the unification of Italy in 1861, it was the largest, most prosperous, wealthiest and populous of the Italian
states. Nearly half of the world's Italians - in Italy and its diaspora - trace
their roots to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The last dynasty
to rule Sicily (and almost half of the Italian peninsula) as a sovereign kingdom is a branch of the royal houses of
France and Spain. The Bourbons of the Two Sicilies are descended
in the direct male line from Hugh Capet, Saint
Louis and the Angevins, and more recently the Bourbons through Louis XIV.
Leaving aside the genealogical complexities, we can say that in 1282 the
War of the Vespers brought Sicily into the Aragonese and then Spanish orbits. The early decades
of the eighteenth century saw the kingdom founded in 1130 by Roger
II ruled briefly by Savoys and Austrian Hapsburgs.
In 1731, Charles (Carlos) de Bourbon, a younger son of King Philip
V of Spain (the monarch who had ruled Sicily until 1713), landed in Italy
and soon claimed the crown of Parma inherited through his mother, Elisabeth
Farnese. It appeared that the young prince might not succeed his father
as King of Spain because that right appertained to Philip's elder son by an
earlier wife, so the tiny but flourishing Duchy of Parma would have to suffice.
Before long, the ambitious Charles and his army swept through the southern
part of the Italian peninsula and then to Sicily, wresting the island kingdom
from Austrian control. He was crowned King of Sicily
in Palermo Cathedral in 1735. Establishing himself
at Naples, the young monarch was the first king to actually live in the
"Two Sicilies" in centuries. Charles ceded Parma to a younger brother.
Though the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were not unified (to form the
Two Sicilies) until 1816, they had sometimes been ruled by the same kings
over the centuries, usually from afar. The name Two Sicilies dates
from the Vespers, when two kings - in Naples Charles Anjou
(the less-than-saintly brother of Saint Louis) and
in Sicily Peter of Aragon - claimed
the Sicilian crown, the
former by right of conquest supported by the Pope, the latter by his queen's
right of inheritance from Frederick II and support from the Sicilian barons.
monarch, Charles de Bourbon did much to develop his kingdoms. Under him Naples became the wealthiest
city in the Italian states and an important metropolis, boasting Europe's
highest population after London and Paris. Ambitious building programmes resulted
in grand palaces and led to industry advanced for its time in fields such as
metalworks, and glass and porcelain production. (A list of a few of the kingdom's accomplishments follows.)
In 1759 Charles succeeded his elder half-brother, Ferdinand, as King
of Spain. Taking his own older son Carlo (later Carlos IV of Spain) with
him, he left young Ferdinando as King of Naples and Sicily, establishing
that the Spanish and Neapolitan-Sicilian crowns were to be forever separate
and distinct. In other words, no single sovereign could succeed to both
thrones. Unlike Vittorio Amedeo of Savoy, who raided the treasury before
leaving Sicily in 1720, Charles took no monetary assets with him to Spain.
Charles' immediate heirs never approached his intellectual stature, but Ferdinando
I was at least competent if occasionally cynical. Seeking refuge in
Palermo during uprisings and then the French occupation of Naples, he eventually
granted a Constitution to the Sicilians in 1812. In the process he abolished
feudalism and established a peerage
and parliament loosely based on the model of the British whose troops
were then preparing Sicily against a possible Napoleonic invasion.
His first wife, the mother of his children, was the popular Marie Caroline Hapsburg
of Austria, who is still remembered in the annals of the history of the Palermitan aristocracy.
Unfortunately, in 1798 Ferdinando lost Malta,
a Sicilian fief and protectorate since the eleventh century, to the French, who expelled the Knights of Saint John. The islands of Malta and Gozo were subsequently occupied by the British.
Ferdinando's grandson, the future Ferdinando II, was born in Palermo
in 1810. He was, in fact, the first monarch born on Sicilian soil in centuries,
and he was to be the last.
Upon returning to Naples, Ferdinando promptly rescinded the Constitution
and united the Sicilian and Neapolitan realms under one crown. He thus broke several
promises, prompting dissension by malcontents over the next few decades. This was
especially unfortunate because Sicily's British-influenced Constitution of 1812 was far
ahead of its time in its guarantees of fundamental rights; nothing like it would be
formulated in Italy for another 36 years.
His son, Francesco I, who succeeded in 1825 was a proven administrator,
having occasionally served as the king's de facto representative, or alter
ego, in Sicily. He wed, firstly, Clementine Hapsburg of Austria, but
his heir was a child of his second wife (and cousin), Marie Elisabeth of
Spain. Francesco died in 1830 and was succeeded by the Palermo-born Ferdinando II.
