The glory and demise of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.

10 May 2015
The glory and demise of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.

Speaker: Dr Giovanni Coci 

I was born in Naples, Southern Italy and I am quite passionate about the culture and the history of this beautiful part of the world. The purpose of my talk is to share with you some facts about the history of Southern Italy which may  not be well known.


Let’ s start from the beginning. How many of you have heard of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies?

Let’s look at the map of pre-unification Italy


It consisted of  eight  different states:

  1. The Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont – In Italian Piemonte)
  2. The Lombardo Veneto (Under Austrian rule)
  3. The Principality of Parma
  4. The Duchy of Modena
  5. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany
  6. The Republic of San Marino
  7. The Papal States
  8. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies

As you can see  the Regno delle Due Sicilie (Kingdom of the two Sicilies) was the name given to Southern Italy before unification

The Kingdom was the largest and most populous state of pre-unity Italy

Why this rather odd name of Kingdom of the two Sicilies, when in fact there is only one Sicily?

Well, over the last one thousand years Southern Italy was ruled by various dynasties, Normans, French, Spanish and others.  As the rulers changed, often boundaries were re-written.  At one stage the whole of Southern Italy was known as the Kingdom of Sicily.  Then the island of Sicily seceded and kept the name of Kingdom of Sicily, while the ruler of the mainland in his wisdom  decided to keep his title of King of Sicily.  When the island and the mainland were finally re-united, to avoid bruising egos the new entity was renamed  the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.

This happened at the beginning of the eighteenth century. For the last 3 centuries prior to that Southern Italy had been ruled by Spain.

 In 1734 one of the Spanish Princes, Carlo di Borbone,


managed to convince the Spanish government to relinquish the control of Southern Italy and he became the first monarch of the Neapolitan Bourbon dynasty (Borboni di Napoli) to rule over the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.


Map of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies


Flag of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies

Carlo di Borbone proved to be an exceptionally enlightened and talented monarch. Under his rule architecture, the arts,  music, science, technology, commerce and industry flourished and the golden period of the history of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies began. Carlo di Borbone only ruled Southern Italy until 1756 when he was offered the crown of Spain and moved to Madrid as King of Spain, but his successors carried on his legacy.

Let’s go through some of the remarkable developments that took place under the Bourbon dynasty and that can be looked at as the GLORY of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. 

Although there were great achievements in most fields the following stand out as areas of excellence


Carlo di Borbone was passionate about architecture and he encouraged the development of many great projects the most impressive being  the Royal Palace of Caserta, which has become a UNESCO world heritage site


Caserta 1

He wished to build a new royal court and administrative centre for the kingdom in an inland  location,  protected from possible attacks from the sea , and away from the congested city of Naples. 

The brief for this development on a 120  hectares site near Caserta, some 30 km inland from Naples, was given to the Dutch architect Lodewjik Van Wittel, whose name was soon Italianised to Luigi Vanvitelli


This statue of Vanvitelli  stands in a piazza in Naples named after him

Construction began in 1752.  We can see some of Vanvitelli’ s original plans


Plan 1 



Plan 2 

The grandiose palace and park are strikingly beautiful and elegant


The gardens expand along a waterfall


Adorned by many fountains and exquisite marble statuary.


The most impressive of these are


The fountain of Aeolus


Fountain of Aeolus

Close up



The Fountain of Venus and Adonis


Venus and Adonis 

The Fountain of Diana depicting beautiful hunting scenes


Fountain of Diana


Fountain of Diana Close up


Close up of Diana)


The Fountain of the Dolphins


Fountain of the Dolphins

Fountain Margherita

Picture18    Fountain Margherita

By the way nothing to do with Pizza Margherita. 


Pizza Margherita

This is the real thing: thick crust, fresh tomatoes, basil and my friend Marco’s mozzarella. A yummy for Mother’s day.

