The History of Sicily

Ferdinand III and the Napoleonic Wars (1759-1800)

When King Ferdinand of Spain died in 1759, the crown passed to his half-brother Charles (1716-1788), who moved to Madrid, leaving control of Sicily and Naples to his eight-year-old son Ferdinand (1751-1825). This new king became known as Ferdinand III of Sicily and Ferdinand IV of Naples. Later, in 1816, he would become known as Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In 1768, he married Maria Carolina (1752-1814), the sister of Marie Antoinette. He was not the most intelligent of monarchs (he once boasted that he had never read a book). Throughout his reign, he loved to act the fool, often playing practical jokes on his courtiers and friends. Nevertheless, Ferdinand was loved by his people, with whom he often associated.

In 1793, with Maria Carolina and the rest of the Neapolitan court were shocked to hear of the beheading of Louis XVI, which was followed a few months later by the execution of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Maria Carolina’s sister. In 1798, the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) entered Rome; the pope was captured, arrested, and sent to France, where he died in prison. In October of that year, a combined Austrian and Neapolitan force marched to relieve Rome, but the French repulsed it, and the Austrian general, Baron Karl Mack (1752-1828), advised Ferdinand and Maria Carolina to abandon Naples for Palermo.

In 1799, the French entered Naples and proclaimed the Parthenopean Republic, on the French model. They were immediately attacked by lazzaroni, mobs of the city’s poor. Meanwhile, Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo (1744-1827), a member of the Neapolitan court, raised an army of southern Italians, with the British navy under Lord Nelson (1758-1805) blockading the harbor. Some Neapolitans of a republican bent had allied themselves with the French and, when the invaders were removed from the city, these people were given assurances that they would be treated well. Nonetheless, Nelson later convinced the King that they should all be arrested.

In August of 1799, Ferdinand officially transferred his capital to Palermo, fearing that, hidden throughout Naples, enemies of the crown were ready to attack. While in Sicily, the King did something very uncharacteristic: he bestowed something of value on the populace by opening medical centers and requiring everyone to be vaccinated against diseases that had devastated the island for centuries.

The Neapolitans called for the royal family’s return, but Ferdinand refused to leave Palermo, spending much of his time pursuing his favorite pastime, hunting, and leaving the affairs of state to the British envoy, Lord Acton (1736-1811). However, he did send his son Francis (1777-1830) and his wife Maria Clementina of Austria (1777-1801) back to Naples.


Baroque Church, Acireale