Camillo Elefante’s diary, detailing events in Barletta in 1799

These are excerpts from Camillo Elefante’s fascinating diary (Di tutto ciò che accade in questa Fedelissima, Ed Illustrissima Città di Barletta). He details events in Barletta during 1798 and 1799, giving the point of view of a well-off bourgeois in this port on the kingdom of Naples’ Adriatic coast. His comfortable life is turned upside down by the arrival of the troops of the French republic, the proclamation of a Neapolitan republic, and the counter-revolution which follows. It deserves to be better known. There are subtle asides, and a marvellous confusion about the presence of some Turks in the forces of the counter-revolution.


1 January 1799

Good weather, but cold and windy. A Te Deum and service at the central church of Santa Maria, and amongst everything else prayers were held for his majesty the king and all the royal family. Bad news from Naples about the French invasion and the astonishing rout of the royal army, which was composed of 100,000 infantry and cavalry and had been abundantly supplied with all essentials. Great woe is foretold.


3 January 1799

Around five in the evening the image of the miraculous virgin was carried through the streets of the city.


6 January 1799

Members of the government came to stir up the people and push on with the arming of the masses. The number of red cockades is really increasing and it is like a mania for those who do not wear it are mistreated by the people. The Marquis of Gallo arrived to embark, he is travelling to Vienna as plenipotentiary for our sovereign.


7 January 1799

Not only are secular people wearing the cockade but so too are the priests and monks and these sport them on their chests.


9 January 1799

The people are grown insolent and signs of anarchy are seen everywhere.


10 January

A terrible revolution has broken out amongst the lower orders, especially those in the countryside around us, all on account of listening to the sermons which have stirred everyone up to take up arms to defend Religion, the State and their farms and to preserve the honour of their families from our French enemies and their Jacobinical followers.



13 January

Outside the walls there are large numbers of soldiers of the royal army who are passing by; they have deserted without ever really fighting and, with their generals and officers, have scattered, some carrying weapons, some without, some half naked and some of the cavalry with their horses. Oh, what confusion!


15 January 1799

Beyond the walls two princesses of the royal house of France, followed by a few coaches, passed by on the way to Manfredonia where they hope to embark on a Neapolitan ship, which has not yet arrived.


17 January 1799

The soldiers continue to pass by on their way to their own homes and we distribute free bread and other things which they really need.


27 January 1799

The same windy weather with rain continues. We get notice of the fall of Naples to the French and the establishment of the Neapolitan Republic by means of a letter sent by the archdeacon of Santa Maria Maggiore, Giuseppe Casale, who had been in the capital, to Giovanni de Caroli one of the town’s governors.


30 January 1799

The people, or rather the leaders of the Civic Guard, have selected Don Camillo Elefante to command the Guard in place of Don Raffaello Bonelli and have had it parade with its weapons.


2 February 1799

At around 20.00 hours a certain Ruggiero di Mola, who was staying at an inn beyond the city walls, and who seemed unaware of the city’s opinion, but was, apparently, a Commissioner of the new republic, was brought in and taken to the city square. He jumped onto the plinth of the Hercules statue and began to preach about liberty and equality and read out, in a loud voice, some texts which were hostile to the monarchy and to our royal majesty. Few people were present to listen, and they drifted away and the man was led off to the house of Giorgio Esperti.


This arrival was the sign that democracy had arrived, a mob formed and Esperti was proclaimed the city’s president,


“Ruggieri had Francesco Paulo Affaitati create the flag from silk and sport the red cockade, another mysterious sign of the republic, and they set off, with a band of music, to parade through the town. Then they went to the square where they had a mast raised and decked out in yellow, turquoise and red ribbons, erected next to the Hercules statue with a flag flying from its top. Just then the castle fired a few cannon shots and there was much applause and some verses from the Democratic rites were sung by those around the tree.”


The city was illuminated for three evenings, and some taxes abolished. And “people were to be allowed into church wearing everyday clothes and could sit where they pleased, and this was done so as not to prefer the aristocracy and as a mark of equality.”


