coin 1617coin 1618Neapolitan coins of Philip III from 1617 and 1618


In the seventeenth century Naples was governed by Philip III., Philip IV., and Charles II. of Spain. Neither of these sovereigns merit our attention, and in the long procession of their viceroys and lieutenants, there is rarely one of whom we have occasion to speak at length. During this epoch Naples suffered the results of the policy which had been pursued by its preceding rulers. Industries, commerce, and everything that makes the financial prosperity of a nation were at the lowest ebb. Villages deserted and rich fields lying fallow spoke but too plainly of the decrease in population, and the weak sovereigns at Madrid were powerless to confer prosperity on their provinces; taken for all in all, the story of Naples in this era is sad and depressing.

As Clara Erskine Clement describes it in the paragraph quoted above, the seventeenth century was not a happy time for the kingdom of Naples under Spanish rule. She describes the conditions for the nobility under the Spanish viceroys:

The court of a viceroy is apt to be a travesty on the court of a sovereign, even when the sovereign and his deputy are able men; how much more so, when, as in the case of Naples at this period, the sovereign was weak, and the viceroy mercenary! The pivot on which the affairs of Naples turned was at Madrid; there was no central point at home; no dignified relations abroad which opened a field to diplomatic talent, and the Neapolitan nobles must be either courtiers or soldiers. Many chose the military profession, raised troops at their own cost, conducted them to other countries, and won admiration and respect from brave enemies in various portions of the vast Spanish territory.

The Spanish viceroys under Philip III were:

She writes of these viceroys:

No autocrat could be more regardless of the rank of his subjects, nor more insulting in his treatment of those who offended him than were these Spanish viceroys in Naples. De Reumont gives some examples of this :

“In the year 1614 the Count of Lemos imprisoned the Prince of Conca and the Duke of Bovino, the first Lord High Admiral, and the other High Seneschal of the kingdom, and sent one to Castel Nuovo and the other to S. Elmo, because, as supporters of the dignity of the crown, they had refused to appear at a review amongst the crowd of nobles, but claimed reserved places. A year afterwards the same Count of Lemos caused the Duke of Nocera, one of the most distinguished feudatories of the house of Carafa, to be seized in his palace by a number of Sbirri, because he had disobeyed the injunction of the king and married without his consent. Arrests for debt, even for very small sums, were not unusual; and the vanity as well as the pretensions to rank of the Neapolitans was hurt by the Spaniards in this and in all ways. . . .

The court of a viceroy is apt to be a travesty on the court of a sovereign, even when the sovereign and his deputy are able men; how much more so, when, as in the case of Naples at this period, the sovereign was weak, and the viceroy mercenary! The pivot on which the affairs of Naples turned was at Madrid ; there was no central point at home; no dignified relations abroad which opened a field to diplomatic talent, and the Neapolitan nobles must be either courtiers or soldiers. Many chose the military profession, raised troops at their own cost, conducted them to other countries, and won admiration and respect from brave enemies in various portions of the vast Spanish territory.

Pedro Téllez-Girón, 3rd Duke of OsunaPedro Téllez-Girón, 3rd Duke of Osuna

occasionally a viceroy appeared who makes a picturesque feature in the general monotony of the time.

Don Pedro Giron, Duke of Ossuna, was one of these. He was the second viceroy of his name, and came of an important family, in whose chapel at Ossuna this elevated sentiment holds a place of honor: ” If life is beautiful, death is gain.” However much this duke endeavored to make his earthly life beautiful from his point of view, he sought a gain in no wise dependent on death. No viceroy at Naples had assumed such state and magnificence as did he from his first appearance at her gates. He frequently drove through the city in a carriage drawn by six horses; it was covered with black velvet ornamented in silver without and gold within; two hundred pounds of silver in addition to the gold and jewels on the sideposts increased the price of this chariot to three or four thousand scudi. Besides being showered with petitions which were thrown into his carriage, he actually gave audiences in the street, while crowds collected to admire and criticise his assumption of super-regal splendor.

