IN this period Italy was not a nation but a battleground. Split into jealously separate regions and dialects, the country was too fragmented to stand united against foreign attack, and (north of Naples) too blessed with sun and a fruitful, well-watered soil—beneficent streams curling down from Alps or Apennines—to shoulder arms repeatedly for the difference between native and foreign taxgatherers.
Most of Italy had fallen under the rule or influence of the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which assigned Milan, Mantua, Naples, Sardinia, and their dependencies to the Emperor Charles VI. In the northwest corner of the peninsula Savoy and Piedmont were ruled by the kings of Sardinia. In 1734 the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies,” with its foci at Naples and Palermo, was transferred from the Hapsburgs to the Bourbons by the able warrior and ruler who became Charles III of Spain. Before passing to Spain he bequeathed the Neapolitan realm to his son Ferdinand IV, who married the Archduchess Maria Carolina; and her domination of her husband brought the entire kingdom of Naples under Austrian influence. When the Empress Maria Theresa died (1780) her sons governed Lombardy, Tuscany, and Modena; her daughters were married respectively to the rulers of Naples and Parma; and Savoy, Piedmont, and Sardinia had fallen under an Austrian protectorate. The only independent regions in Italy were then Venice, Lucca, San Marino, and Genoa. In this division of Italy between the Austrian Hapsburgs in the north and the Spanish Bourbons in the south the Papal States remained papal only because the rival dynasties that embraced them with possessive ardor were restrained by their mutual jealousy and that Catholic piety which alone made Italy one.
Austrian rule in northern Italy was excellent in terms of the time. In Lombardy the feudal and ecclesiastical proprietors were taxed, and their privileges had been considerably reduced; a hundred monasteries were closed, and their revenues were devoted to education or charity; under the scholarly prodding of Cesare Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene (1764) judicial procedure was reformed, torture was abolished, and the criminal law was made more humane. In Tuscany, between 1765 and 1790, Grand Duke Leopold gave the former territory of the Medici “perhaps the best government in Europe.”1 Florence, his capital, remained a citadel of civilization through all the fluctuations of power and ideas.
Venice, rich, corrupt, and beautiful, was now (1789) visibly nearing her end as a sovereign state. Her eastern empire had long since been lost to the Turks, but her rule was still acknowledged between the Alps and Padua, and between Trieste and Brescia. Formally a republic, actually a closed aristocracy, its government had become listless, oppressive and incompetent. It had the best spies in Christendom, but no army. It had become the playground of Europe, pledged to pleasure, and trusting to its courtesans to keep her enemies amiable. Caught between Austria on the north and Austrian Lombardy on the west, it was clearly fated to be absorbed by Austria whenever France ceased to protect her.
South of Tuscany and the Po the Papal States began their sinuous contour with the Romagna and its “Legations”—Ferrara, Bologna, and Ravenna, each administered by a papal legate; then southward with the “Marches,” or borderlands near the Adriatic—Rimini, Ancona, and Urbino; then across the Apennines through Umbria’s Perugia and Spoleto, and through Latium’s Orvieto and Viterbo to Rome. All this historic region was under the popes, according to the “donations” made to the Church by Pepin, king of the Franks, in 754, and by Charlemagne in 774. After a decisive victory in the Council of Trent (1545–63), the popes had enlarged their authority over the bishops, as the contemporary kings were doing over the feudal lords; power is centripetal.
But soon thereafter the Papacy entered into a slow decay as the advances of science and the inroads of philosophy left the Church with a dangerously reduced support in the influential classes of Western Europe; and it was meeting open opposition not only from Protestant rulers but as well from Catholic sovereigns like Joseph II of Austria and Ferdinand IV of Naples. Even in the states of the Church a growing minority of secret skeptics weakened the hold of the clergy upon the people. The Curia or papal court (wrote Joseph II in 1768) “has become almost an object of scorn. Internally its people exist in the deepest misery, wholly depressed, while its internal finances are in complete disorder and discredit.” Joseph, an unbeliever, may have been prejudiced, but the Venetian ambassador reported in 1783 that “the internal affairs of the pontifical state are in the greatest disarray; it is in a progressive decline, and the government daily loses force and authority.”2 Despite their poverty, and the malarial infection of the summer air, the people of Rome made life tolerable by taking full advantage of the churchly indulgence given to their perennial amours and Carnival games; and the clergy itself relaxed under the Italian sun.
Both of the popes in this critical period were pious and honorable men. Pius VI (r. 1775–99), despite his arduous trip to Vienna, failed to win Joseph II of Austria to obedience; and all his culture and gentleness did not save him from losing Avignon to France and dying a prisoner of the Directory. Pius VII (r. 1800–23) did his best to restore Catholicism in France, suffered a long imprisonment under Napoleon, and lived to triumph humbly over the fallen Emperor (1814).
South of the Papal States the Spanish Bourbons grew rich with the prosperity of Gaeta, Capua, Caserta, Naples, Capri, and Sorrento. But there Italian prosperity ceased. Cities like Pescara, Aquila, Foggia, Bari, Brindisi, Taranto, and Crotone remembered Milo, Caesar, Frederick II (Holy Roman emperor, “stupor mundi”), even Pythagoras; but they were burned by an immoderate sun, despoiled with taxes, and comforted only by their creed. Then the taxgatherer crossed from Reggio Calabria to Messina in Sicily (“from Scylla to Charybdis”); and there too the cities dignified their poverty under memories of Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Moslems, Normans, Spaniards, until the taxgatherers stopped at Palermo and attended to the needs and luxuries of kings and queens, merchant princes, brigands, and saints. Such was the colorful realm which the eight-year-old Ferdinand IV inherited in 1759. He grew into a handsome athlete who preferred pleasure and sports to the burdens of power, and mostly left the government to his wife Maria Carolina.
Under the guidance of her Prime Minister and paramour, Sir John Acton, Maria oriented Neapolitan policy from pro-Spain to pro-Austria, and, in 1791, to pro-England. Meanwhile feudal barons exacted every due from an exhausted peasantry; corruption reigned in the court, the bureaucracy, and the judiciary; taxes were high, and fell chiefly upon the lower classes; the city populace was barbarized by poverty, habituated to disorder and crime, and held in check by a numerous police and by an obscurantist clergy skilled in miracles. (In a chapel of the cathedral the relics of Saint Januarius bled annually.) As usual, the Church was lenient with sins of the flesh; after all, these were the only luxury allowed to the poor; and in Carnival days the Sixth Commandment was looked upon as an unwarranted imposition upon human nature.
Nevertheless the Queen was jealous of Catherine II of Russia, who had so many philosophers at her call or knee. So she patronized artists, scholars, and professors of wisdom; and though she probably did not know it, Naples had “more educated men and women of modern ideas than any other city in Italy.”3 Many of these men followed with silent hope the news that came from Paris that the people had stormed and taken the Bastille.