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In 1734, during the War of the Polish Succession, the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were conquered by the armies of Charles, son of King Philip V of Spain. This brought the Spanish Bourbon dynasty to power, which would rule Naples and Sicily until 1861. For the first time since 1501, Naples had a resident king who was not ruling through a viceroy. Charles was technically Charles V of Sicily and Charles VII of Naples, but he did not use a number himself, preferring to be known as Charles of Bourbon. This was done partly to emphasize the discontinuity between himself and previous rulers named Charles, particularly Emperor Charles VI of Austria.

When his half-brother, Ferdinand VI of Spain, died in 1759, Charles became king of Spain as Charles III. By the provisions of the third Treaty of Vienna he could not combine the Neapolitan and Sicilian territories with the Spanish throne, so Charles abdicated the crowns of Naples and Sicily in favor of his eight-year-old son Ferdinand. The Bourbon kings of Naples brought political stability and the principles of the Enlightenment to their long-suffering kingdom. Clara Erskine Clement describes the reign of Charles of Bourbon in her 1894 book, Naples, the City of Parthenope and its Environs:

The first of the Spanish Bourbon kings at Naples, best known as Carlo Borbone, but also called Charles VII. and Charles III., obtained his throne by violence; but he sincerely desired the happiness and prosperity of his people. He was the younger son of Philip V. of Spain by his second wife, Elisabetta Farnese. She was a bold, ambitious woman, whose chief aim was to acquire for her sons such power as should partly atone for the fact that their elder half-brother inherited the throne of Spain.

Charles was but seventeen years old when he left the court of his father, at which time Philip V. and the queen, on their thrones, received him in presence of the court. According to custom, Charles knelt before his father, who made the sign of a large cross over the boy’s head, and raising him to his feet, girded on him a rich jewelled sword, saying, “This is the sword which Louis XIV., my grandfather, placed at my side when he sent me to conquer these realms of Spain; may it bring thee entire success without the calamity of a long war.” Philip then kissed his son and dismissed him.

Charles next appears in Perugia, where he reviewed 16,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, preparatory to the conquest of Naples. This force was commanded by Montemar; and among its officers were distinguished French, Spanish, and Neapolitan nobles, and even the English Duke of Berwick. During the review Charles was surrounded by many distinguished men in magnificent costumes, while splendid banners floated above them. Their flatteries of the young prince were quite enough to turn his head, and there must have been a basis of true solidity in his character which enabled him to choose the plainest man among them all as his chief councillor and his auditor of the Spanish army.

Bernardo Tanucci had attracted Charles by his knowledge of law and his ability to plead his cause in court; and the statesmanlike qualities which he later developed justified Charles in his choice of his minister.

We will not recite the incidents of his march to Naples. He entered the city by the Capuan Gate, May 10, 1834. He visited the churches, made a splendid gift to the statue of S. Januarius, and freed the prisoners in S. Giacomo and the Vicaria on his way to the palace. The city was alive with rejoicings, and was brilliantly illuminated that night. While Count Montemar carefully disposed his army to guard the young king, Charles published a decree favorable to his subjects, and made Tanucci his minister of justice.

Montemar next dispersed the German troops which remained in the kingdom, and at the end of a few weeks the whole peninsula had submitted to Carlo Borbone. A year later Charles triumphantly entered Palermo, and having convened the Parliament and taken the proper oath, he was crowned with unusual magnificence, the crown alone costing 1,440,000 ducats. After many festivities he again reached Naples in June, 1735. His reign and the care of his people may be essentially dated from this time. We shall give its results rather than its details ; and, boy as he was, Tanucci for some years ruled him, as well as his kingdom, with an admirable tact that induced Charles to approve of all that was done.

