29 May 2024

Sicily's Quarantotto

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 273-275:

WHEN, ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 12, 1848—the thirty-eighth birthday of Ferdinand II—the people of Palermo rose up against their Bourbon masters, they could have had no idea of what they were starting. As we have seen, risings in the kingdom were nothing new, but they had all been relatively easily dealt with. What happened in 1848—the quarantotto, as Italy remembers it—was something else. It was a revolution, and by the end of the year it had been followed by many other revolutions. In Italy alone, they occurred in Naples, Rome, Venice, Florence, Lucca, Parma, Modena and Milan; in northern and central Europe there were also those in Paris, Vienna, Cracow, Warsaw and Budapest.

Already, as the year opened, student riots had prompted the authorities to close the University of Palermo; several eminent citizens known for their liberal views had been arrested, and an unsigned manifesto was circulated calling on everyone to rise up on the King’s birthday. When that day dawned and the demonstrations began, the streets emptied, shops closed, houses were barricaded. A large number of the insurgents were mountain brigands or simple peasants, few of whom probably had much idea of what they were fighting for; but they were thrilled to be able to break down the customs barriers and give themselves over to looting to their hearts’ content. Many of the smaller villages and towns were devastated, as was much of the countryside.

The Bourbons had some 7,000 troops in the Palermo garrison, but they proved almost useless. Communications were atrocious, the roads execrable, and they could not be everywhere at once. In despair they decided to bombard the city—a decision which they soon had cause to regret, especially when a shell destroyed the municipal pawnbrokers, on which many families depended, aristocratic and plebeian alike. The infuriated mob fell on the royal palace, sacked it—sparing, thank heaven, the Palatine Chapel—and set fire to the state records and archives. Meanwhile, hundreds of prisoners were released from jail. The garrison retreated, and soon returned to Naples. In the following days a committee of government was formed under the presidency of the seventy-year-old Sicilian patriot (and former Neapolitan Minister of Marine) Ruggiero Settimo; meanwhile, the revolt spread to all the main cities—except Messina, which held back through jealousy of Palermo—and well over a hundred villages, where the support of the peasantry had by now been assured with lavish promises of land. It encountered no opposition worthy of the name.


By the end of the month the island was virtually free of royal troops, and on February 5 Settimo announced that “the evils of war had ceased, and that thenceforth an era of happiness had begun for Sicily.” He failed to mention that the citadel of Messina was still in Bourbon hands; nonetheless, it was clear to King Ferdinand that he had his back to the wall. Owing to the almost continuous demonstrations in Naples on the Sicilian model, on January 29 he offered a liberal constitution to both parts of his kingdom, providing for a bicameral legislature and a modest degree of franchise. “The game is up,” wrote the horrified Austrian ambassador, Prince Schwarzenberg, to Metternich; “the King and his ministers have completely lost their heads.” Metternich simply scribbled in the margin, “I defy the ministers to lose what they have never possessed.”


Sicily was now truly independent. The difficulty was that it lacked any machinery for self-government. Without an experienced hand at the helm, the old chaos and confusion grew worse than ever. Trade plummeted, unemployment soared, the legal system virtually collapsed. Toward the end of August, Ferdinand sent a combined military and naval force of some 20,000 under Field Marshal Prince Carlo Filangieri to restore comparative order on the island; and September saw a concerted land and sea attack on Messina. It was then that the city suffered heavy bombardment for eight hours—after it had already surrendered. The rebels fought back, and the age-old hatred between Neapolitans and Sicilians give rise to atrocities on both sides—to the point where the British and French admirals in Sicilian waters, revolted by the bloodshed and brutality, persuaded Ferdinand to grant a six-month armistice. Here, one might have thought, was an opportunity to end the stalemate, but every offer of settlement was rejected by the rebels out of hand. Had they been prepared to negotiate, they might have saved something from the wreckage; since they refused, more and more of their erstwhile supporters—for reasons of sheer self-preservation—turned back to the Bourbons. As a result, Filangieri was able to capture Taormina on April 2, 1849, and Catania five days later. On May 15, without any difficulty, he entered Palermo.

