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Historia Ecclesiastica

Another Richelieu

On Cardinal Ruffo.


On June 13, 1799, the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, the Christian and Royal Army of the Holy Faith (“Santa Fede”) in Our Lord Jesus Christ amassed at the Ponte della Maddalena. Across the bridge lay Naples, defended by revolutionary forces armed with the latest French-supplied artillery. As his men rested in preparation for the assault, Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo, the royal vicar-general and commander of the “Sanfedisti,” conferred with a contingent of Turkish and Russian military advisors. This was a holy war, yes, but it was also the War of the Second Coalition. With the British navy supporting the Sanfedisti from the sea, Ruffo’s secretary and biographer observed that “heretics, schismatics, Protestants, and even Mohammedans had arrived unexpectedly to defend the Christian religion.” 

The sounds of stampeding boots and hollers of “Viva il re!” interrupted His Eminence’s war council. A mob of townspeople had killed a republican rebel (a “Jacobin” as the Sanfedisti called them) and were rushing toward the bridge with his head on the pike. Caught up in the excitement, Ruffo’s Calabrian irregulars tossed aside their meals, grabbed hunting rifles, clubs, scythes, and daggers, and joined the berserkers. Cardinal Ruffo excused himself from this exotic company and rode out to corral his foolhardy troops. He barely succeeded in forestalling a doomed charge. 

Later that day, with the rustic army regrouped into something that resembled marching order, Cardinal Ruffo ordered the attack on the bridge. The Russian and Turkish advisors carefully assessed the republican artillery positions as the army cautiously advanced. Once again, the Calabrian irregulars had their own plans. A contingent of Calabrians had slipped behind enemy lines by shuffling along the narrow undefended shoreline. The Calabrians reached a republican-controlled coastal fort and scaled the walls by climbing atop each other’s shoulders. The brave Calabrians overwhelmed the shocked rebels and hoisted the white Sanfedisti flag emblazoned with the Holy Cross and the immortal words spoken to Constantine: In Hoc Signo. When the republicans saw the banner of Christ replace the tricolor on the fort, their morale collapsed. The Christian Army seized the Ponte della Maddalena and by the evening controlled the entire lower part of Naples. The remaining republican forces holed up in three impregnable hilltop fortresses. 

The Sanfedisti and the people of Naples credited the triumph at the Ponte della Maddalena to Saint Anthony of Padua. Popular images depict Saint Anthony flying above the Christian Army as it charges across the bridge. Other images also honor San Gennaro, the early Church martyr and principal patron saint of Naples. After all, it was providential that the Christian Army achieved its victory on the same bridge where, in 1631, the intercession of San Gennaro had quelled an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But many Neapolitans also questioned San Gennaro’s commitment to the royalist cause because his blood had reportedly liquified in the presence of a French general a few months earlier. Saint Anthony, meanwhile, remained true to Throne and Altar and delivered victory on his feast day. 

A year earlier, the King and Queen of the Two Sicilies reigned securely from their sumptuous palace at Caserta, the Versailles of Italy. King Ferdinand was a bon vivant with earthy tastes. He preferred hunting to politics and shunned courtiers for the company of the common people, with whom he conversed in the Neapolitan language. For this he earned the epithet “Re Lazzarone,” a reference to the infamous beggars of the streets of Naples. Queen Maria Carolina of Austria, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, was widely understood to be the true power behind the throne. Bonaparte is said to have called her “the only man in the Kingdom of Naples.” Earlier in her life, the Queen had enthusiastically supported Enlightenment policies, favored the freemasons, and sought to curtail the influence of the Church. But following the bloodshed and terror of the French Revolution—and especially after the martyrdom of her beloved sister Marie-Antoinette—Maria Carolina transformed into an implacable counter-revolutionary and enemy of Revolutionary France. 

The Queen’s opportunity for vengeance came in late 1798. After his victory at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson paid an extended visit to Naples. While embarking on his famous affair with the British ambassador’s wife, Lady Hamilton, he also found time to convince Ferdinand and Maria Carolina to join the Second Coalition. Earlier in 1798, French troops had occupied Rome, kidnapped the Pope, and propped up a regime that insolently called itself the “Roman Republic.” But the French forces in Rome were overextended, and with Bonaparte marooned in Egypt and the British in control of the Mediterranean, the odds favored Ferdinand and Maria Carolina. They hastily assembled an army and sent it north to liberate Rome. The Neapolitan army entered Rome with little opposition. But when the French launched a counter-offensive, the numerically superior Neapolitan forces fled. The French army gave chase into the Kingdom of Naples.

The royal family fled to Sicily. Yet the people of Naples did not hold their flight against them. The lower classes of Naples rose in a fervor and began looting and even massacring those they suspected of being republicans and supporters of the French. Despite this popular resistance, the French took the city and gave their blessing to a small group of exiled Neapolitans and young republican aristocrats who, on January 21, 1799, declared “the Parthenopean Republic”—a contrived allusion to the pre-Roman Greek colony on the Bay of Naples. 