The pizza Margherita came into being one hundred years later.        It also had a royal connection. There was, and still  is, a well known family owned pizzeria called “Brandi” near the royal palace of Naples. Legend has it that one day queen Margherita of Italy visited the restaurant. The owner, Mr. Brandi had just designed a new pizza which he offered to the Queen who thought it was excellent and from that day it was named MARGHERITA and is known as such throughout the world. 

Getting back to Caserta, an enormous amount of water was required to feed all the fountains and the water courses.  For this reason Vanvitelli had to build an aqueduct which was named after him



Look at the elegance of the design, reminiscent of Roman aqueducts.

Let’s now look at the Royal Palace itself which was clearly inspired by the Palace of Versailles



The Palace is rectangular, with four large interior courtyards intersecting at right angles. It covers 45,000 m2 and its five storeys rise to a height of 36 m.


 Aerial View of the Palace


The building contains 1,200 rooms  (this beats any house on Beachy Head)

The monumental main staircase




gives access to the throne hall


Throne Hall


 Another noteworthy feature is the Court Theatre, a superb example of 18th-century design.



The royal apartments include a magnificent library

Picture25   Library

 And, naturally, the royal bedroom


Royal Bedroom

As a matter of curiosity the royal bathroom included a bidet, the first ever to be installed in Italy



And now let’s talk about

San Leucio

To compensate the farmers who had lost 120 hectares of land Carlo di Borbone decided to create a village on a nearby royal hunting reserve known as the San Leucio Resort, right next to the Royal Palace of Caserta.  The village was designed to house a very advanced silk weaving industry. San Leucio was an unusual  experiment well ahead of its time, combining the most advanced technology available  with a modern social security system for the workers who had subsidised housing, free schooling and free medical care as well as  participation in a profit sharing system.  Not bad for the middle of the eighteenth century.


San Leucio

We can look at

Other Architectural Feats

Besides the Royal Palace of Caserta the Bourbon Kings of Naples had another three residences:



Palazzo Reale di Napoli

which faces a beautiful large piazza



By the way the Pizzeria Brandi  is just around the corner

The magnificent grand staircase



Links the royal palace to the adjacent San Carlo Opera House


San Carlo

The palace is near the harbour. 



As I have already mentioned, this proximity made it vulnerable to possible attacks from the sea and was one of the reasons why Carlo di Borbone decided to relocate to Caserta, some 30 km inland from Naples. 

THE PALAZZO REALE DI PORTICI situated on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius

Picture34  Portici

was the  royal summer residence 


And is surrounded by a beautiful park


which later became the first Botanical Garden in Italy  and to date houses the Faculty of Agrarian Studies of the University of Naples.

The palace was very elegant but rather small and for this reason a decision was made to build another, larger, summer residence,


on a wooded estate 10 km north of Naples.

Picture37    Capodimonte

This spacious palace was also used to accommodate the large royal art collection.


Art Gallery

A porcelain factory was established nearby and for many years produced the world famous Capodimonte porcelain

One of the rooms of the Reggia is completely clad in porcelain. (Salottino di porcellana).


 Salottino di Porcellana

Not all architectural projects were about royal residences. Much was done in the field of social development.                                                               

An impressive project was the  Hospice for the Poor,


Albergo dei Poveri

This large alms house was designed to accomodate the destitute and ill, as well as to provide an environment  where the poor could live, learn trades, work and become self-sufficient. Construction was started in 1751 and when completed it could house over 5000 persons.

Several hospitals were built, the most famous being the “Ospedale degli Incurabili” 


Ospedale degli Incurabili

This, literally translated, means Hospital for Incurable Diseases, a name which then, as now, must have inspired great confidence. The reason for the name is that it was the main centre for patients with syphilis which in those days was incurable. The few medicaments available at the time were more dangerous than the disease itself.  The best example of this was mercury.  You are probably familiar with the old saying: “One night with Venus and the rest of your life with Mercury”

Name aside, l’ Ospedale degli Incurabili was an excellent hospital and it had a beautiful pharmacy.


Pharmacy Ospedale degli Incurabili


Having built a hospice for the poor and a hospital for the incurables the next step had to be a cemetery for the indigent.