By their inefficiency, their lack of unity and their refusal to compromise, the Sicilians had perfectly demonstrated how a revolution should not be run.

27 May 2024

Two Sicilies and the Carbonari

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 258-260:

The final return of the King to Naples allowed him to turn his attention to his own title. He had been Ferdinand III of Sicily but Ferdinand IV of Naples, which people found complicated and confusing. On December 8, 1816, he formally assumed the title of Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. There was, as we have seen, nothing new in this concept, which originally came about owing to Charles of Anjou’s insistence on continuing to claim the title of King of Sicily, even after the island had been lost to the Kingdom of Aragon after the War of the Sicilian Vespers. It had, moreover, been decided by the Congress of Vienna that the Two Sicilies should continue as a single kingdom. In Sicily itself, however, the decree could not fail to be unpopular. It meant the end, after only four years, of both its constitution and its theoretical independence; and it condemned it in future to be—not for the first time—little more than a province of Naples. Financially too the departure of the court from Palermo dealt the island a heavy blow. Trade had been expanding in both directions, while foreign businesses—the vast majority of them British—had been steadily increasing in numbers; many of these now relocated to the mainland. British commercial influence henceforth survived principally in only two key industries: the wine trade in western Sicily, based on the town of Marsala, and the mining of sulfur, which was becoming ever more important as the Industrial Revolution took its course.


At this point there appears in the story the figure of an immense Calabrian general named Guglielmo Pepe. Born in 1783, Pepe had first fought against the Sanfedisti of Cardinal Ruffo in 1800. Captured and exiled to France, he had joined Napoleon’s army and subsequently shown himself to be a Bonapartist through and through, fighting for both Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat and commanding a Neapolitan brigade during the Peninsular War in Spain. He had fought bravely for Murat at Tolentino and had reluctantly accepted the Treaty of Casalanza, by the terms of which he had retained his army rank. But he had spent his entire life fighting the Bourbons, and it was too late to transfer his loyalty. He now devoted himself, while ostensibly campaigning against brigands in the Capitanata, to rallying the somewhat inchoate mass of dissatisfied Italians known as the carbonari—“the charcoal-burners”—and welding them into a national militia.

The carbonari were organized—insofar as they were organized at all—on the lines of Freemasons, split up into small, covert cells scattered across the peninsula. Even their objectives were far from identical: some were out-and-out republicans, others preferred constitutional monarchy; what they all hated was absolutism, the Bourbons, the Austrians and the Papacy. And they dreamed, almost all of them, of an independent, liberal, united Italy. In 1814 they had fought for the Sicilian constitution and had been outlawed by the Pope for their pains; in 1817 they had inspired risings in the Papal States. According to Pepe’s memoirs—which may not be totally reliable—he had planned to take advantage of a military review of 5,000 men, to be held in the Emperor’s honor at Avellino, to seize the imperial and royal party and hold it to ransom. What would have been the result of such a coup, if it had successfully taken place, is hard to imagine; fortunately, the Emperor and the King were warned at the last moment—not of the conspiracy, but simply that the Avellino road was in execrable condition and might well prove impassable. They thereupon gave up all idea of attending the review and returned to Naples. For some time the carbonari had been rapidly increasing in numbers; according to Pepe, there were now over a quarter of a million in Italy alone, and we can be pretty sure that Sicily—with its long history of subversion and brigandage—would have contributed its full share. There was a general feeling of anticlimax after the Napoleonic Wars. The armies in particular were bored; they had little to do and promotion was slow. No wonder that so many drifted toward carbonari lodges. Gradually too the movement became more focused, its aims grew a little clearer; and the first of these aims was to force the King to grant a constitution.