He professed himself greatly interested in the cause of justice, and had a habit of going about the city late at night, when he carefully noted everything irregular and severely punished the offenders. In public he was all generosity, and scattered coins among the people who flattered him. With the unthinking rabble he gained a certain popularity, so that when he made a feint of resigning his office they petitioned him to remain their viceroy.

The more intelligent of his subjects were not surprised by his gradual assumption of illegal power, as they had doubted him from the beginning. He soon showed himself a cruel tyrant, and did not hesitate to condemn men to the galleys for life, or even to death itself, without a trial; and this for trifling offences which were oftentimes personal to himself, as when a dentist, who had broken a tooth of Ossuna’s some years previously, was sent to the galleys. He paid small deference to official position, and even had a member of the finance department flogged through the town for an idle word. Some of his so-called acts of justice were such that one wonders that he was not murdered once a day, at least, if that were possible.

On one occasion the presidents of the exchequer failed to present their accounts on the appointed day. Ossuna imprisoned them in their houses with threats of greater severity. A few days later he summoned them before him, and announced that they were to be carried to distant castles. Carriages were waiting, and with no preparation, and no leave-taking of family or friends, each one was put in a separate coach and driven away, regardless of the intercession of the few who knew what was being done. When Ossuna was reminded that such journeys were often fatal in the heat which prevailed, he replied that such a thought did not disturb him. His daring and unexampled brutality was doubtless the effect of his suspicion that these men had reported his conduct to the court at Madrid. Ossuna’s fiendish cruelty was combined with superstitious fear. He was constantly in horror of being spellbound, and frequently had women whom he suspected as witches flogged through the streets; it was a mark of favor when they were permitted to veil their faces; a monk bore a crucifix before them, and after the scourging they were expelled from Naples.

Ossuna’s private life was too low and indecent for description; and yet, in spite of his abominable character in both his public and private relations, he held some potent charm by which he could attract a following among the very people whom he outraged. At length, apparently weary of so narrow a field as Naples afforded him, together with the Spanish governor at Milan, Don Pedro de Toledo, and the Spanish ambassador to Venice, the Marquis of Bedmar, he entered into a conspiracy against the Venetian republic, which presented the only bar to the Spanish dominion over all Italy.

In the spring of 1617, Ossuna made vast preparations for his attack on Venice. He appealed to the piratical Usochi, who had long been the enemies of the Republic, and opened to them the Neapolitan ports on the Adriatic; he enlisted men, prepared vessels, and even took away the artillery of San Lorenzo. All prisoners and banditti were offered pardon if they would enlist in the service of the Duke, and 14,000 soldiers and sailors were ready for his work when he commenced negotiations with the Pope relative to marching his army across Lombardy. Meantime he had stationed twenty galleons and other vessels in the Neapolitan harbors, and yet he continued his friendly relations with the representative of Venice, who did not leave the court of Naples.

A naval conflict soon raged between Naples and Venice, and Ossuna’s anxiety can scarcely be exaggerated when he perceived that he had overstepped the bounds of his authority. He was not an autocrat at Madrid as at Naples, and Spain did not desire a war with Italy. De Reumont says :

“It was a critical moment for Ossuna. He saw his daring plans thwarted; he felt how tottering was his position at Naples; his preparations had swallowed up vast sums of money; the land groaned under the burden of quartered soldiers ; the foreign troops, especially the Walloons, occasioned daily bloody quarrels by their want of discipline. All the public works were at a standstill, the treasury empty, even the artillery concealed in the Sicilian fortresses was sold. Envoys from the nobility and from the town were gone to Madrid to allege their complaints against the viceroy. He had tried first to prevent and then to weaken their complaints, but failed in both cases; then the idea seemed to occur to him of making himself an independent ruler of Naples. He tried to make himself a party among the common people of Naples, and he succeeded. . . .

“The noblemen who had any influence with the better part of the people did their possible to keep the peace and preserve the allegiance due to their monarch; but the state of things was extremely critical, and a general terror prevailed that the city would be pillaged.”

