Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2010
The ‘Repubblica Partenopea’ lasted only a few months from 24 January 1799 until 13 June when it was destroyed by the royalist forces of Cardinal Ruffo with the assistance of an English fleet under Nelson. Although proclaimed in the name of liberty and equality, and in the interests of the entire people, it was unique among eighteenth-century republics in having been made possible only by foreign arms against a popular army which, insofar as it had any discernible political identity, was monarchist, conservative and Catholic. The republic was – as Vincenzo Cuoco, its historian, and one of its few active members to escape with his life, said of it – ‘a revolution which was intended to create the happiness of a nation, but instead has brought about only its ruin’.
Shortly before Christmas 1798 Ferdinand IV fled from Palermo (on one of Nelson's ships) abandoning the government into the hands of Francesco Pignatelli, Prince of Strongoli. Pignatelli, faced with the seemingly invincible army of the French general Jean Etienne Championnet, destroyed both the royalist fleet and the artillery to prevent these from falling into French hands. On 15 January the people, convinced that the government had no intention of resisting the ‘unholy French’, took up arms, in the name of their absent king and against the urban nobility and the government whom they believed to be in league with the ‘Jacobins’. The struggle which ensued was bitter and bloody.