26 May 2024

Bentinck Restores Bourbons in Sicily

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 250-253:

HAVING EFFECTIVELY DEALT WITH both the King and the Queen and given Sicily its admirable new constitution, Bentinck—who never forgot that he was also a soldier—decided to obey a recent summons to go and join Wellington’s army in Catalonia. His brief campaign there was not a success; it certainly did nothing to enhance his military reputation. On September 12, 1813, he was soundly defeated by an army under Napoleon’s Marshal Suchet, and was soon afterward obliged to resign his command and return to Sicily, where he arrived on October 3. He soon realized that he should never have left.


He found the island once again in chaos. There were, for a start, violent arguments about the constitution, the full text of which had not yet been published. Belmonte, whom he had once described as “the main hope of his country,” had broken with his uncle and erstwhile colleague the Prince of Castelnuovo and caused a great rift which had split their party in two. In parliament, meanwhile, ham-fisted attempts to control prices were arousing such storms of protest as to lead to riots in Palermo and elsewhere. Fortunately the resident British troops were able to restore order; two of the ringleaders were hanged. To make matters worse, the plague had broken out in Malta and dark rumors were being spread that the British intended deliberately to introduce it into Sicily.

Bentinck saw that he had no choice but to resume dictatorial powers. He held no brief for despotism, he announced, but it was preferable to anarchy. He prorogued parliament, which the Prince Vicar obediently dissolved, formed a new ministry and issued a proclamation that all “disturbers of the public peace, assassins and other foes of the Constitution” would be summarily punished by martial law. He then set out on an extended tour of the island—his first—visiting all the larger cities and towns and explaining the immense benefits that the constitution would bring in its train. Finally he crossed to the mainland, the better to consider the problem of Joachim Murat.


Whether it was because he loathed the idea of an Austrian presence in Italy or whether he simply despised Murat for his disloyalty, Bentinck made no secret of his contempt for the agreement. It was lamentable, he wrote, “to see such advantages given to a man whose whole life had been a crime, who had been the active accomplice of Bonaparte for years, and who now deserted his benefactor through his own ambition and under the pressure of necessity.” But Castlereagh ordered him to negotiate an armistice between Sicily and Naples, and he had no course but to comply—though he was careful to avoid any formula which might be taken as recognition of Joachim Murat as King. In fact Murat probably cared little whether he did so or not; his sights were by now set a good deal higher—to make himself ruler of the entire Italian peninsula. As he marched north with his army to join the other allies, he and his soldiers scattered leaflets in all the villages through which they passed, calling on the Italian people to rally to his flag. Meanwhile Queen Caroline, who had remained behind as Regent, showed herself considerably more anti-French than her husband. He was already carefully avoiding any active engagements with the French army; she, on the other hand, expelled all French officials from the kingdom and closed Neapolitan ports to all French shipping.

At this point Bentinck seriously forgot himself. Abandoning every pretense of diplomacy, he decided to support the cause of Italian independence, landed with a considerable Anglo-Sicilian force at Livorno and there delivered a proclamation urging all Italians to vindicate their rights to be free. On March 15 he actually confronted Murat at Reggio Emilia. If, he threatened, Murat did not instantly withdraw his troops from Tuscany, he—Bentinck—would drive them out himself, restore the legitimate Grand Duke Ferdinand III and invade Naples under the Bourbon flag. Leaving Murat no time to answer, he marched his army up the coast to Genoa, where the French garrison immediately surrendered. According to his own account, he restored the old republic; according to the Genoese, they did so themselves; in any event, another corner of the Napoleonic empire crumbled away.

By now things were moving quickly. On March 31 the Allies entered Paris; April 2 saw the Acte de déchéance de l’Empereur, which declared Napoleon deposed. On that same day he abdicated in favor of his infant son, with Marie Louise as Regent; this, however, the Allies refused to accept; an unconditional abdication followed two days later....