Ferdinando II seems to have been a born bureaucrat, but at least he was
a shrewd one. He sponsored various agricultural projects which were at the
cutting edge for their time. In 1832, he ordered the first differentiated
refuse collection in what is now Italy, with a focus on recycling glass.
In 1839, he sponsored construction of the first railroad in Italy, from
Naples to his palace at Portici, and the network was soon extended along
the coast and inland. (Piedmont had more track by 1860 because in the Two
Sicilies - a peninsula and large island - transport by sea was often more
convenient and economical than by land, and therefore developed further.)
This efficiency extended to politics. Ferdinando adroitly but ruthlessly
put down the revolts of 1848, which began in Palermo and spread across Europe.
On balance, he was no better or worse than his contemporaries, and probably
more intelligent than many. Yet for his authoritarian rule he was widely
criticized, especially in Britain.
Like his father, he spoke Neapolitan as his mother tongue. His first
wife, mother of his heir Francesco, was Maria Cristina of Savoy,
who died young but was venerated as a saint almost immediately. Her kin,
the King of Sardinia (who ruled from Turin in Piedmont), wanted to unite
Italy and effectively offered the hypothetical crown to Ferdinando, who
refused out of loyalty to the Pope - at that time the zealous Pius IX. It
would have been impossible to unite the Italian territories without annexing
the Papal States in the middle of the peninsula. Moreover, unificationists
considered Rome the "natural" capital of a united Italy.
Nobody in Italy dared challenge Ferdinando II militarily. He commanded the largest
army and navy in the Italian states, and had shown his willingness in using
it when necessary. The country's resources in arms manufacture were formidable, while
the sulphur mines in Sicily and Basilicata provided for a seemingly infinite
supply of gunpowder. (Sadly, directives to prevent children from working as
miners were rarely obeyed.) Moreover, Naples' gold reserves eclipsed those of all the
other Italian states combined.
When Ferdinando died, very prematurely, in 1859, he was succeeded by
Francesco II, the pious "son of the saint."
That Francesco was half Savoy did not discourage
the machinations of Vittorio Emanuele II and his minions, who included the
competent Cavour and the wily bigamist Crispi.
The Savoy camp made Francis a proposal similar to the one presented to his
father to rule a united Italy, possibly as part of a federation including
the Papal territories which would be confiscated from Pope Pius IX. Like
his father, Francis refused.
Francesco failed to take action when Garibaldi
disembarked in western Sicily in 1860, and the following year the peninsular
part of the kingdom fell to invading forces sent from Piedmont. Maria Sophia of Bavaria, Francesco's wife, Sicily's last
queen, lived until 1925 and was fondly remembered. Francesco had no sons;
the Bourbons living today descend from Marie Therese Hapsburg of Austria,
second wife of Ferdinando II.
Its kings may not have all been exceptional but the kingdom
certainly was, despite later propaganda that painted it as "backward."
Here are some milestones and figures regarding Italy's most prosperous state
just before controversial unification in 1860. First, the gold reserves (plus circulating currency) of the
pre-unitary states' central (national) banks, based on "gold lire"
in millions but valid as a measure of proportional value:
• Two Sicilies - 443.2
• Papal State - 90.6
• Grand Duchy of Tuscany - 85.2
• Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont - 27.1
• Venetia - 12.8
• Lombardy - 8.1
• Duchy of Parma - 1.2
• Duchy of Modena - .4
Incidentally, it has been suggested that to this day the Bank of Italy has one of the
world's larger gold deposits thanks in part to the inclusion of the Neapolitan reserves of 1860.
For comparison, it is estimated that the former territory of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with a population of some 7 million, had
around 3,216 students enrolled in its public universities immediately after unification (1863/64 academic year), almost half the Italian national
total (excluding the city of Rome) of 7,957. Piedmont-Sardinia alone had a population of 4.2 million, and far fewer university students per capita.
Incidentally, Piedmont had a much higher national debt at over a billion lire compared to 411 million for the Two Sicilies.
A particular myth about the people of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and their wealth compared to that of other Italians is easily dispelled: The
Landless Peasant. Despite the presence of large estates (latifondi) held by the nobility into the twentieth century, especially in grain-growing areas, most
Sicilians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries owned their own homes and at least a garden or small parcel of land. The ready
proof of this are the land tax records or riveli retained at Palermo's state archive. Those of 1748 and 1811 list numerous
smallholders in each Sicilian town.