6 February 1799

The two civic deputies, Don Canon Carlo Moles and Chevalier Francesco Paulo Affaitati, set off for Naples. I give you here their titles although the new republic prohibits them and one should only by the name of citizen which is a system, if I’m not mistaken, which will not be used as much as the previous system. On this subject, I also overhead some people saying that all Europe would soon be democratised, and I said to them that “who can predict the future?” and that seemed to silence them.


20 February 1799

Much attention was being paid to the actions of the populace as these had recently gone and captured Andria, Trani, Bisceglie and Molfetta, ruining trade, maintain a state of insurrection, or rather anarchy, and committing all kinds of excesses. In Molfetta it appears that the commissioner Canon di Mola, who had democratised Barletta, and a French courier who was accompanying him, along with a few Dominicans (including Friar San Vita), were killed by a raging mob. Whoever raises a voice against their capricious actions is killed on the spot. Worse things happened in Trani where the people, led by a watchmaker, who said he was acting in the name of the king, imprisoned, bound hand and foot and then shot a domenican, a Cassinese, and others.”


26 February 1799

We get no word of what life is like at Naples although there are robberies, rebellion, French troops and other barbarities.


6 March 1799

Light rain at dawn, which fell again in the afternoon and during the night. We had word, which true turned out to be true, that the French would arrive today. The president, and municipal dignitaries, have made tricolour arches to greet them at the bridge and have had the coat of arms above Signor Esperti’s door taken down so that General Broussier and his suite can stay there. They have gone down to the new gate to welcome them. The French flag, which is pink, white and turquoise has been hung at the balcony of Signor Esperti’s palace.


16 March 1799

Intermittent rain all day. The French troops arrived, infantry, cavalry, some that were dragoons, artillerymen with artillery pieces, some of which were cannon and some howitzers followed by numerous wagons with drivers in uniforms. The soldiers were generally dressed badly many with long tunics which were dirty and torn, others with greatcoats in different colours or black which allowed them to cover what they had looted. They all had handkerchiefs full of coins or different possessions. The soldiers were lodged in assigned places whilst the officers and NCOs were in different houses, although there were always too many of them for each residence, whilst General Broussier and his suite were in Signor Esperti’s house.


Looking after general’s table was the work of Tommaso Pecorari and Canon Francesco del Vecchio and these were given money for the supplies and other requirements as the table was to be a buffet, available at all hours, and to a large number of people and covered with a large number of different dishes and, for dessert, ice creams.


18 March 1799

The French 64th Regiment of Line infantry arrived and was billeted in different houses as were the officers and NCOs and these wanted coffee, with milk, at one o’clock or had a breakfast at half past one consisting of a large number of eggs and mozzarella, bread and wine. At noon they had a lunch of some six dishes as well as lots of eggs and drinks in abundance and for supper they had the local wine or rosolio, although some had coffee, and they were allowed to take back with them what they wanted. They consume a lot of wine and also put it in the soup at supper time which they then drank after having eaten the bread. Some wanted to take full bottles back with them so they could drink it in the night if they woke up and then they could fall back to sleep. The general [Broussier] sent out some proclamations to Andria and Trani demanding that they surrender or face the full horrors of war.


21 March 1799

Very few of the French soldiers go to church as many have abandoned religion altogether or if they have retained it inwardly they don’t express it so that they aren’t mocked or ridiculed. It is the same with the officers and some of them are right thinking and moral. Few people now visit the San Sepolcri, the women especially stay away in order to avoid trouble from the French who, although they obey their officers in wartime, do not respect anyone else and they greet you looking in your eye, the wondrous results of equality, anarchy and irreligion.


22 March 1799

This morning there was a review of all the French troops including the infantry, the artillery and Carafa’s mounted Legion, so-called as the former Count of Ruvo and Duke of Andria is now their colonel and they wear the uniform the French-Neapolitan Republic with cropped hair and moustaches.


23 March 1799

Today, at dawn, the French took Andria by assault. It had resisted for three hours but was lost because, apparently, it was betrayed by one of the duke’s household who opened one of the gates whilst the assault was being launched against three different places by Carafa’s legion. It was put to the sack and the people massacred and town burnt.