Just at this time news came that the Cardinal Gaspar Borgia had received orders to leave Rome at once and precede Ossuna at Naples. The Duke offered all possible resistance to the entrance of the Cardinal into the city. But Borgia was clever enough to gain the custodian of Castel Nuovo to his side; he landed from a fisherman’s boat, disguised as a soldier, and entered Naples at night, in the company of a few friends. In the morning the thunder of the forts proclaimed the new ruler. Ossuna still tried in vain to defend himself; during the ten days that he remained in Naples, he witnessed the rejoicings of the people at his overthrow; he beheld illuminations three successive nights; he saw his friends disgraced, imprisoned, exiled, and even executed, and he departed in June, 1620, vowing vengeance on his enemies, and declaring that he would vindicate himself at Madrid.

After some delay he reached Madrid, and for a time it seemed that he would succeed in re-instating himself in the esteem of Philip III.; but that monarch’s death sounded the knell of Ossuna. He was imprisoned, and died a raving maniac in 1624.

Clara Erskine Clement describes the lavish entertainments of the time:

The royal palace, designed by Fontana and begun in 1600, has been so changed by fire and rebuilding, as well as by the needs and fancies of later rulers and architects, that it has little present interest. But it was a fitting place for the festivities which constantly occurred there while it was still new. It is estimated that 50,000 ducats were annually spent on them by some viceroys. Tournaments, balls, suppers, and all the pleasures that could be devised followed closely, one upon another. On one occasion Ossuna invited more than a hundred ladies to a supper, and appointed their lordly relatives to serve them at table. He watched the affair through a distant window, and appeared at the end of the meal in a magnificent costume; he ordered the windows to be opened and the remnants of the feast thrown into the court of the Arsenal; meantime the ball-room was lighted, and the dancing lasted until long after sunrising.

In the year 1618, during the carnival, a great masquerade was held in the palace. A Turkish vessel passed through the hall, from which knights jumped out and tilted with each other; a supper and ball followed. But the climax of display and constant festivity was reached under Ossuna, whose wife was devoted to gayety. On one occasion she arranged a ball at which twelve maidens of high rank formed a quadrille. The viceroy paid for their costumes 600 ducats for each lady; they consisted of white satin undergarments trimmed with gold lace, and petticoats, reaching to the middle of the legs, of the same materials; their trains were of silver brocade, and were carried over the arm in dancing; they had dainty shoes, and beautiful heron’s plumes ornamented the white crowns on their heads. When the time came for their dance, they advanced in pairs, bearing torches in the right hand, and as they danced they made courtesies to the viceroy. A torch dance followed, in which the viceroy joined; and the refreshments were then served, which, curiously enough, were always the same with high and low, and consisted of grapes and melons. Sometimes the Greek gods and goddesses appeared at the festivals, and angels sang madrigals in honor of the giver of the feast.

Successive viceroys vied with each other in inventing new and splendid entertainments. . . .

The diaries and chronicles of this century speak but sparingly of the domestic life of the time, which fact shows that it was considered as unimportant. Young girls of fortune were placed in convents to be educated and protected from the many dangers which threatened them outside these asylums. When they reached the customary age, a marriage was arranged, and they were led from the convent to the altar.

At the balls and fetes where ladies appeared, fierce quarrels often arose concerning matters of etiquette and precedence ; and they were not above boxing ears and scratching faces. The Countess of Monterey publicly carried a slipper about, and did not hesitate to beat such ladies as offended her. The morals of women of position were conspicuous by their absence, and it was thought no shame to be the mistress of a viceroy. The ladies of the court exceeded all bounds of decency in dress; at a masquerade in 1639, the Duchess of Medina and twenty-three other beautiful women appeared in such a lack of costume as excited a scandal, even at the court of Naples. But in spite of all these faults, when the hour of danger came, these women were not wanting in courage and devotion to their cause and to their friends.