Louis-Philippe then hurried on to tell his father-in-law. Ferdinand burst into tears of joy and gratitude. Already he began to feel that he was back in Naples. It was Belmonte who had suggested that with the fall of Napoleon there was no longer any reason why the King should not return to the throne. Aware that only the year before he had promised not to do so without British consent, Ferdinand made great play of asking Bentinck’s permission. Bentinck personally absolved him from his promise and on July 4 he returned to his capital, as always amid cheering crowds. Lord William Bentinck was not among them. His conduct in recent months had not gone unnoticed by the British government. Just twelve days later he left Sicily forever.

24 May 2024

Sicily Under Bentinck, 1811

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 244-247:

At this point it becomes hard to believe that Maria Carolina was still completely sane. Both the Duke of Orléans and Maria Amalia pleaded with her to be more moderate and not to condemn as Jacobins all those who dared disagree with her, but as always she refused to listen. In July 1811 five of the leading barons, including their principal spokesman the Prince of Belmonte, were arrested and deported to various small islands “for preparing to disturb the public peace.” Louis-Philippe was summoned to the palace but, fearing to suffer a similar fate, refused to go. His horse stood ready saddled in case he had to take refuge in the country, though this fortunately proved unnecessary.

But now at last the Queen met her match. Lord William Bentinck had arrived in Palermo four days after the arrest of the barons, as both ambassador to the Sicilian court and commander in chief of the British forces on the island. The son of that third Duke of Portland who was twice Prime Minister, he had been Governor of Madras at twenty-nine and had then returned to Europe to fight in the Peninsular War, having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant general at thirty-four after the Battle of Corunna. He was now thirty-six. He had been thoroughly briefed by Amherst and others, and—determined not to take any nonsense from Maria Carolina—he began as he meant to continue. But even he seems to have been surprised by the strength of her opposition to everything he proposed. Within a month of his arrival he had returned to London to obtain yet wider powers.

On September 16, while he was still away, the Queen suffered an apoplectic stroke. Any other woman of her age would have sought peace and quiet for a gentle convalescence; she, as soon as she was able, was back at her desk, plunged once more into the fray. She was desperately weak, befuddled by opium and no longer able to face Bentinck—who returned on December 7—with quite the energy that she had formerly shown; but her determination was undiminished, and he decided to waste no more time. He now spelled out his demands, making it clear that the annual subsidy being paid by the British would be suspended until all of them were satisfied. First and most important was the supreme command of Neapolitan-Sicilian forces, which he himself proposed to assume; among the rest were the return of Belmonte and his colleagues from exile and the formation of a new ministry under the Prince of Cassaro. Neither the King nor the Queen were to be involved in the administration. Should there be any objections, Bentinck declared that he would not hesitate to ship off both of them—and if necessary the Hereditary Prince as well—to Malta, putting the Prince’s two-year-old son on the throne under the Regency of the Duke of Orléans. Fortunately, this last threat had its effect; but Bentinck had already sent orders to the British detachments in Messina, Milazzo and Trapani to march on Palermo when, on January 16, 1812, the King formally transferred his authority to his son.

The new ruler was far from ideal. He was neat, methodical and bureaucratic, a conscientious husband and father, and would doubtless have made a moderately competent manager of a local bank; but of political understanding, let alone of courage or charisma, he possessed not a shred. His instinctive caution, timidity and “littleness of mind” frequently drove Bentinck to distraction; but—at least for the moment—he served his purpose.