It was horrendous to behold a French soldier with the richly embroidered cloth of gold taken from the Holy Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel church. He was sheltering from the rain with it and trying to sell it.


25 March 1799

There was much dancing and all this was complemented by lots of desserts, sweets and fortified wines. The French officers complained that we were acting like the aristocracy. There were many tables where games of chance, basset, dealing and gambling, were being played. It can’t be denied that, for many, this was a taste of the olden days. Oh what times we live in, when everything is mixed with anxiety and terror!


26 March

The only ones among the common folk to do well for themselves are those who trade in various goods as they get whatever they ask as the French spend with their eyes closed.


1 April 1799

The French troops who took Trani committed the most vile atrocities of war, sacking and massacring and not sparing the honour of the nuns, not even the oldest ones. Then then sold on a lot of their loot in Corato, Terlizzi Bisceglie and surrounding areas, although many people from there also came to loot as well.

Not all was bad

A French officer took care of one of the old nuns and, nobly, had her placed in a little cart and taken up to the Convent of Santa Lucia.


10 April

General of Brigade Sarasen (Sarrazin) arrived to relieve General Broussier at Bari. he left the next day.


13 April

General Broussier left for Naples and chef de brigade Olivier arrived as did the Legion of Carafa under the ex-count of Ruvo, or ex-duke of Andria, and this was to march on the Abruzzi taking with them 17 sailors from Trani who, it is said, were going to be shot.


19 April 1799

More French detachments arrived in from the provinces in order to go on to Naples, they were dragging carts full of contributions in silver and money, and anything precious they could get. There were horses, mules, mares, carriages, carts and so on. The contribution from Barletta is not yet fixed but is said to now be 20000 ducats to be delivered within 24 hours.


20 April

Good weather until noon, then cloudy. All the French troops have set off for Naples, which means that the royal troops are not far off either by sea or on land.


24 April

Early on the weather was good then it became cloudy before clearing after a cool breeze and wind. Then, quite late, some 60 men from Altamura arrived amongst whom, it was said, there were 20 prisoners whom they wanted to take into the castle but they were not let in but they were given bread. To be safe the Civic Guard had been doubled and were patrolling the walls and keeping a look out since one could not be too careful and the times are suspicious.


27 April

Beautiful day with a touch of mist. Another boat has arrived and it brings with it news that a Muscovite warships have entered Brindisi harbour.


12 May

Immense crowds of worshippers of both sexes and all conditions gathered for devotion to ask that the Most Holy Virgin, who had preserved us through these most critical times, and through all the dangers, to intervene for the better and that she would guide us so that we would avoid disgrace at this critical moment.


13 May

There were various rumours disturbing the city that the troops of the Neapolitan Republic were advancing this way, amongst which was that a letter had been sent to the archdeacon who was in charge of the commune ordering that quarters and forage be found for 1000 men, ie 500 infantry and 500 cavalry.


14 May 1799

Stormy winds but clear skies. This is an important day which could have been fatal to the city but which, thanks to the protection of the Most Holy Virgin of Sterpeto, and our glorious protector Saint Ruggiero, nothing went wrong on this ominous day. The crowds were larger today and no longer wanted to see the tree [of liberty] or that badge of imaginary freedom, the Republican cockade, but preferring instead to submit to the government of that worthy sovereign Ferdinand IV, and not wishing to see popular fury degenerate into tragedy, with the massacre of die-hard, true Jacobins, the municipal council determined to send a deputation to Bari where the Muscovite fleet was as well as the king’s ship the Aurora upon which was the Cavalier Micheroux, the monarchy’s plenipotentiary minister in this land.


A rather insolent band of sailors threw down their tricolour cockades and replaced it with that of the king forcing others who were passing through the square to do the same so that we have all now happily done so and with the minimum of confusion. Shortly afterwards a group of boys went to the principal church and threw stones at the republican coat of arms, bringing it down. At around 18 hours the nobles gathered in the square to pull down the ridiculous tree.