Napoli_-_Palazzo_RealeRoyal Palace, Naples (Source: Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

As for works of architecture:

At the very beginning of the century, by the command of Philip III., and under the viceroy, the Count of Lemos, the Royal Palace was begun. Domenico Fontana was the architect. He had already executed many fine works in Rome, and filled that city with his fame, thereby exciting the enmity of other artists to such a degree that on the death of his patron, Pope Sixtus, he was glad to go to Naples at the request of the Count of Miranda. He had designed and built many other edifices before beginning the Palazzo Reale, which has been called his masterpiece. No proper judgment of what it was originally can now be made; the facade alone can claim to be in any just sense
the work of Fontana, and even that has been much changed.

In 1607, under the viceroy Count de Benevente, a street was built to the Poggio Reale. It was a long, straight road beyond the Porta Capuana, leading to the palace built by Alfonso II. at the close of the fifteenth century. Here were gardens extending to the sea; and the Due de Guise in the middle of the seventeenth century thought it one of the most lovely spots in the world. This street was bordered by trees and ornamented by fountains, and became a favorite promenade with the Neapolitans.

In 1615 a second Count of Lemos changed the viceregal stables of Ossuna into a university. In 1624 the Duke of Alva erected a Lazaretto at Nisida, and in 1634 the Count of Monterey built the bridge of Chiaja, by means of which the quarter of Pizzofalcone was connected with the hill on which stands the castle of S. Elmo, by way of the Strada Monte di Dio and the Strada Ponte di Chiaja. Such were the important public works in Naples during the first half of this century; few and unimportant as they seem when compared with other periods in its history, they are almost momentous when we remember the desperate condition of the government and the people during this epoch.

As for art:

Naples Certosa San Martino ChiesaCertosa e Museo di San Martino (source)

Reale cappella del Tesoro di San GennaroDuomo of Naples, Cappella di San Gennaro
(Photo by Richard Mortel / Creative Commons)

The art of the seventeenth century in Naples is well displayed in the church of S. Martino and in the chapel of S. Januarius, also called the Cappella del Tesoro, in the cathedral. S. Martino is rich in the most exquisite marbles and beautiful porphyry. The walls are covered with mosaic, and the altars finished with lapis-lazuli, agate, jasper, and amethysts; leaves, rosettes, and other designs are executed in mezzo relievo from the richest materials, and the extravagances of the architect, Fansaga of Bergamo, are seen on every side, giving an effect of astonishing splendor. The mark of Fansaga is on many edifices in Naples. He designed the facade of the Cappella del Tesoro; while Francesco Grimaldi of Oppido was the architect of the chapel itself, which was built in fulfilment of a vow made during the plague of 1527, and was completed a century later, at a cost of 1,000,000 ducats, equal to about the same sum in dollars. It is in the form of a Greek cross, and has a large cupola; it has eight altars, and is rich in marbles and gold; the finely wrought latticework is magnificent, and the forty-two columns of Spanish Brocatello add great splendor to the effect of the whole; porphyry and lapis-lazuli, statues in bronze and marble, huge silver candlesticks and numerous objects in silver gilt, render this chapel bewildering in riches.

Several pictures by Domenichino still remain, although he could not endure the persecution he suffered and ran away, leaving his work unfinished, as Guido Reni had previously done. The story of the persecution of artists who came from other cities to work in Naples at this time, proves it to have been ruled by anarchy and crime, else how could artists who had made contracts with the proper authorities for the decoration of such an edifice as this chapel be threatened, insulted, and even murdered, as Domenico, the assistant of Guido, is believed to have been?

Belisario Corenzio and the Neapolitan painters of his company carried matters with a high hand. They determined that no outside artist should work there; and following the example constantly set them in other matters, they hesitated at nothing that could further their aims. Thus Belisario hired the assassin who killed Domenico; the assassin was sent to the galleys, and the painter was a long time in prison. We cannot wonder that foreign artists refused commissions in Naples; the committee tried native artists with no satisfactory result; Belisario himself was tested, and failed; and at length, years after it should have been completed, Ribera and Stanzioni finished the altar-pieces, and Lanfranco filled the cupola of the Cappella del Tesoro with figures unworthy of a second thought.