Cimitero dei Poveri

On a happier note, there was much urban renewal, with new buildings, streets, piazzas,  boulevards and public parks

Palazzo Donnanna


Palazzo Donn’ Anna

Was and still is a prestigious residential building built right on the sea.

The Villa Comunale is Naples’ largest public park.


as it was


as it is.  When the G8 was held in Naples some 20 years ago, the Villa Comunale was closed to the public every morning to allow President Clinton to go for his daily jog.

Let ‘s now look at


While Carlo III was passionate about architecture his wife Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony-Poland was a great lover and patron of the arts.

Art flourished under the Bourbon  Dynasty.  In a lecture such as this it would be impossible to even attempt to cover all the milestones of Neapolitan art of this period but the following stand out

Baroque Art is well represented in many churches due to the Spanish influence, although the Neapolitan Baroque version is not quite as ornate.


Gesu’ Nuovo right in the historical centre of Naples


Croce Lucca


The Queen  commissioned  many Neapolitan painters such as

Francesco Solimena


Francesco de Mura


And Giuseppe Bonito

(here we have a portrait of Carlo III by Bonito)

These artists  carried on the tradition of the great masters of the earlier Neapolitan Painting School, namely



Battistello Caracciolo


Luca Giordano


And Salvator Rosa depicted here in a self portrait



Let’ s now talk about


In the second half  of the eighteenth century Neapolitan artists developed a new painting technique using opaque colours ground in water, and mixed with gum and honey. This technique was called gouache.  It was similar to watercolour but more opaque. A painting executed in this style was also known as gouache.

Gouaches were often used to depict the landscape of the surroundings of Naples and soon became a popular form of Neapolitan art.

Interestingly one of the greatest patrons of gouache painting was Sir William Hamilton , who was British Ambassador to the Court of Naples from 1764 to 1801.


Sir William Hamilton portrayed in his ambassadorial robes

Sir William had a great interest in volcanology and commissioned  many gouaches of Mount Vesuvius erupting.


This is a nocturnal view of an eruption


and a day view of Vesuvius smoking

A number of hand coloured plates of these  gouaches were collected in a book called Campi Phlegraei (flaming fields). About twenty years ago I was very fortunate to find eight of these plates at an antique book dealer in Johannesburg. I brought some of them along this morning should anyone wish to see them. 

Sir William Hamilton  also commissioned fine drawings of various volcanic stones.  These were collectively known as “le geologiche” (The geological collection).  I have brought one example.

History is a harsh discipline and it calls for truth to be told, as  painful as it might be. Talking of Sir William Hamilton it should be mentioned in passing that his beautiful young wife Lady Emma Hamilton


Lady Emma Hamilton

was also interested in matters volcanic, but from a somewhat different perspective.  When the British Government  sent the Royal Navy to Naples under Admiral Nelson to protect the Bourbons against a possible Napoleonic invasion, there was a volcanic eruption in the form of a fiery affair between the good admiral  and the first lady of the Embassy.


We have already seen some of the magnificent sculptures which adorn the Royal Palace of Caserta. Now I would like to show you what is probably the most interesting and beautiful sculpture produced during the golden years of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, Il Cristo Velato or The Veiled Christ


The Veiled Christ

This marble statue was produced in 1753 by Giuseppe Sammartino. It depicts the body of Christ deposed from the Cross and covered by a shroud. The artist managed to create in marble the effect of a thin veil covering the body 


Again it would be impossible to cover all aspects of Neapolitan music during the golden years of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. I am only going to mention the two main pillars of musical life in Naples

The first is The Teatro San Carlo

It was the first opera house built in Italy and was completed in 1737


This is the original headstone and


the 18th Century façade


the façade and


the theatre as it stands today


The interior in its opulent elegance


The magnificent Royal Box

The Teatro San Carlo has been an integral part of Neapolitan cultural life for nearly 300 years and rates among the top opera houses of the world, along side La Scala in Milan, L’ Opera’ in Paris, The Metropolitan in New York and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.

The other foundation stone of Neapolitan music is the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella.