ONE OF THE FIRST actions of the Prince Vicar—as the Hereditary Prince was now called, since he was standing in for his father—was to recall the exiled barons, three of whom were immediately appointed to serve in the new government, the Prince of Belmonte as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The most important task before them, as Bentinck emphasized, was to draft the new constitution, based on the British model and abolishing the feudalism that had for so long been the bane of Sicilian life. The next was to get rid of the Queen. Her health was now rapidly deteriorating, but she was intriguing with all her old determination against the new ministry. She was also developing persecution mania. “The French government murdered my sister,” she said to the British consul, Robert Fagan, “and I am convinced that your government intends to do the same to me—probably in England.” Perhaps for this reason, she was fighting like a tiger to remain in Palermo, and her husband and son took her side—not because they did not deplore her behavior as much as anyone but simply because they had always deferred to her and found the habit difficult, if not impossible, to break.

At one moment Bentinck decided to request an audience with Ferdinand, in the hope of persuading him to reason with his wife and to explain to her the harm she was doing; he was simply refused an audience. The only channel of communication open to him was through the royal confessor, Father Caccamo, who was happy to reveal Ferdinand’s true feelings about his wife. His Majesty was, he said, forever writing to her “andate via, andate via!”*2 and had described his marriage of forty-four years as a “martyrdom.” But, as he put it, “he had not the heart or the courage to force his wife out of the island.” His son the Prince Vicar felt much the same way.

Not that the Prince’s relations with his mother were in any way friendly; rather the reverse. She had never forgiven him for accepting the Regency; she had called him a revolutionary and a traitor; and when on the evening of September 26, 1812, he fell suddenly and seriously ill, her first reaction—before worrying about his health—was that he must immediately resign. The symptoms, as Bentinck reported to the British Foreign Minister Lord Castlereagh, were suggestive of poison, and “general suspicion was fixed on the Queen”—a suspicion fully shared by the Prince himself. When Bentinck suggested to his doctor that the illness might be due to the unwonted heat, the patient, trembling with fever, cried out, “Ce n’est pas la chaleur, c’est ma mère, ma mère!” It turned out not to have been deliberate poisoning after all, but the Prince never altogether recovered; his illness left him prematurely aged—bent, gray-faced and shuffling.

Meanwhile, in July 1812, the new constitution had been drafted and duly promulgated. Its fifteen articles granted the people of Sicily an autonomy that they had never before enjoyed. Executive and legislative powers were rigidly separated, and the feudal practices that had been observed for some seven hundred years were finally abolished. All this proved, however, surprisingly good news for the Bourbons, at least in Naples. There was increasing anti-French feeling in the city, where Murat was effectively a dictator, while Ferdinand—hard as it may be to believe—was seen as an enlightened constitutional monarch. In the country, by contrast, the constitution was a good deal less popular; the people seemed simply unable to take it in. Many of the barons too who had actually voted for it were horrified to find their former powers and privileges gone forever.

22 May 2024

Parthenopean Republic of Naples, 1799

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 210, 215:

When the French troops under General Jean-Etienne Championnet arrived in Naples in mid-January 1799, they found the populace a good deal more spirited than the army. The mob—the lazzaroni—was prepared to attack the invaders tooth and nail, and for three days there was bitter house-to-house fighting. In the end the lazzaroni had of course to give in, but not before they had stormed and gutted the royal palace. They had done so with a clear—or almost clear—conscience. Was their King [Ferdinand I] not known as il re lazzarone, in other words one of themselves? And even if he had abandoned them, would he not have preferred his treasures to go to his own subjects rather than to his French enemies? When at last peace was restored, a French officer remarked that if Bonaparte had been there in person he would probably have left not one stone of the city standing on another; it was fortunate indeed that Championnet was a moderate and humane man. Quietly and diplomatically he established what was known as the Parthenopean Republic, on the French revolutionary model. It was officially proclaimed on January 23, and acquired a number of loyal Italian adherents—though it was perfectly obvious to all that it had been the result of conquest, and that the French army of occupation was its only support.


