Nelson at Naples excerpt

This is the opening section of the book I am writing on Nelson at Naples:

On the afternoon of Thursday 29 August 1799 Nicola Fiani sat listening to the crowd roar as four of his fellow prisoners were put to death beneath his cell windows. After last rites, administered by Father Eustachio Dentice of the white-cloaked clergy of the Confraternity of the Bianchi della Giustizia, he too was then blindfolded and escorted out of the gates of the medieval Carmine fort. Surrounded by a troop of cavalrymen he was dragged along to the city’s main market place, the Mercato, jostled at every step by an angry crowd. As he climbed the steps of the gallows, the mob jeered. His retort, “I scoff at you, and your king” was almost lost as the masses howled back in derision.

The hangman, rejoicing in the name of Tommaso Paradiso, placed the noose around Fiani’s neck and, to delighted cheers, pushed him into oblivion. The prisoner’s body was left dangling whilst the hangman removed the more expensive items of clothing in order to sell them on. As he did so, the crowd surged forward. The mob’s blood was up, their appetite for death unquenched despite this being the second month of such morbid spectacles, and mere riot had left them wanting. One of the confraternity present on the scaffold recorded what happened next as the crowd broke through the weak cordon of cavalrymen:

“His body was left hanging, as he was not a Neapolitan, so that it could be buried the following day. However on that day the populace began by slashing at the body, shooting at it and swinging on it; they stripped it and then, with knives, began to cut it to pieces, so that only bones remained, and the populace went off, carrying bits of flesh on their knives, and were shouting and selling the flesh, saying ‘who wishes to see the flesh and liver of a Jacobin’, and were carrying the flesh around on the point of a pike and it so happened that they fried and ate the man’s liver.”

Another witness, the conscientious diarist and doctor, Diomede Marinelli, confirms the account in his own shocked manner:

“I’ll tell the truth, though it is unbelievable. Today a hanged man was left to hang. The people flung themselves on it leaving just the bones. He was cut to shreds by the carnivorous mob. He was roasted and eaten. His liver was cut out and cooked, and eaten in that same market place by those vile Sanfedistas. One of the mob who refused to eat was murdered.”

The day after Nicola Fiani’s execution, his brother, Onofrio, in prison with a broken arm and himself awaiting trial, was disturbed by the entry of a German soldier called Sebastian Gusler. The northerner threw down a bundle of torn rags, saying “take these, they are what is left of your brother, he was killed at the Mercato yesterday”.

Nicola Fiani’s progress to the scaffold began ten years before, when the Bastille fell and revolutionary ideas swept into Italy. Fiani was an early adherent to the principles of liberty and equality and he, with many other sympathisers in Naples, hoped that reason and enlightenment would now triumph where ignorance and superstition still reigned. For a brief moment it seemed as though they might, the radicals seizing power and making a republic in January 1799. But the century of the philosophers, and the decade of hope, was destined to end with the year of the hangman.

Counter-revolution would triumph at Naples and Nicola Fiani, who had only played a small, undistinguished part in the Neapolitan republic, was on the losing side. When the royalists, with an army led by a cardinal and supported by Admiral Nelson and his fleet, swept back into Naples in June 1799, Fiani, along with those still true to the republic, had surrendered on condition that they be allowed to go into exile in France. They evacuated their forts trusting to that capitulation. But Nelson, waiting for them to troop out, then dishonourably reneged on the treaty of surrender and eagerly handed them over to their Bourbon executioners. Fiani and his companions were betrayed by Nelson, and went to their deaths because Nelson tricked them. It was an act of duplicity which shocked Europe and which cast a long shadow over Nelson’s reputation.

This is the story of Fiani and his companions, and of Nelson and the forces of reaction, in that age of revolution and year of tragedy. It was a remarkable time, and such great events inevitably called for a remarkable cast of people. Some of them would finish swaying from the gallows, whilst, for others, their reputations alone would be left kicking in the wind, either to be honoured or to be torn to shreds by history.