The Life of a Gentlman of the Seas: Admiral Francesco Caracciolo, Duke of Brienza
29 June 1799: The Admiral Francesco Caracciolo, Duke of Brienza, is summarily condemned and hung in the Rodes of Naples from the mainyard of his own ship, Minerva
Glorious achievements and ultimate turn of fortune in the life of an illustrious son of Naples, Admiral Caracciolo, Duke of Brienza (1752-1799)
Francesco Caracciolo, born 1752, was the scion of a famous Neapolitan family who had counted a royal favourite, a field-marshal of France, a saint and a viceroy of Sicily among its members. The Kingdom of Naples was in the latter part of the century one of the thriving places of Europe under the benevolent rule of King Ferdinando IV, who had married an Austrian archduchess, Maria-Carolina von Habsburg, a sister of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France.
During the American War of Independence, the young Francesco had begun a promising naval career under the British flag, in line with the traditionally close relationship between the two kingdoms. Since England and Naples were to join forces in the 1st Coalition against the French Republic in 1792, the then commander Caracciolo would distinguish himself under Admiral Wood at the famous siege of Toulon in 1793.
In 1796, the Kingdom of Naples signed a peace treaty to conclude its involvement against France. However, two years later, as a result of personal hatred on the side of Queen Maria-Carolina, war was raging again, which resulted in a French army under General Macdonald, of remote Scottish descent, reaching to the city of Naples. A party of “enlightened” citizens of the city became enthused with the opportunity of establishing the Parthenopean Republic (after Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess – an attribute of Athena, patroness of the ancient Greek colony on site), which actually happened on 21 January 1799.
The Royal Court had managed to flee to Sicily, another possession of King Ferdinando. Whilst Admiral Caracciolo was sailing his frigate Sannita to Sicily, Admiral Nelson suffered serious damage on HMS Vanguard, which was caught in a storm. Soon forced into inaction, Francesco Caracciolo was granted a discharge of office and actually sailed back to Naples. There he gave a hand to maintaining the navy which had been left in shambles. A few months later, a party of royalists led by Fra Diavolo (Friar Devil – sic ) and General Cardinal Ruffo gathered force and took advantage of the changing French fortune in Northern Italy. The occupying forces were thus ordered to retreat on 7th May, 1799, leaving the Republican Party little choice but taking Ruffo’s offer for a honourable surrender.
Nevertheless Admiral Caracciolo was arrested and court-martialled in the aftermath. The military judges would not escape being impressed with the fortitude of the wretched duke and had him sentenced to life in prison for treason. Upon learning of the sentence, Admiral Nelson had a word with Prince Thurn who presided over the court, to the effect of reversing the pronouncement and changing it to the death-penalty. In the absence of King Ferdinando, an appeal could not be sought, and Admiral Caracciolo was hung from the mainyard of his own ship, the Minerva, on 29th July 1799.
Although his body was denied burial and thrown to the sea, a nearby fishing harbour by name of Sta Lucia eventually took care of the remains. A ceremony was conducted and a discreet funeral was arranged in the small church of Santa Maria della Catena (Saint Mary of the Chains – after the irons that captives of the Barbary States had to carry with them).
There is still there an epitaph to testify to the ignominious treatment of Admiral-Duke Caracciolo.
Francesco Caracciolo, Admiral of the Republic of Naples, who fell victim of the hatred and the lack of mercy of his enemies. He was hanged at the mast on 29th June, 1799. The people of Santa Lucia took it upon themselves to honor him with a Christian burial. The City Council of Naples, 1881.
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