In 1738 Charles married a princess of Poland, Amalia Walburga, not yet fifteen years old. Her reception as she passed through Germany and Italy was suited to the betrothed of a sovereign; and Charles awaited her at Portella, and received her with a splendor which dazzled her childish eyes. The royal pair made their entrance into Naples on July 2; and on that day the king founded the Order of S. Januarius, of which he was the grand-master, the knights numbering but sixty, and all being of noble descent. The insignia of the order is a cross, each point terminating in lilies, with an image of the saint in the centre, and the motto In sanguine foedus. The statutes of the order are strict enough for a body of monks rather than a company of courtly knights; but it was in perfect accord with the religion of this king, who, clothed in sackcloth, washed the feet of the poor, and every year, with his own hands, modelled a representation of the Nativity of Christ.

To a monarch thus devoted in his religious life, we must accord an unusual sense of justice for the age in which he lived, when we remember that he abolished the tribute paid by Naples to the Pope, limited the number of priests to be ordained, and would not permit a papal bull to be enforced without his signature of approval; and all this while he bound himself to hear Mass every day,to communicate with unusual frequency, and to preserve his faith in the Catholic Christian Church inviolate.

Charles reigned at Naples but twenty-five years, during eight of which he was involved in a war with Germany; yet he found the time and means to accomplish some changes greatly to the good of his subjects. Besides those already mentioned, he placed strict limits on the right of asylum for criminals; he restricted the feudal privileges, and established the right of appeal in the baronial courts; he protected the commons in their claims on certain estates, and enacted many other measures which lessened the power of the nobles, and opened the way to influence and position to educated men of the middle classes. These reforms brought vast energy and intelligence to the service of the king, although the entire result was not so noble as the thought which originated them. Neither were the changes in the administration of justice searching enough to abolish thieves, homicides, banditti, and robbers from the provinces; and so frequent was the crime of poisoning in Naples that a special court, the Junta of Poisons, was established to inquire into these cases alone.

Charles made commercial treaties with various countries, sent consuls to important ports, and instituted a tribunal for the decision of commercial suits and questions from which there was no appeal. Under this policy Neapolitan commerce quickly sprang into importance, and would have brought great prosperity to the kingdom had not exorbitant duties been put on foreign goods, which drove the merchants to more favorable ports, and proved fatal to the commercial interests of Naples.

The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle apparently secured the throne of Naples to Charles and his heirs; and the anxieties of war being ended, the king began to indulge his natural taste for the improvement of his capital. Among his most important achievements in this wise were the enlargement and completion of the great harbor of the Molo Grande and the bridge of the Immacolata at the Molo Piccolo, the Strada Mergellina and that of the Marinella, with the building called the Immacolatella, now the office of the Board of Health and of the Customs. All the shore along the Marinella and the Mergellina was transformed from a miserable quarter, where the dirtiest population was gathered, into a beautiful road where the people could ride or walk with pleasure.

The king and queen when returning from Castellammare were enchanted by the country about Portici, and decided to build a villa there in spite of the suggestion that it was too near Vesuvius. Charles replied, “God, the Immaculate Virgin, and S. Januarius will protect us.” He also began the palace of Capo-di-Monte, which was completed a century later.

Teatro_San_Carlo_NapelsTeatro di San Carlo

The splendid theatre of S. Carlo was a work of this king, and bears his name. It was erected by the architect Angelo Carasale, from the plans of Medrano, who also designed the Capo-di-Monte. Charles commanded that this should be the largest theatre in Europe, and built in the shortest time; it was begun in March, and finished in October, 1737, and in November, eight months from its commencement, a play was given on the name-day of the king. To make room for S. Carlo many houses were taken away, and the ground belonging to it extended at the back, so that when the end of the stage was thrown open, battles and other scenes, with chariots and horses, could be seen in the distance. The interior of the auditorium was lined with mirrors which reflected the light from the candles, and produced a marvellous effect. The royal box was richly fitted up; and when Charles saw the whole completed and lighted, he sent for Carasale, and publicly commended him, to the delight of the whole city. Carasale thanked the king, who casually remarked that since the theatre was so near the palace, it would have been better for the royal family had there been a connecting passage. Then saying, “But we will think about it,”
Carasale was dismissed.