A fleet of three Russian ships and a corvette belonging to our king appeared in the harbour.



16 May 1799

The weather was misty but at around 13 hours Cavalier Micheroux and the commander of the Russian squadron disembarked and were met at the mole by the Civic Guard, the president, ministers of the tribunal, governors and representatives, officers and an immense crowd of people.


Three proclamations, one from Seruftin, commander of the combined Russo-Ottoman fleet in the Puglia. “This told of the formidable forces in Italy commanded by Field Marshal Count Suevarous who was defeating the French and that others were being sent by land and sea to take back the capital of the country. It said I am happy to be able to offer you friendship, protection, assistance and, following the wishes of your king and instructions of his minister, we shall restore happiness and return to you your safety and wellbeing.”


18 May

Good weather but the air was humid and there was some rain. At around 19 or 20 hours some 300 Russian grenadiers exercised in the square before the castle and fired two campaign guns which they had brought with them from their ships. They merited the applause they received and the admiration of all who saw them for their gracefulness and orderly conduct, with few commands and some beats on the drums. The soldiers deserve to be complimented for they are quiet and circumspect and good at their duty. The officers see to the good of the soldiers and are careful not to let them drink for if they have too much it puts them in excessive fury.


19 May

At around lunchtime the Russian squadron, along with the Neapolitan corvette, left for Manfredonia wit Cavalier Micheroux onboard; they only left a 52-gun ship behind and a detachment of their troops continued to form part of the castle garrison. The ships had fired a salute of many guns, and the castle had replied with the same. The streets were illuminated.


23 May

Some 70 royal cavalry, newly raised, arrived and were assigned quarters. 24 May The cavalry left after having requisitioned all kinds of horses to the number of around 30, and a similar number of bridles and saddles. At around 23.00 his Excellency Don Gianbattista de Cesare, general of the 5th and 6th divisions, arrived with a large body of men amongst which were many Calabrians and with artillery and mortars. His Excellency treated everyone with great kindness as he was well known in these parts as he had spent many months here with the other Corsican emigrants who were for England and who had received English pensions … they came through the San Lionardo Gate and it was noted that the army was followed by a huge number of individuals and strangers, all carrying bags, and it was apparent that these wanted to take part in plundering us and so they were stopped and ordered to return and desist from joining under false pretences … a cross was planted in the square in place of the tree of liberty.


25 May

Upon the arrival of the Calabrians orders were given out to wear, on the right of the hat, a white cross made from silk or thread indicating that they were soldiers and Christians and, on the left, the red cockade of our king.


26 May

Today the Muscovite troops, with the artillery of the same nation, set off to join the others who had disembarked at Manfredonia and to establish quite a respectable body of men, not numerically but in terms of knowing their duty and well led, experienced and steady. At their head went Cavalier Father Giuseppe Marulli so he could become acquainted with the art of war and so that he could be useful with his languages as he speaks French well and some of the Russian officers do so too.

A delegation was sent off to Ruffo (in Spinazzola):

“To avoid what had happened at Altamura, which had thought that the army was of insurgents and thieves and so had resisted, spurred on by a few malcontents who were gathered there but who, seeing that things were going badly for them, then fled, and the city was stormed and cruelly put to the sack for a number of days and the Calabrese did no harm to the French but plundered the place inside out.”


27 May

Arrival and departure of a small band of Calabrian troops who were issued rations and the officers were given money for breakfast, although they did not neglect to visit the stores saying that they were looking for hidden Jacobins and seizing whatever they wanted without anyone being able to prevent them.


