Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples (1752-1814)

Someone in the long history of the Hapsburg dynasty coined the witty Latin phrase,Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube!It was a description of—and prescription for—the best way to expand an empire. It means, “Let others make war. You, fertile Austria, marry!

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Maria Carolina

The empress of Austria, Maria Theresa (1717-1780), did that very well. She had 16 children. Unfortunately, even the best medicine that money could buy didn’t get you much in Vienna in 1750—maybe a better brand of leech; thus, of her brood, five died in infancy or childhood. She made good Fertile Austrian use of the others, however, marrying many of them off into other royal lines in Europe. One of these was the famous Marie Antoinette; another was a younger sister and subject of this article, her Majesty Queen Marie Caroline Luise Josephe Johanna Antonie of Naples and Sicily, Archduchess of Austria, Princess Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, and Princess of Tuscany—or, to her friends, Caroline. From all that has been written about her over the years, Caroline had more personality traits than a pantheon of Hindu deities. She was kind, vicious, intelligent, vindictive, generous, arrogant, petty, vicious and tender. Don’t forget long-suffering, for she, too, eventually had 16 children.

She was not even her mother’s first choice to marry into the Bourbon line of Naples. The Austrians had ruled the kingdom of Naples earlier in the 1700s as a vice-realm, then lost it, and then saw a Fertile Austrian way to get back into southern Europe: marry the king. The king of Naples was a minor, the very young Ferdinand, whose fatherCharles III had abdicated to return to Spain. After years of bargaining between Madrid and Vienna, Charles agreed to let his son marry Theresa’s daughter, Johanna Gabriela, who promptly died of smallpox—well before the wedding. Second choice went to Maria Josepha, who was packed and ready to go when she, too, became ill and died. One more trip to the well produced Maria Carolina.

She and Ferdinand, now of age, were married by proxy in 1768, and she was off to Italy to become the queen of Naples also known as the Two Sicilies). She met her husband for the first time in the palace of Caserta, where they honeymooned. She spoke Italian poorly; he spoke no German and not much Italian, for he was known as the “Re Lazzarone”, the “Beggar (or rascal) King”, a man who enjoyed hanging out on the streets with the unwashed masses and who spoke mainly their dialect. Ferdinand was, by all accounts, a good-natured lunkhead and vulgarian. After their first night together, he told his servants that Caroline “slept like the dead and snored like a pig.”

By the marriage contract the queen was to have a voice in the council of state after the birth of her first son. She produced a son, Francis, in 1777, and began her rise to power and influence in Naples.  (Francis would then wait almost 50 years to become king. It would be in post-Napoleonic Europe, not only a different century, but in political and social terms, a different age.)  Caroline marginalized Bernardo Tanucci, the minister of state who had been Ferdinand’s regent; she very adroitly became the de facto decision maker in the kingdom, while her husband retreated into those things that made him happy—selling the morning’s catch with the fishermen down at the port and hunting in the large game preserve in the nearby Astroni crater. It’s good to be king.

It isn’t clear how much effort Caroline really put into trying to civilize her husband. He loved the traditional Neapolitan dialect comic operas—such things as The Enamoured Monk and Old Maids in Prison (yes, those are real names of real comic operas!)—but she had to drag him to the opera house his father had built (thus named San Carlo) for anything more serious. He would often sit and eat spaghetti in the royal box, spooling and dangling it into his mouth with his fingers just the way his street buddies did. Caroline would then leave in disgust. Her brother, the future Holy Roman Emperor, visited her once and found her unhappy (but it wasn’t her job to be happy, just to be married). He wrote back to Vienna a horrified account of Ferdinand’s court, recounting one scene in which the king had his morning bowel movement in front of the assembled royal lackies and then laughingly passed the pot around for them to view and judge the results!

Caroline was intelligent and absolutely bent on turning the kingdom into a valuable asset to her relatives in Austria. She acquired the services of John Acton an Englishman who had served with valour in the service of the Spanish and Tuscan naval expedition against Algiers in 1775. He reorganized the Neapolitan navy, became its commander, then the minister of finance, then the prime minister—and according to many sources—the queen’s lover. The queen was not the reactionary that some would claim (based on later events). Her husband’s father had been the proverbial “benevolent monarch” in Naples, and her own family in Vienna was progressive for the times. By the 1770s, the kingdom of Naples had developed its own home-grown version of the French Enlightenment, a nest of progressive social thought, literature, the arts, etc. with most of it supported by the queen. The intellectual roster included Vincenzo CuocoVincenzo Russo (called the “Neapolitan Rosseau”) and Gaetano Filangieri (Ben Franklin’s pen-pal!). And, certainly, under Caroline’s aegis, life at the court of Naples no doubt took on a bit of Viennese glitter and glamour; it was the age of Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lord and Lady Hamilton, and the age of the Grand Tour, which brought the likes ofGoethe and the young Mozart to Naples.

Caroline was not at all antithetical to the ideals of the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789. Things changed, however, when the monarchy was abolished in France in September of 1792 and when her beloved sister, Marie Antoinette, was beheaded in October of 1793. From that point on, she is said to have kept a small portrait of her sister in her room and to have scrawled on it that she would revenge her sister’s execution. She convinced her husband that the kingdom of Naples should join the First Coalition against France.

Peace broke out with the French Republic in 1796. Naples then enjoyed its own brief version of the French Republic when revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy in January of 1799 and called into existence the Neapolitan Republic (also known as the Pathenopean Republic). Caroline, the king and court fled and holed up in Sicily for six months, protected by the British fleet. When the fortunes of war changed, she got her revenge; when royalist forces retook the kingdom later in the year, she was apparently the guiding force behind the treachery that brought about the final republican surrender and the ensuing, ferocious reprisals. There were 100 executions by hanging or beheading (of about 1000 republicans tried for treason).

A few years later, Napoleon sent troops into the kingdom. She and Ferdinand knew the drill, and back to Sicily they went. The subsequent decade of French ruleon the mainland essentially ended her political life. She retained her status and power in Sicily until 1812, when her husband abdicated, appointing his son, Francis, regent. That deprived Caroline of her influence, and she returned home to Austria, where she died on September 8, 1814. By then, Napoleon was in captivity on Elba. She probably died thinking that the crowned heads of Europe had been suitably restored. She had certainly carried on the family tradition by supplying children for marriages into a number of other royal families.

There are not a great number of biographies dedicated solely to Maria Carolina, though she plays prominently in any literature about the Naples of that period. She and Lady Hamilton often exchanged letters, and the published epistolary has led some to conclude that they may have been more than mere friends. Who knows? Whatever the case, her life was interesting enough not to need embellishment.

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