A few achievements in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies relative to the other Italian states,
particularly during the nineteenth century:
• First pension system in what became Italy (2% deduction from salaries)
• Most printing presses of any Italian city (Naples with 113)
• Lowest taxes in Italy
• Largest naval yards based on number of employees (1900 in Castellammare di Stabia)
• Largest iron and steel engineering/manufacturing plant in Italy (at Pietrarsa)
• Largest iron casting foundry in Italy (Ferdinandea in Calabria)
• Oldest continuously-active opera house in Europe, the San Carlo in Naples (1737, rebuilt in 1816)
• First university chair and department in economics (Antonio Genovesi, Naples, 1754)
• Dwarf planet Ceres first observed (Giuseppe Piazzi, Palermo 1801)
• First constitution in Italy (Sicily in 1812, later suspended)
• First steamship in the Mediterranean, the Ferdinando I (1818)
• First glass recycling program (1832)
• First steel suspension bridge in Italy (Gagliano River in 1832, components from Mongiana Works)
• First gas-fuelled public lighting system (1839)
• First railroad in Italy (1839)
• First seismic observatory in the world (Vesuvius 1841)
• First steamboat with screw propulsion in the Mediterranean (the Giglio delle Onde 1847)
• First functioning electric telegraph in Italy (1852)
• Ranked 3rd country in the world for industrial development (1st in Italy) at Paris International Exhibition (1856)
• First submarine telegraph in Europe
• First military steamship in Italy (the Ercole)
• First maritime code in Italy
• First public housing complex/estate in Italy (San Leucio near Caserta)
• Highest per capita number of physicians in Italy
• First botanical gardens in Italy (Naples and then Palermo)
• First school for the deaf in Italy
• Lowest infant mortality rate in Italy (1850-1860)
The aftermath of the fall of the Two Sicilies is too significant to avoid mentioning.
A certain degree of historical revisionism
sought to disparage the displaced Bourbons, but in fact the police state
that supplanted them left much to be desired and after 1922 it became an
actual dictatorship. The Bourbons lived in exile from early 1861 until July 1943, when Allied troops liberated Sicily
from Fascism. Three years later
the House of Savoy was exiled when Italy became a republic.
Today historians generally concur that a federalist republic would have been superior
to the monarchy that ruled Italy from 1861 until 1946.
Garibaldi's invasion resulted in terrible atrocities – actually reprisals – of a kind unknown in Sicily in centuries, particularly in the Etna region where Nino Bixio's troops
massacred numerous, unarmed civilians in the town of Bronte (see Riall's well-researched book mentioned below). This kind of thing did not end in 1860.
Until 1866, a series of protests and riots (particularly in Palermo) demanded the return of King Francis II. By then, Piedmontese troops occupied Sicily to suppress
these movements and any other dissent. Throughout the south, thousands of "rebels" and "brigands" of the resistance movement, mostly ex-soldiers of the Two
Sicilies, were sent to die in "secret" northern prisons such as Fenestrelle (a large fort in the Alps) similar to concentration
camps, and thousands more were sentenced to death and executed; in 1869 the Italian (Piedmontese) government sought to purchase an Argentine island to house
these prisoners, thereby eradicating any chance of their story making its way into the popular mind. Apart from the post-war resistance, numerous officers
of the Two Sicilies were imprisoned and killed by the Piedmontese in 1861 as a matter of course.
Naturally, the press was censored more than ever, regarding Fenestrelle and everything else. The monastic schools which constituted an
important part of the educational system were closed as church-owned land was confiscated, yet in Sicily few public
schools were established to fill this void until the twentieth century. (As a result, whereas in 1860 illiteracy throughout Italy was about equal from north
to south, it became comparatively worse in Sicily after 1861.) In the wake of the fall of the Two Sicilies, the region was abandoned but
exploited. Taxes were increased, and so was military conscription, with a disproportionate number of southerners serving in Italy's twentieth-century
wars. By 1900, industry was being developed in Milan and Turin rather than in Naples or Palermo, where the level of organized crime increased.
Serious land reform breaking up the large hereditary estates did not arrive in Sicily until 1948, after the Savoys had left.