28 May

The deputies were the victims of an unfortunate, and quite dangerous, incident as they were returning. It was around six miles from Spinazzola and the deputies were walking behind their carriage as this was full of various items. A hill separated them still further from the carriage and now they were separated more and more from their servants. A party of around 50 cavalrymen suddenly appeared and intercepted the carriage. There was a captain and a lieutenant and they approached demanding to know if they were fugitive Jacobins, and all this in an improper and very offensive manner. The servants replied, told them who they were and that their masters were not far off. But they would not listen and the servants were forced to lie on the ground. Just then one of the armed guards who was with the deputies and was riding along as escort, jumped down from his horse and respectfully approached but one of the cavalrymen fired a gunshot which hit the escort in the chest and he collapsed to the ground and breathed his last. After this most infamous act, which was something more like an act of highway robbery, the officers had the servants get up and demanded who was travelling and they replied that it was the deputies of Barletta and that they were traveling under passports issued by his eminence and which they could see. They looked and then made the excuse that they had not understood who they were and so left them alone. That’s the way things are done nowadays. They had to put the dead body in the carriage so as not to abandon it in the countryside.


4 June 1799

The weather continues to be intermittently cloudy and then clear. No letters are coming through from Naples, which is still democratised, but neither are they getting through from the provinces either.


6 June 1799

At around two there was the unexpected arrival of a detachment of Turkish troops to the number of 83 leading some waggons and, in their honour, the city was illuminated. 8 June 1799. Good weather, the aforementioned left, and there was great chaos with all the wagons they were driving.


12 June

Some 150 Calabrian soldiers passed through having caused much disturbance to the country around, causing all kinds of harm and taking reprisals with the usual excuse that the people were Jacobins or supported the Jacobins. And today they were thieving and plundering and punishing and despoiling even whilst they were calling themselves of the holy faith, well they are an army of the holy faith in name only.


22 June

It was proclaimed that on the 13th of this month Naples had fallen to our victorious King Ferdinand IV and that they are going to take those castles still holding out. Some 50 of Rusciano’s men were sent with their officers to Andria to bring those people to their senses for they thought it was their duty to arrest anyone they wanted on the excuse that they were Jacobins. In fact, today, they brought some 20 prisoners to this castle and these were kept there by the people for their own security.


7 July

This morning news came by sea that the fortress at Pescara had been attacked and taken and around 14.00 the guns in the castle fired a salute and, this evening, all the church bells were rung. The streets were illuminated tonight and for the next three evenings. The assault had been carried out by Marchese Proni with his armed band who declared that the king was victorious and now he was chasing the Jacobins, rebels and French from the Abruzzo. The commander at the fort was the Count of Ruvo, who had been Duke of Andria, and he was rendered desperate and attempted to flee by boat but did not succeed and he was taken prisoner and was taken with some others to Chieti.


9 July

The weather is the same as yesterday. The castle of Saint Elmo in Naples has still not fallen.


17 July

News came through that the castle of Saint Elmo in Naples had fallen and that the French had been taken as prisoners of war, so the city was illuminated for three days.


23 July

The post this morning brought a letter from his excellency Cardinal Ruffo, Vicar General of the kingdom, to the representatives of our municipality noting that they had raised 3000 ducats for General de Cesare and for the regiment raised by Commandant Rusciani. The tenor of the letter was as follows: the conduct of your excellencies, and the assistance you have provided to the Royal Christian Army, merits the most estimable praise and renders your city forever distinguished as a bastion of our holy religion and faithful to the crown. We have noted the expenses incurred by your citizens by their support in the good cause …. Naples, 20 July 1799.


29 July 1799

A Turkish official arrived with a suite of about 20 people accompanying him. They were going to Naples on an embassy to our sovereign and he was lodged, at the expense of the city in the archbishop’s palace, and his suite was billeted. They arrived around two o’clock and the streets through which they passed were illuminated.


31 July 1799

News came by post and from a traveller that last Saturday Capua had capitulated according to the same terms, so it was said, as those offered to the French garrison at Saint Elmo.


28 August

The Regiment Principe, with 120 of Rusciani’s men, and band of music, two cannons and some chests with money left for the province of Lecce, Gallipoli to be precise, to put down the insurgents.


3 September

This morning Brigadier Mecc [Mesch] arrived at Rusciani’s house. He, along with others, had been accused of felony after the defeat of the Neapolitan army last year and had been travelling around the various courts of Europe. Now he had landed at Bari in the hope that he would go to Naples and clear his name. Rusciani kept him in his house under a kind of house arrest and awaited a resolution of the case.