By the end of the month [July 1799] the last of the rebels had surrendered. The French were returned to Toulon; the Neapolitans were put in irons to await their trial. Cardinal Ruffo had received little gratitude for having saved the monarchy—all the credit had somehow been given to Nelson—but in recognition of his past services he was now appointed Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Realm. There were those who believed that after the repudiation of his solemn treaty he should not have accepted the post; but he remained as loyal as ever to his monarch, and had no desire to stand on his honor if he could still prove useful. His appointment meant in practice that he was president of what was known as the Suprema Giunta, the Supreme Committee. Under this were two other committees of judges, one to try the military, the other the civilians. Much has been written about the deliberations of these committees, to demonstrate the cruelty and inhumanity of the Bourbons. In the event, their deliberations seem to have been remarkably merciful. Out of some 8,000 political prisoners, 105 were condemned to death (6 were later reprieved), 222 were condemned to life imprisonment, 322 to shorter terms, 288 to deportation, and 67 to exile, from which many were to return. The rest were set free. And that was the end of the flatulently named Parthenopean Republic. It had sought to inflict, by means of conquest, a form of government that the country and people did not want and which was already largely discredited even in France. Had it survived, it could have retained power only through violence or the threat of violence. The resulting police state would have been far worse than anything created by the Bourbons.

19 May 2024

Sicily After Utrecht, 1715

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 178-180:

What is generally known as the Treaty of Utrecht, negotiations for which began in 1712, was in fact a whole series of treaties through which the European powers attempted once again to regulate their mutual relations. Only one of the many agreements concerns us here: the decision to transfer Sicily to the Spanish King Philip V’s father-in-law, Duke Victor Amadeus of Savoy. The idea had been accepted largely on the insistence of the British, who were uneasy at the thought of Sicily joining Naples in Austrian hands and who argued that the Duke had deserved a reward by changing sides during the war. The only objection was raised, somewhat unexpectedly, by Queen Anne, who disliked seeing countries being shuffled around without their consultation or consent; but her ministers quickly overruled her.

Victor Amadeus was of course delighted. He arrived in Palermo on a British ship in October 1713, and was shortly afterward crowned King of Sicily—and, somewhat improbably, of Jerusalem—in the cathedral. Over Jerusalem he had of course no power at all; even in Sicily he controlled only nine-tenths of the island, the powers at Utrecht having deliberately left King Philip all his personal estates, which were administered by Spanish officials and exempt from both taxation and Sicilian law. Nonetheless, Victor Amadeus was the first royal presence on the island since 1535. The Sicilian nobility welcomed their new monarch, expecting as they did so that he would settle in the city and set up a proper court there. The people in general received him with their usual apathy. They had had so many rulers over the centuries; this one would probably be no better and no worse than the rest.

He actually made a serious effort to be better. He stayed on the island for a year, traveled fairly widely—though not into the impenetrably deep interior—and tried hard to understand the character and customs of his subjects. He reopened the University of Catania and introduced new industries wherever he could, establishing factories for paper and glass, doing his best to revive agriculture and shipbuilding. But it was no use: he had to contend not only with the rich, who continued to set their faces against any innovations that might adversely affect their privileges, but also—and far worse—with the universal corruption, idleness and lack of initiative that were the result of four centuries of foreign domination. There was also the perennial grievance: just as in former centuries the Sicilians had grumbled about the sudden influxes of Spaniards or Frenchmen who would take over the senior offices of government, so now they protested at the flood of Piedmontese civil servants and accountants whom the King had introduced in an attempt to restore order to the chaotic national finances.

Such protests, Victor Amadeus knew, were inevitable; he could take them in his stride. But he knew too that the Sicilians had rebelled twice in the previous century, and were perfectly capable, if pressed too far, of doing so again. Wisely, he treated the barons in particular with extreme caution. So long as they continued to enjoy their traditional immunities and privileges, they would give no trouble; if, on the other hand, these were in any way threatened, the consequences could be serious indeed. When the time came for him to return to Piedmont, he must have felt that the Sicilian cause was hopeless. Family vendettas were as many and frequent as ever; banditry was everywhere. The people were essentially ungovernable.