Statue of Beethoven in the Conservatorio’ s garden

This world famous musical academy was established in 1808 and has produced many accomplished musicians and composers. This collage shows four among the most prestigious graduates of the Academy at different times


Saverio Mercadante, Vincenzo Bellini, Ruggero Leoncavallo and Riccardo Muti.  Other graduates included my wife’s grandfather and his three brothers. Obviuously not of the same level but nevertheless graduates of San Pietro a Majella. 

Science and Technology

made great strides. The Kingdom had an impressive list of “firsts” in these fields.

First astronomical observatory in Italy

First meteorological observatory in Italy

First seismological observatory in Italy which is not surprising given the large numbers of volcanos in the area

The first telegraphic service in Italy operated in the kingdom.

Naples was the first city in the world to supply running water to houses

It was also the first city in Italy to have gas street lighting as early as 1839 and electrical street lighting in 1855. 

The first railway line in Italy connected Naples to Portici and was completed in 1839.


First Train

This is the first train used on the railway line


Inaugural  trip

This picture depicts the arrival of the train in Portici on its inaugural trip


First centenary

This Italian Postal Services issued a stamp to commemorate the centenary of the railway line. It depicts the original locomotive alongside a modern train running at the time. 

The locomotive for the first train was imported from England but shortly  afterwards  steelworks were set up at PIETRARSA to manufacture locomotives and nautical engines. Pietrarsa became the largest industrial complex in pre-unity Italy.


Pietrarsa Factory 

Last but not least let us look at the


The Kingdom had excellent ship yards and these were some of their firsts:

1818: the First steam ship, the Ferdinando I, was launched


First  Steam Ship Ferdinando I  1818 


Naval Industry

1836 the first Steam Ship Line in the Mediterranean was born in the Kingdom.

In 1853 the first transatlantic sailing by steamship took place from Naples to the USA 

Ten days ago, on the first of May, The International Expo Exhibition opened in Milan. Does anybody know when the first Expo was held?  It was in London in 1851.

At the second Expo which was held in Paris in 1856 the Kingdom of the two Sicilies was awarded third place for industrial development in Europe, after the United Kingdom  and France.

This brings me to the end of the first part of my talk. We have looked at the glory of the Regno delle due Sicilie. There can be little doubt that this Kingdom was a flourishing country. Then how is it is possible that in 1856 it was awarded third place for industrial development in Europe and  five years later it was a broken country that had become the pariah of Itay?

This brings us to the second, and mercifully much shorter part of my talk: the demise of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies.

Even today there is often a misconception that Southern Italy, also called “il Mezzogiorno”, is the Cinderella of Italy:  poor, not as developed as the North, plagued by corruption and crime, especially organized crime.   In fact a drain on Italy as a whole.

Is this true? And if it is, why?

The reason, according to many distinguished historians, is that il Mezzogiorno did not get a good deal from the unification of Italy.

Unification  had to come. Italy could simply not have continued to exist as a mosaic of insignificant small states which had little or no political clout in an international context. The attempts to unify Italy went back at least 50 years and the blood of many patriots was shed to this end.

When unification was finally achieved in 1861 it was under the drive of the Kingdom of Sardinia, i.e. Piemonte.  The two main players in Piemonte were the King,


Picture of Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia

Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia (for the sake of brevity I am going to refer to him as Vittorio) and his prime minister,


Picture of Camillo Benso Count of Cavour

Camillo Benso Count of Cavour. (Camillo for the rest of my talk).

Vittorio and Camillo could hardly be described as champions of the oppressed. So why did they  become involved in unifying Italy? It was not patriotic fervour as conventional history textbooks  would like us to believe. It was something much more mundane.

Let’s look at the financial situation of the various states of the Italian peninsula just prior to unification


Financial Situation Pre Unity States  

As we can see the gold reserves of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies were double those of all the other pre-unitary states put together and 16 times those of Piemonte.

Piemonte was broke and desperately needed a cash injection.  What better and easier way than put its hands on the gold of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies?