What occurred in Italy from 1861 until 1945 was a classic, text-book example of how not to run a country, and the
effects are still with us - throughout Italy - to this day. In the "Two Speed Europe" Italy finds itself on a tier with Spain and Greece rather
than Germany, Britain and France, and for decades has received European Union subsidies to aid economic development. A particularly striking
effect is Italians' lack of nationalism or a sense of unity as a people. One of the myriad reasons for this is the mediocre "Modern Italian History" taught in schools, so
while most Italians are blissfully ignorant of the facts of the Risorgimento
(unification movement), they are equally ignorant of the fact that in 1947 their nation was
the first to acknowledge having committed both war crimes and crimes against humanity (by its treaty with Ethiopia). Closer to everyday life, the
economic divario between North and South is very real. There used to be two Sicilies, but now there are two Italies.
The Bourbon kings' reigns were:
• 1734-1759 Charles V of Sicily (later Charles III of Spain), son
of Philip V of Spain
• 1759-1825 Ferdinand III of Sicily (from 1816 Ferdinand I of the
Two Sicilies), son of Charles
• 1825-1830 Francis I of the Two Sicilies, son of Ferdinand I, above
• 1830-1859 Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, son of Francis I, above
• 1859-1861 Francis II of the Two Sicilies
(died in exile 1894), son of Ferdinand II.
The man who would be king
is Carlo, Duke of Castro.
This is largely an academic issue, as the Savoys, the last dynasty to reign
in Italy, have not sat on a throne since Italy became a republic in June
1946, and the chance of Italy becoming a monarchy could be said not to even
exist. But from a purely historical perspective, the House of the Two Sicilies
is still a point of reference, not only among the ancien regime but
to many who look to the Borboni as a symbol of a time when Neapolitans and Sicilians were not just
"southerners" of Italy but citizens of a proud, independent nation
rooted in medieval history. In the wake of the fall of the Kingdom of the
Two Sicilies and its annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, Neapolitans and
Sicilians became "southerners" and the region's prosperity declined relative to that of northern Italy,
spawning the Italian diaspora, the emigration of millions of Italians. (Sicily has the world's best
genealogical records, facilitating the discovery of family history for those seeking it.)
Like the House of Savoy and many other non-reigning
royal families, the House of the Two Sicilies finds its headship contested
- in this case by one of Carlo's cousins who is a member of the Royal House
of Spain. That arcane matter need not concern us here except to note that it encourages
social-climbing sycophants to seek "vicarious identification" by
obsessively defending "their" prince in a bitter "dynastic dispute"
that matters little to anybody outside a particular Italian family.
On a more edifying note, the dynasty's Constantinian Order of Saint George,
an order of knighthood linked to the Catholic Church, supports
various charitable works in Sicily and throughout Italy. Tourists may visit two of the family's
historic residences, the Chinese Palace in Palermo (in the lush royal park known as
the "Favorita") and the Ficuzza hunting
lodge in a forest in the Sicanian Mountains, both
built around 1800 when Ferdinando I and his family were in Sicily. They are lasting
testaments to the dynasty's presence. Closer to Naples, the Bourbons' country
estate at Caserta is Italy's most splendid royal palace, today nicknamed
"the Italian Versailles." Other palaces are in Naples, Portici
The multilingual website of the Royal House of Bourbon of the Two Sicilies presents
additional historical information about the Two Sicilies dynasty.
• The Bourbons of Naples and The Last Bourbons of Naples by Sir Harold Acton.
• The Fall of the House of Savoy by Robert Katz.
• A History of Sicily by Moses Finley and Denis Mack Smith.
• Terroni - All that has been done to ensure that the Italians of the South became 'southerners' by Pino Aprile (2011).
• The Pursuit of Italy - A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples by David Gilmour (2011).
• The Force of Destiny - A History of Italy Since 1796 by Christopher Duggan (2008).
• Italy and Its Monarchy by Denis Mack Smith.
• Under the Volcano - Revolution in a Sicilian Town by Lucy Riall (2012).
About the Author: Luigi Mendola has written for various publications. This
piece uses (with permission) excerpted material by Vincenzo Salerno and André Mantegna. The gold deposit statistics cited were
first published in Francesco Saverio Nitti's Scienze delle Finanze in 1903 and have subsequently been confirmed by other economists,
for example by Anteo d'Angio in La Situazione Finanziaria Italiana dal 1796 al 1870 in 1973. See also Nicola
Zitara's L'Unita d'Italia - Nascita di una colonia (1971). Numerous books and studies have been published in Italy in
recent decades detailing the history of the nation after 1860, many addressing topics censored until 1945.