Kingdom of the Two Sicilies

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The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1734–1860) was the oldest and largest of the Italian states in the nineteenth century, and its collapse in 1860 unexpectedly ensured Italy's political unification. After two centuries of Spanish rule and then a brief Austrian occupation, the kingdom became an independent dynastic state ruled by a cadet branch of the Spanish Bourbons in 1734. Until 1816 Naples and Sicily were separate kingdoms, each with their own laws, customs, and constitutions. The mainland's population was five million in 1800, with nearly a million in Sicily. With a half-million souls Naples was the biggest city in Italy and the third largest in Europe after London and Paris, while Palermo, with 200,000 inhabitants, was slightly bigger than Rome at the close of the eighteenth century. But the size of these cities was a consequence of privileges that eighteenth-century critics believed contributed to the poverty of much of the rest of the kingdom. The privileges of the lay and ecclesiastical feudatories were more extensive than in any other western European monarchy, but the attempts by the Bourbon rulers to reform the ancien régime monarchy met with fierce resistance.

In 1794 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies joined the coalition against Revolutionary France, but the preparations for war placed huge strains on the monarchy, which collapsed in November 1798 when King Ferdinand IV was defeated while trying to dislodge a French army that had set up a republican government in Rome earlier in the year. The king and his court fled to Sicily on Admiral Horatio Nelson's warship, while a French army established a republic in Naples in January 1799.

The Neapolitan Republic is best known for the manner of its fall in June 1799 when its supporters were massacred by a fanatical popular counter revolution—the Most Christian Army of the Holy Faith (the Santafede)—led by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo. In fact, like its sister republics, the Neapolitan Republic fell because the Directory pulled its armies out of Italy and because the city was blockaded by Nelson's ships. But the savagery of the Royal Terror that followed caused revulsion throughout Europe, and Nelson's involvement was later described as a "stain on England's honor."

In 1806 the mainland was again invaded by a French army, and the Bourbons again fled to Sicily. Napoleon's brother Joseph ruled in Naples until 1808, when he was transferred to Spain and replaced by the emperor's brother-in-law Joachim Murat. Relations between Naples and Paris became strained after Murat's arrival and exposed the rapacious colonial foundations of Napoleon's empire. Although Murat did not share the fate of Louis Bonaparte, who had been removed from the throne of Holland in 1810, in 1814 he defected to the Allies in the hope of saving his kingdom. But the Allies refused to make guarantees, so Murat again rallied to Napoleon after the flight from Elba in 1815. The Napoleonic episode in southern Italy came to a close when Murat was defeated by the Austrians at Tolentino in May.

During the brief period of French rule the Neapolitan monarchy was completely reorganized. Feudalism was abolished, central and local government was reorganized along French lines, the Napoleonic Code was introduced, and the debts of the old monarchy were redeemed through the suppression of over 1,300 religious houses. But hostility to French imperialism also gave rise to demands for constitutional government in the final years of Murat's reign, which found an organizational base in the secret societies, especially the Carbonari.

When the Bourbons returned to Naples in 1815 they not only retained all the reforms introduced by the French (except only for civil divorce) but in 1816 also extended them to Sicily, which lost its centuries-old autonomy. To acknowledge the union the king changed his title to Ferdinand I, but the resentment of the Sicilians and the continuing pressure for a constitution were the main causes of the revolutions that started in the Bourbon army in July 1820. The principal demands were for greater local autonomy and political freedom, but after nine months of constitutional government the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was again invaded by an Austrian army in March 1821. A systematic purge of all suspected liberals followed, as well as measures to protect the kingdom's economy. Its finances had been bankrupted by the revolution and in 1822 its debts were acquired by the Rothschild bank. High protective tariffs were adopted to reduce dependence on foreign imports, but this led to a trade war with Britain that culminated in 1840 when British gunboats entered the Bay of Naples and forced the government to submit.

After the reactionary reign of Francis I (1825–1830), the accession of Ferdinand II (the nephew of Louis-Philippe, France's constitutional monarch) in 1830 raised hopes of political change that never materialized. As economic conditions deteriorated in the early 1840s popular discontent grew, especially in the rural areas, but an attempt by the Venetian brothers Attilio and Emilio Bandiera to start a revolt in Calabria was quickly suppressed. Four years later, however, in January 1848, the European revolutions began in Palermo. In an attempt to contain the protests Ferdinand II of Naples was the first Italian ruler to concede constitutional government, but on May 15 he was also the first to stage a successful counter revolution.

As in 1820, Palermo adopted the separatist cause that brought it into collision with liberals in Naples and with many other Sicilian towns. But unlike in 1820, the army remained loyal to the monarchy. Order was quickly restored in the mainland provinces, and in October the Bourbon navy shelled Messina, which earned King Ferdinand the title of "King Bomba"; Palermo held out until May 1849.

The Neapolitan Bourbons were the only Italian rulers to overthrow the revolutions without external assistance, but their victory left them isolated diplomatically. Piedmont was now a constitutional monarchy while throughout Europe, King Bomba was the personification of reaction—a reputation that was reinforced when the English liberal politician William Gladstone protested the treatment of Neapolitan political prisoners and denounced the Bourbon monarchy as "the negation of God set up as a system of government."

The greatest danger to the Neapolitan Bourbons was posed by the decline of Austrian power, and Austria's defeat in 1859 left the kingdom without allies. The consequences became evident when Garibaldi's landing at Marsala in May 1860 triggered the third and finally successful Sicilian separatist revolt. By now the monarchy also had lost the support of the landowners on the mainland, and although the army remained loyal, it was unable to face both Garibaldi's Redshirts and the Piedmontese army that illegally invaded the kingdom in October 1860 on the pretext of protecting the pope. After narrowly escaping an artillery bombardment at Gaeta in flagrant violation of the armistice, the last king of the Two Sicilies, Francis II, who had succeeded his father barely a year earlier, was carried to Rome and exile on a British warship.

Hurriedly organized plebiscites on the mainland and in Sicily in October and November endorsed annexation to Piedmont and hence the end of the kingdom. In many parts of the south, however, unification was experienced as military occupation. Large numbers of former Bourbon soldiers died of disease and mistreatment in concentration camps, while opponents of the Piedmontese monarchy were excluded from public office. Within a year much of the south and Sicily was in open revolt, a situation the government deliberately disguised as "brigandage." But between 1861 and 1864 more men were engaged in the operations against supposed brigands and more lives were lost than in all the previous wars of independence, and in 1866 the navy had to be used to repress another separatist revolt in Palermo.

At the time of unification the differences between north and south were much less than they would be by the end of the century. But the extension of Piedmont's free trade measures in 1861 caused the collapse of the southern industries, which included the biggest engineering and shipbuilding factories in Italy. The most advanced sectors of the southern economies would be devastated by the agricultural crisis that struck the whole of Europe in the 1880s, but the south suffered more generally from neglect, overtaxation, and lack of investment. In the closing decade of the century renewed popular unrest and the beginnings of the great transoceanic emigration indicated that once it had ceased to be a kingdom the south had simply become a problem: "the southern problem."

See alsoCarbonari; Garibaldi, Giuseppe; Italy; Naples; Sicily.


Astarita, Tommaso. Between the Salt Water and the Holy Water: A History of Southern Italy. New York and London, 2005.

Davis, John A., ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford, U.K., 2000.

John A. Davis