Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions (1780-1860)

Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions (1780-1860)

Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions (1780-1860)

Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions (1780-1860)


Naples and Napoleon rewrites the history of Italy in the age of the European revolutions from the perspective of the South. In contrast to later images of southern backwardness and immobility, Davis portrays the South as a precocious theatre for political and economic upheavals that sooner or later would challenge the survival of all the pre-Unification states. Focusing on the years of French rule from 1806 to 1815, when southern Italy became the arena for one of the most ambitious reform projects in Napoleonic Europe, Davis argues that this owed less to Napoleon than to the forces unleashed by the crisis of the Ancien Regime. However, an examination of the earlier Republic and the popular counter-revolutions of 1799, along with the later revolutions in Naples and Sicily in 1820-1, reveals that the impact of these changes was deeply contradictory. This major reinterpretation of the history of the South before Unification significantly reshapes our understanding of how the Italian states came to be unified, while Davis also shows why long after Unification not just the South but Italy as a whole would remain vulnerable to the continuing challenges of the new age


For nearly ten years, from 1806 to 1815, Naples and southern Italy formed part of Napoleon's continental enterprise. Although Napoleon never once set foot in Naples, during this brief decade southern Italy was a peripheral but also an integral part of the imperial system. Like the other territories ruled directly and indirectly by France, the Kingdom's function was to supply men, equipment, and money for the emperor's wars, raw materials for French manufactures, and markets for French products. However, because the French never succeeded in dislodging the former Bourbon rulers and their British allies from Sicily, the long coastlines of the southern Italian mainland formed the empire's most southerly frontier and for almost ten years only the narrow Straits of Messina separated the emperor's troops from those of France's principal adversary.

Napoleon's Mediterranean Kingdom also had an important part to play in the dynastic politics of empire. Its first ruler was the emperor's brother Joseph, until he was moved to Madrid in 1808 to fill the recently vacated Spanish throne and succeeded by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. The tensions with Paris that developed after Murat's arrival in Naples would vividly expose the deep contradictions on which the imperial project was founded, and in 1811 Murat came very close to sharing the fate of Louis Bonaparte, who had been deposed as king of Holland a year earlier. Unlike Louis, Murat survived but the tensions remained, and in the hope of retaining his kingdom in 1814 Murat joined forces with the emperor's enemies. A year later Murat rallied once again to the imperial cause after Napoleon's flight from Elba, but his defeat shortly afterwards by the Austrians at the battle of Tolentino in May 1815 brought the 'Napoleonic episode' in Italy to a final close, although Murat's personal denouement was still to come.

The history of Napoleon's Mediterranean Kingdom illustrates many of the broader contradictions on which the short-lived imperial enterprise was

'The southern end of the Italian peninsula was, in one sense, the strategic centre or turning point
of the great war between France and England': Johnson (1904) i., p. viii. However, that is more true
for the period before rather than after 1806; see Mackesy (1957).

For the 'Napoleonic episode' see Bergeron (1972). The principal modern biographers of Murat
are Valente (1941/65) and Tulard (1983), but the most comprehensive modern historian of the
period is Pasquale Villani (see Villani, 'Il decennio francese', in Galasso and Romeo (eds.) (1986),
now reprinted in Rao and Villani (1995), 179–282).

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