Moreover, he had failed utterly to gain their affection. The Sicilians loved color and display; they had long been accustomed to the pomp and splendor surrounding the Spanish Viceroys, representing—as only Viceroys could—one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. Victor Amadeus was not a man for finery. A natural puritan, he hated ceremonial and dressed more like a man of the people than a monarch, preferring a walking stick to a sword. He was also distressingly parsimonious; gone were the ostentatious parades and the lavish receptions which had been such a feature of life for the aristocracy of Palermo. No wonder that children a hundred years later were still throwing stones at dummies bearing his name.

Soon after his return to Turin, he received another humiliation, this time from the Pope. The origins of the quarrel with Clement XI go back to the old Spanish times and need not concern us here; but the consequence was that in 1715 a papal bull entitled Romanus Pontifex put an end to the six-hundred-year tradition whereby the Kings of Sicily were also automatically the Papal Legates. The Pope also instructed all Sicilian clergy to refuse taxation. Many obeyed, only to be punished by exile or imprisonment and confiscation of their property. Churches were closed, bishoprics left vacant, and all good Christians adjured to defy royal authority. The more sensible naturally ignored the ban; the monks of a monastery near Agrigento, on the other hand, prepared to defend themselves against the King’s representatives with the well-tried weapon of boiling oil, employed for the first time since the Middle Ages. The Sicilians, who had always been proud of their status as Papal Legates, tended to blame the trouble on the House of Savoy rather than the Papacy. To them, it was just another nail in the Piedmontese coffin. To Victor Amadeus, it was just another nail in theirs.

By this time, he was bitterly regretting that he had ever accepted the Sicilian crown; fortunately it soon proved remarkably easy to surrender. In 1715 the recently widowed King Philip of Spain took as his second wife Elisabeth Farnese, the twenty-two-year-old niece and stepdaughter of the Duke of Parma. The new Queen was undistinguished by beauty, education or experience, but she had a will of iron and she knew what she wanted. Instantly, all French influence vanished from the Spanish court; it became Italian through and through. Determined to recover all Italian-speaking territories for Spain, Elisabeth moved first against Sardinia, part of the empire. In August 1717 she sent her fleet out from Barcelona and by the end of November the island was hers. Then, emboldened by this easy success, she directed the ships straight on to Sicily. On July 1, 1718, Spanish troops were landed near Palermo, where—simply because they were not Piedmontese—they received a warm welcome.

16 May 2024

Sicily Under Spain, from 1479

From Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015), Kindle pp. 148-149, 152-153:

The accession of [Aragon's King John II]’s son Ferdinand in 1479 was of immense historic importance, since Ferdinand was already married to Queen Isabella of Castile. This marriage united the two kingdoms and created a third—that of Spain itself. Sicily thus suffered a further loss of importance. But a worse misfortune lay ahead. In 1487 there arrived the first members of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. This had been established by Ferdinand and Isabella as early as 1481—with the blessing of Pope Sixtus IV—and remained under their direct control. It was intended principally to ensure the orthodoxy of those who had recently been persuaded to convert to Christianity from Judaism or Islam; and after the royal decrees of 1492 and 1501—which ordered Jews and Muslims to convert or leave the country—it substantially tightened its grip. Few converts slept soundly in their beds for fear of accusations that they were secretly observing the old customs, the punishment for which was burning at the stake.

Both the Inquisition and the expulsion decrees struck Sicily hard. The Muslim population, which had once been a majority in the island, was now relatively small, but the Jews were many; in the cities and towns they may well have constituted more than a tenth of the population. And Sicily needed them: they were active as merchants, as metalworkers and weavers, and especially as doctors and of course moneylenders. Doctors tend to be popular among the people; but moneylenders are less so and there were, after the middle of the century when interest rates climbed above ten percent, occasional outbreaks of anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, the citizens of Palermo appealed to Spain on behalf of their native Jews, protesting that they were doing no harm and begging that they might be allowed to remain. Their request went unheeded.