When the play was over, Carasale awaited the king, and asked him to enter the palace by the passage he had commanded. In three hours the architect had contrived to have a great wall pulled down, and to construct a rough passage, which by means of carpets, tapestries, and draperies was truly artistic and beautiful in effect, and appeared to the delighted monarch like a work of enchantment.

But alas! when this wonderful Carasale rendered his accounts to the auditors, they were dissatisfied, and although he appealed to the king personally, he was finally imprisoned at S. Elmo, where, after a long cap- tivity, he died. His family disappeared, and except for the wonderful qualities of his work, the very name of Carasale would now be unknown.

Charles improved the Museo Borbonico, and erected the House of Refuge, Albergo dei Poveri, which is still but half completed, although in it and its dependencies two thousand people are cared for. He built a bridge over the Sebeto, which makes the eastern boundary of Naples, and another over the Volturno at Venafro. He also constructed roads, called Strade di Caccia, which enabled him to indulge his passion for the chase; while the roads in various parts of the kingdom were dangerous even for those on horseback. In truth, his improvements were confined to the environs of Naples, but afforded many benefits to the people and villages near at hand.

Campania_Caserta2_tango7174Palace of Caserta
(Source: Wikimedia/ Creative Commons)

The most magnificent work, however, under the reign of this monarch was the palace of Caserta, fourteen miles from Naples, which has been called by Valery and other authorities the noblest conception of a palace in all Europe. Luigi Vanvitelli was its architect, and it was begun in 1752. The whole plan was that of Carlo Borbone, and was carried to completion under his successor. Dignified and splendid as it is, there is an atmosphere of gloom about it; it has never been continuously inhabited for any long period, and is now a mere show place for the curious. There is a singular monotony in its design externally, which indicates that Vanvitelli was an artist of small resources. The facade was adorned with splendid columns, arches, statues, and carvings, above all of which was an equestrian statue in bronze. Its colonnade traversing the courts, the staircase, chapel, and theatre were all lavishly decorated with the most beautiful marbles. It is built of travertine from Capua; the stairs are of single blocks of Sicilian lumachella adorned with well-sculptured lions and statues; the breccias of Dragoni and the marbles of Vitulano are freely used in the wall facings, and there are many pillars of both red and yellow breccia from Apulia. In the theatre are sixteen columns of African marble taken from the Serapeon at Pozzuoli, and the chapel is lavishly decorated in marbles and gilding, and an imitation of lapis-lazuli. There are inlaid woods, crystals, and even jewels in various parts of this bewildering labyrinth, as well as pictures, frescos, and statues. On three sides is a garden decorated with statues, obelisks, and wonderful cascades and fountains, to supply which an aqueduct was constructed twenty-five miles in length, which was a work worthy of the Romans. It crosses the Tipatiue Mountains and three wide valleys; it is carried over lofty, massive bridges, one over the valley of Maddaloni being 1,618 feet long and 178 feet high; it is constructed in three tiers of arches, its supporting piers being thirty-two feet through. The water, after serving its purposes in the gardens at Caserta, flows underground to Naples, and helps to make a sufficient supply for that great city.

Charles renewed the pavement in the Grotta di Posilipo, and built arches of stone to strengthen its roof. At Trani he built fine stone quays around the circular harbor, and executed many lesser but still important works.

In the Piazza del Plebiscite is an equestrian statue of Charles III. by Canova; and when, in 1885-1888, statues were made for the niches in the facade of the royal palace, this sovereign was not forgotten, and his statue is a testimonial to the fact that until a very recent period Naples owed to him all that was fine in the modern city.

But the works of Carlo Borbone in which the whole world is interested, are the excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii, Pozzuoli, and Cumae, . . .