Vittorio and Camillo decided to climb on the bandwagon of the unification of Italy. T

0.he time was ripe to conquer the South because the seasoned and able Bourbon King Ferdinand II


Picture of King Ferdinand II of Bourbon

had just died and his inexperienced 23 year old son Francis II (whom we shall call Francesco)


Picture of Francesco II of Bourbon

was simply not ready to control the largest Kingdom in Italy.

For obvious reasons the Piedmontese could not occupy the South themselves, so they appointed a proxy in the person of Giuseppe Garibaldi


Picture of Giuseppe Garibaldi

Garibaldi was an adventurous man who had travelled the world and fought in various conflicts, particularly in South America. He enthusiastically accepted the mandate to conquer the Kingdom of the two Sicilies for Vittorio and Camillo, put together a rag tag army of one thousand men in red shirts,         ( i mille), was given two ships by Camillo and sailed for Sicily in May 1860.

The obvious question is how could one thousand men, poorly armed, conquer the largest state in Italy which had a well equipped army and the largest military fleet in the Mediterranean?

The answer is unfortunately ugly. Camillo’s men bribed the top military brass of the Bourbon army and navy and  offered  positions of power in the new regime to the upper class of the Kingdom.  This may explain why, at the first battle between the Bourbon army and the Mille at a place in Sicily called Calatafimi, 5,000 fully equipped Bourbon soldiers were ordered to withdraw by their general shortly after a few shots had been fired.

Interestingly at the end of the campaign the treasurer of the expedition, Ippolito Nievo, a man of great integrity, was instructed to return to Piemonte by ship with all the financial records of the expedition.  The ship mysteriously sank.

The other tragic result of Garibaldi’s expedition was that, in order to get some local support, he saw it fit to ally himself with the local crime organizations, the mafia in Sicily, the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria and the camorra in Naples. As a result the status and power of these criminals escalated enormously to become major organized crime associations. To this day they are a great plague for Italian Society.

Besides the ones already mentioned, there were a number of other reasons why the Mille’s expedition was a walk over.

  • The Bourbons had always followed a rather insular foreign policy and had no major allies.  King Ferdinand II used to say:


“Three quarters of my kingdom border with salt water and one quarter with holy water” (i.e. The Papal States)


  • The Bourbon Royal Family was divided.  Francesco was born from his father’s  first marriage to Maria Cristina who died in childbirth.  There was not much love lost between the new Queen and her sons and Francesco who was the heir to the throne.
  • A number of European Powers, including England wanted control of sulphur rich Sicily. At the time sulphur was an important industrial fuel.

The war was a disaster for Francesco who only at the end managed to put up a good fight at the fortress of Gaeta but was eventually forced to surrender and go into exile. 

The consequences of annexation were tragic for Southern Italy:

  • The gold reserves were embezzled
  • Many factories, including Pietrarsa, were dismantled and moved to the North.
  • A brutal repression campaign was conducted by the by the Piedmontese against Southern Italians who dared to rebel. More people died as a result than in all the wars of independence put together. The first concentration camps in history were used during this campaign
  • Loss of jobs and poverty forced millions of Southern Italians to emigrate, mostly to North and South America.  Nothing was done by the new Italian government to assist and keep in contact with these emigrants.  As a result today there is a large Italian diaspora worldwide (More people of Italian extraction live abroad than in Italy) but the great majority have lost all ties with their motherland.
  • We have already discussed the escalation of the power of organized crime.

So the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, after its long period of glory came to its inglorious end.

You may well ask : 150 years later what is the relevance of all this?

Well this is the  Historical Society and  one of the major tenets of history is that truth must be told.  Much of what was discussed today is not well known. For many years the truth has been hidden by stereotyped clichés.  I hope that my talk goes someway to explain the reasons why the South of Italy has such a poor image.  Fortunately in the last few decades this is changing and the South is regaining its position of prominence.  Hopefully this trend will continue and “Il Mezzogiorno” will be in for another period of glory soon.  The phoenix will rise from the ashes of Mount Vesuvius.