Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
A constitution that ensures public freedom, and that, by casting its gaze upon the uncertainty of the centuries to come, suffocates the seeds of corruption and despotism, is the most difficult work to which the boldness of human genius can aspire.
Beginning with these words, in early April 1799, Francesco Mario Pagano set out to explain the content of the constitutional project he had been called upon to prepare for the members of the provisional government of the republic proclaimed in Naples on 21 January that same year.
Although it never came into operation, the Constitution of 1799 in some ways provides a litmus test for the disputed historical assessment of the Neapolitan Republic of 1799. For the passage of time does not appear to have given us the serenity of at least a broadly shared, if not unambiguous, vision of the basic features of this event. Instead, it seems to have helped to increasingly accentuate the ideological disparity of historiographical positions still irreconcilably opposed today. On the one hand, there are those who tend to see the Neapolitan Republican experiment above all for its ‘exceptionality’, given the many important differences from its Republican sisters that made the Neapolitan Republic almost a history unto itself, lying partially outside the republicanization process already underway for some time in the heart of Europe. On the other hand, there are those who never tire of stressing that the Republic founded in Castel Sant’Elmo wholly belongs to the events that characterized Italy's three-year republican experience.
The same, then, or different? Self-standing or not? The exception or the rule? In Italian historiography of the past century, these questions have become far more important than the issue at hand, giving rise to differing and opposing interpretations as to the origins of our Risorgimento and the complex development of Italian national consciousness.
In the case of Naples, the elements of discontinuity with its Sister Republics’ orthodox path of formation are unmistakable: in fact, there, the Republic came into being as a full-blown act of insubordination to the government of the Directory (which, due to the fear of a new anti-French offensive in the peninsula, certainly could not hope at that time to expand the military front to southern Italy).