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Sicily and the Enlightenment

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King Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily King Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily

Even now Sicilians have a strong streak of independence from Italy, but in the 18th century it was a barely governable portion of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Both realms had the same king, but he resided in Naples, leaving the nearly impossible job of running Sicily to a Viceroy. This book is about one of those viceroys, Domenico Caracciolo.


The author of this intriguing biography, Angus Campbell, sadly died in 2015 at age 76, but his intimate knowledge of the Sicilian experience lives on in these pages. He married a Sicilian and lived in western Sicily for the last 15 years of his life. The subject of his book was born in Spain exactly 300 years before Campbell died, and lived nearly as long as Campbell: 74 years.


Campbell quotes an author from 1785 as writing “The Sicilians are looked on as foreigners in Naples; at Court as enemies.” The Court referred to is the royal court of King Ferdinand and his politically savvy wife Maria Carolina, who was to prove a great influence in the life of Caracciolo.


The title of the book gives one the expectation of learning how Sicily advanced as the result of Enlightenment ideals, but it is actually a depiction of how entrenched baronial influence made sure most of Caracciolo's reforming zeal was consigned to the graveyard. Essential to change was the full backing of Ferdinand, but he had little interest in politics and rarely offered such support.


Campbell tells us the Viceroy from 1755 to 1774 “was much loved by the barons because he elected not to interfere with them.” They likewise hated Caracciolo, who reluctantly took over in 1781, “more than a year after his initial appointment.” He lingered as long as he could in his beloved Paris, where he performed diplomatic duties for the kingdom. The first half of the book details his early life and career in both Paris and London, where he visited silk warehouses with a view to reforming the Sicilian silk manufacturing business. His sensible proposals were blocked by vested interests, just what he encountered 17 years later when he became Viceroy.


His greatest legacy turned out to be scientific. “Caracciolo had Giuseppe Piazzi put in charge of the observatory” which was funded by money that came into the government coffers when Caracciolo disbanded the hated Inquisition of the Catholic Church. The author provides no dates or details on this important development, but it was in 1786 that Piazzi was appointed to the chair of Astronomy and charged with the project of setting up an Observatory. The Viceroy did not live to see the astronomical observatory, as he died three years later in his new position as Prime Minister to the King, the most senior government post that Queen Maria Carolina arranged for him to get. Piazzi achieved fame in 1801 by discovering Ceres, the first known asteroid, from the observatory in Palermo.


Campbell has given us a wonderfully detailed account of the political and personal machinations of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. This serves as an excellent counterpoint to the well-known memoirs of Lord Acton, a close confidant to Queen Maria Carolina, and a man Caracciolo dealt with as both friend and foe for many years.




Sicily and the Enlightenment: The World of Domenico Caracciolo, Thinker and Reformer. Published by I.B. Tauris (London), $35.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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