History shows us all too many cases of Jewish persecution, and in every case the persecuting country ends up impoverished. Spain and Sicily were no exception. We do not know the numbers involved—how many Jews decided to emigrate rather than deny their faith and how many “converted”—although the converts too lost much of their property, and even then were never safe from the Inquisition. But whatever the proportions, there can be no doubt that Sicily—like Nazi Germany in more recent years—lost a vast number of her most skilled, talented and intelligent citizens. And her economy suffered accordingly.

Another somewhat unsettling trend made itself evident during the sixteenth century’s opening decade: a steady increase in royal authority. For well over two centuries the barons had had things very much their own way. Thanks to corruption, carelessness on the part of the authorities, or quite often simply the passage of time, many of them held estates that were technically crown property, or had long since been allowed to forget their feudal obligations. But those days were over. With every passing year it became more evident that King Ferdinand was gradually tightening his grip. This was confirmed in 1509, with the appointment as Viceroy of a general named Ugo Moncada, who was bent on the conquest of North Africa and saw Sicily as the obvious springboard. From the beginning the barons hated him. Not only did he show them no respect; on his arrival he instituted searching inquiries as to their legal positions—in many cases with extremely embarrassing results. Arrests were made, frequently leading to imprisonment; fiefs were confiscated, including several that had been formally claimed by the Church. Meanwhile, the Inquisition was making its presence increasingly felt, particularly after it began burning its victims alive in the public squares.


The events of the last decade of the fifteenth century had changed the civilized world. On April 17, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella had given their formal approval to Christopher Columbus for his voyage, putting at his disposal three tiny caravels—the largest of them little more than a hundred feet long. Moreover, just four years before the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María set sail, the Portuguese Bartholomew Diaz had rounded the Cape of Storms (renamed by John II of Portugal the Cape of Good Hope); just six years afterward, on May 20 1498, his compatriot Vasco da Gama had dropped anchor at Calicut on the Malabar coast. Not only had he found a continuous sea route to India; he had proved that Portuguese ships were capable—just—of getting there and back.

The stories of these three great adventurers are not ours; what is important to us is the effect they had on the fortunes of the Mediterranean. Henceforth the writing was on the wall. Until now, even if the Turks did not make trouble—as they usually did—all cargoes bound for the further east had to be unloaded in Alexandria or some Levantine port. Thence they would be either transported overland to the pirate-infested Red Sea or consigned to some shambling camel caravan across central Asia which might take three or four years to reach its destination. Now, merchants could look forward to a time when they could sail from Lisbon—or London—and arrive in India or Cathay in the same vessel. Meanwhile, thanks to Columbus and those who followed him, the New World was proving infinitely more profitable than the Old, possessed as it was of fabulous wealth, the lion’s share of which went to Spain—and legally too. Within only seven months of Columbus’s first landfall, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI—himself a Spaniard—had issued the first of his five bulls settling the competing claims of Spain and Portugal over the newly discovered territories; within twenty-five years the galleons were regularly returning to their homeland loaded to the gunwales with loot. No wonder the successors of Ferdinand and Isabella had their eyes fixed so firmly on the west.

It was not immediately apparent that this sudden opening up of the oceans on both sides had dealt trade in the Mediterranean what would prove to be a paralyzing blow. Gradually, however, men realized that, at least from the commercial point of view, the Middle Sea had become a backwater. East of the Adriatic the Turks now allowed passage to western ships reluctantly or not at all. To the west, it was still indispensable to Italy; but France was nowadays finding her northern ports on the English Channel a good deal more useful than Marseille or Toulon, while Spain, now entering her years of greatness, had other, tastier fish to fry. Not for another three centuries, until the building of the Suez Canal, would the Mediterranean regain its old importance as a world thoroughfare.

And Sicily, as always, was the loser.