At Portici, in his palace, Charles opened a museum for the antiquities of Herculaneum, and an academy was founded for the study of the history of these remarkable objects. New courses of lectures were instituted at the university, and the grade of the colleges was raised; but the minor schools were not equally improved, owing to the opposition of the bishops to all reforms. The result was that while unusual men arose here and there from the ignorance around them, and became eminent, there was nothing which merited the name of general education.

Much as may be said in honor of Carlo Borbone, there is another side to his character which cannot be ignored. His less praiseworthy acts were the introduction of the lottery and of gambling into his kingdom. He later abolished the latter, or endeavored to do so, although it brought 40,000 ducats a year to his treasury. He proscribed the society of the Freemasons, but did not severely punish its members. His conduct towards the Jews is a dark stain on his memory; for, having invited them to Naples with promises of good treatment, he cruelly banished them seven years later to satisfy the prejudices of the Neapolitans. Although thus controlled by religious superstition, he boldly opposed the establishment of the Inquisition. When Benedict XIV. undertook to plant the Holy Office in Naples, Charles disregarded the initial steps; but when the archbishop, encouraged by the king’s apparent indifference, placed the inscription Santo Uffizio above his door, Charles issued an edict for its removal, and forbade every form of secret meeting or secret discussion of any subject.

Towards the end of his reign in Naples Charles enjoyed a secure and peaceful life; his people had accepted him, and were engaged in no political rebellions; there was sufficient comfort at court, and a large family was growing up in the palace. The clergy, while somewhat opposed to his policy, thought it best to make no demonstrations against it; and although the privileges of the barons had been lessened, the gayety and fascination of court life, presided over by a happy king and queen, quite contented these nobles, who had no ambitions beyond present enjoyment.

Into the midst of these agreeable surroundings came the news of the death of Ferdinand VI., by which Carlo Borbone inherited the throne of Spain, and had already been proclaimed by the Spanish ministers. The first act of the new monarch was the appointment of his mother as regent until he could himself assume the government.

As Spain and Naples, under existing treaties, could not be ruled jointly, his first care was to provide a sovereign for Naples. His six sons and two daughters were still very young; and the eldest, a boy of twelve, was of weak mind and infirm body.

Charles struggled with contending feelings. He could not pass over his eldest son and give his throne to another without stating his reasons to the world, and in any case there must be a regent. – The poor boy might not live long, and if declared king, the next heir might soon come to the throne by natural causes. But the king’s regard for his people compelled him to be honest, and a document in which the best medical authorities described the imbecility of the young prince was read before the court and the ambassadors, while Charles was moved to tears. His second son, Charles Antony, was heir to Spain; and the third, Ferdinand, but seven years old, was the king of Naples and Sicily.

A solemn scene followed, in which Charles made the sign of the cross over his son as Philip V. had made it over him, and gave the boy the same sword that he had received, addressing his child as “your Majesty,” and saying, ” Keep it for the defence of thy religion and thy subjects.” He then released Ferdinand from all obligations to himself, and gave him a council of regency until he should reach sixteen years. The foreigners present acknowledged the king, and his subjects took the oath of allegiance. Charles, repeating his prayers for the prosperity of his son and his kingdom, left the assembly amid the praises and blessings of all.

He at once prepared for his voyage, carefully leaving behind every jewel and valuable belonging to the crown of Naples, even to a ring which he had worn ever after it was found at Pompeii; it had no special value except as it proved the conscientious honesty of the king, for which reason it is still seen in the museum at Naples. After making presents and conferring honors on those who had faithfully served him, confiding the invalid Philip to the care of the preceptor of the young king, he sailed for Spain with his wife and daughters and four sons.

The entire people witnessed his departure, which occurred October 6, 1759. Those who could get no nearer point of vantage crowded the flat roofs of the houses. The remarkable silence of the thousands of spectators, and the sincere grief at his loss, seem like a prophecy of all they were to endure in the century which followed.

Departure_of_Charles_III_from_NaplesDeparture of Charles III from Naples (1759), by Antonio Joli