ' o mercato,
viva viva 'u papa santo,
c'ha mannato i cannuncini,
pe scaccià li giacubini!
Viva a' forca 'e Masto Donato 
Sant'Antonio sta priato.


To lady Eleonora
who used to sing upon the stage
and now dances in market square,
long live the Holy Pope,
who sent us the guns
to chase away the Jacobins!
Long live the gallows and Master Donato    [a traditional name for the hangman]
Praise be to Sant'Antonio.

(The last line is interesting. The returning royalists felt betrayed by the traditional Neapolitan patron saint, San Gennaro. From the article in this encyclopedia, on San Gennaro):

On the first Sunday in May, the other time when the "miracle" is said to occur, it didn't. This provoked the French commander —desperate to win popular support for his troops occupying the city— into the interesting move of threatening to kill the Archbishop of Naples if the sign from Heaven were not forthcoming. A short while later it came, thus lending, at least in the mind of the French general —and notwithstanding skeptical popular charges of pseudo-divine hanky-panky— credence to his claim that God was on the side of the Revolution.

Thus, Cardinal Ruffo's royalist troops got themselves a new saint! (A number of depictions of the retaking of the kingdom show St. Anthony leading the Army of the Holy Faith as they advance on the city of Naples.)

Eleonora was calm at the gallows. She asked for some coffee, and—true to her intellect to the last—her last words were in Latin: "Forsan et haec olim meninisse juvabit," a citation from Virgil—"Perhaps one day this will be worth remembering."

Is it remembered? In one sense, of course it is. The French Enlightenment values of representative government and parliamentary democracy are historically remembered; they have been vindicated throughout Europe. There are no more absolute monarchies. Democracy and republicanism are facts of life. But that is not what the question really means. Are the events of 1799, themselves—culminating in the ghastly execution of Eleonora on August 20 of that year—remembered? If so, how?

Well, if you stroll around Naples and know where to look, you see an occasional memorial plaque. There is one such plaque above the entrance to Eleonora's home at Salita Sant'Anna di Palazzo 29, put there by the Lions Club of Naples in May of 1999, reminding us that the "hangman kept her from returning home." Her final resting place is likewise marked at the church of the Carmine in Piazza Mercato, where she was executed.  Also, similar memorials dot buildings here and there throughout the city, commemorating other victims of the Bourbon vendetta. 

One of the most interesting memories of the Revolution is the Palazzo Serra di Cassano, on via Monte di Dio. It was the home of Giovanni Serra, Duke of Cassano, one of Eleonora's closest friends. Looking down at the crowd as he was about to die, he said, "I have always wanted good for them and now they cheer at my death" [cited in Albanese 1998]. The next day, his father closed the portal of the building that opens onto the Royal Palace and said it would remain closed until the ideals his son had died for were realized. The door is still closed.

The greatest memorial in recent memory, however, was when Vanessa Redgrave, the English actress, stepped out on the stage of  the San Carlo Theater on Friday, January 8, 1999, and recited, in magnificent Italian, the title role in Eleonora, a 3-hour oratorio, an absolute hymn of praise to Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. It was composed by Roberto de Simone, prominent Neapolitan composer and musicologist. The production had had a two-week run-up in the Neapolitan daily, il Mattino, replete with histories of the Neapolitan revolution, fragments of Eleonora's poetry, long citations from historical heavyweights such as Benedetto Croce, and even the news that a descendant of Eleonora's (through her brother's line), another Fonseca Pimentel, would be at the premiere. The production, itself, was generally well received. The next day, the critic from il Mattino called it "an allegory of all the martyrs in history" (Gargano 1999). "Art is liberty," he wrote, "and must free itself from the bonds of time like an ever-evolving presepio," thus comparing the production to the traditional Neapolitan manger scene that celebrates the birth of the Savior. Heady praise, indeed.

Yet the reporter, at some length, quotes criticism, as well. One critic refers to Eleonora as a "piece of 18th-century theater";  another says that the Revolution of 1799 was a "deplorable piece of Neapolitan history...a disgraceful bit of French treachery"; and yet a third said, simply, "The 1799 Revolution? It never happened. Jacobins in power: much ado about nothing."

Remarks like those can be interpreted in various ways. One, it is certainly easy to find books in any Neapolitan bookshop that glorify the Bourbons. When they were at their worst (such as in 1799) they were truly awful, but at their best they were a high point in the long history of the kingdom of Naples: it was a separate and respected member of the community of nations. So if you read tales about the homegrown lackeys of the French who wanted to give their nation away and about the glorious Bourbon counter-revolution that defeated them, you may be reading what amounts to nostalgia for a better time. (Perhaps this is understandable in a part of Italy that knows it is socially stigmatized within the nation as a whole). Or—and this is a bit trickier—maybe there is some resentment at what appears to be a rewriting of history. If you see enough plaques and listen to enough oratorios you somehow come away thinking that all this is "the people" saying, "Eleonora was one of us and they killed her." That would be false. She wasn't "one of us" (as much as she might have tried to be) and "they" didn't kill her—"we" did. I am reminded of the line that Walt Kelly put in the mouth of his comic strip character, Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us!" Maybe the critics are wary of all the support all of a sudden. Maybe they're asking, Where were "the people" when Eleonora needed them?


Both King Ferdinand and Queen Caroline lived to have their kingdom taken from them again, this time in 1806, by the French under Napoleon. The Bonaparte dynasty in Naples lasted until 1814. Caroline died in that year. The king, upon his return to the throne, assumed the title of Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies (as opposed to Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, which he had been for most of his life). He married again. He died in 1825.
Works Cited:

Acton, Harold. The Bourbons of Naples. London: Prion Books, 1957.
Albanese, Camillo. Cronache di una Rivoluzione, Napoli 1799. Milan: Franco Angeli, 1998.
Bradford, Ernle. Nelson, The Essential Hero. London: MacMillan, 1977.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.” Monograph. Rome: Tipografia nazionale, 1887.
Croce, Benedetto , et al. La Rivoluzione Napoletana. 1999 reprint by Tullio Pironti, ed. Naples: Morano, 1899.
Croce, Benedetto. “Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e il Monitore Napoletano” in La Rivoluzione Napoletana di 1799. Bari: Laterza, 1926.
Cuoco, Vincenzo.  Saggio Storico sulla Rivoluzione Napoletana nel 1799. Milano: 1806.
Diana, Rosario. Forward to Vincenzo Cuoco, Pl atone in Italia. Naples: Pagano, 2000.
Gargano, Pietro. “Quei martiri nostri fratelli.” Il Mattino, January 9, 1999.
Gurgo, Bice. Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel. Napoli: Cooperativa Libreria, 1935.
Irace, Clorinda. E.F.P. Le tracce, i luoghi. Naples: Lions Club, 1977.
Macciocchi, Maria Antonietta. Cara Eleonora. Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 1993.
Stendahl. Rome, Florence and Naples. 1826.(Richard N. Coe, trans.) London: John Calder, 1959.
Urgnani, Elena. La Vicenda Letteraria e Politica di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel. Il Pensiero e la storia. Ed. Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici. Vol. 54. Naples: La Città del Sole, 1998.

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