In Palermo, the king and queen planned the counter-offensive against the French and the traitor republicans. Their two biggest assets were the support of the masses and the British navy. The King had deputized bands of armed men in the northern part of his kingdom, including the famous Fra Diavolo. But these royally-sanctioned brigands could not reconquer a kingdom. Nor was the British navy a guarantee against an invasion force slipping across the Straits of Messina. The King needed to launch a counter-offensive on the mainland, and he needed a commander that could inspire and organize the common people. For that task the King chose Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, whom he appointed as royal vicar-general for the mainland territories just two days after the proclamation of the Parthenopean Republic.

Ruffo came from an important Calabrian ducal family on his father’s side and Roman nobility on his mother’s side. Early in his career he served as a bureaucrat in the Papal States and ultimately rose to the level of a mid-ranking minister. Thanks to his talents and his family connections (his uncle was Dean of the College of Cardinals), Pope Pius VI named him a cardinal even though Ruffo had not received holy orders. Cardinal Ruffo was ordained a deacon shortly after receiving his red hat, but he never became a priest. The Ruffo family’s influence in Calabria was undoubtedly a major reason why the king selected him to lead the campaign of reconquest. Ruffo was also a member of the pro-papal party and a devotee of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the great eighteenth-century Neapolitan saint who had suffered at the hands of the Bourbon monarchy’s “enlightened absolutism.” Cardinal Ruffo’s selection was thus emblematic of the Neapolitan Bourbons’ and other Catholic monarchs’ shift away from their prior anti-curial and Gallican policies in response to the shock of the French Revolution.

On February 7, 1799, Cardinal Ruffo landed in southern Calabria with full royal powers, but no troops. Upon his arrival, he issued a proclamation to the bishops, priests, and people of Calabria:

Considering what has transpired in France, with the regicide, proscriptions and massacres of clerics, spoliation and profanation of churches. Considering the events in Italy—and especially in Rome—with the sacrilegious attack on the Vicar of Jesus Christ. And now the events in Naples, with the abandonment of the army and the revolution in the capital and in the provinces. It is the duty of every Christian and every good citizen to defend Religion, the King, the Homeland, the honor of families, and property.

The proclamation had an immediate effect. Ruffo received some twenty thousand volunteers. They were armed and supplied by their parishes and displayed a white cross on their hats to mark the sacredness of their cause. “In this great mass of men,” wrote Ruffo’s secretary, “there were ecclesiastics of all ranks, there were wealthy landowners, artisans, and farm laborers, there were honest men moved by Religion and attachment to the King and good order; and unfortunately there were also murderers and thieves, motivated by a desire for pillage, vendetta, and blood.” This last group included men who were the first to shout “Long Live the Republic! Death to Tyrants!” when the French troops arrived, and now were some of the most enthusiastic voices crying “Long live Religion, Long Live the King! Death to Jacobins.” 

In liberal historiography, Sanfedismo is defined by the excesses and atrocities committed by its most vicious and opportunistic members. But this is a feature of any popular insurrection or civil war, revolutionary or counterrevolutionary. And while the justness of a cause is not determined by comparing war crime statistics, there was no shortage of brutality on the part of the French troops and the Neapolitan republicans. There is no use denying that certain elements in the Sanfedisti committed atrocities. Yet far from instigating and encouraging these atrocities, Cardinal Ruffo constantly sought to maintain order. Many of the worst crimes were committed by unorganized mobs who rose against the French and republicans before Ruffo and the main body of the Sanfedisti arrived. Ruffo consistently insisted on clemency for penitent and non-combatant republicans, legal process for the recalcitrant, and severe punishment for looters and vigilantes.

While men of all classes could be found within the Sanfedisti, most were poor. The movement combined crusade with class war. In the days following the proclamation of the Parthenopean Republic, the common people of the countryside were inundated with republican propaganda. “Emissaries of democracy” arrived from Naples and erected “Liberty Trees” in each town square. It was not lost on the poorest classes that the republicans claiming to speak for the people were almost exclusively from the country’s elite. According to a popular slogan: “If he has bread and wine he must be a Jacobin!” In a demonstration of ironic defiance, the Sanfedisti adapted the French republican song La Carmagnole into an irreverent counter-revolutionary anthem with the memorable line: “liberté, égalité: you rob me, I rob you!” 

Generations of Neapolitan and Italian liberals have struggled to come to terms with the overwhelming popular opposition to the Revolution of 1799. One of the revolutionaries, Vincenzo Cuoco, published an essay shortly after the fall of the republic in which he coined the term “passive revolution” to describe a revolution where (unlike in France) the people played no role and were even actively hostile. Antonio Gramsci adopted and elaborated on this concept a century and a half later. At the turn of the twentieth century, Benedetto Croce, the Neapolitan liberal man of letters, wrote a quasi-hagiographical work about the heroes of the Neapolitan revolution. These included admittedly interesting characters, such as Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel, who was the publisher of the most popular republican newspaper in Naples and was likely the first woman to hold such a role anywhere in Europe. She was executed for the crimes of treason and lèse majesté against the Queen. While Croce praised the revolution for planting the seeds for the Risorgimento, he was forced to acknowledge that its lack of popular support caused the revolution to backfire in the near term, as it “pushed the Bourbons to rely increasingly on the classes that supported them the most during the revolution—the plebs—thus transforming the enlightened monarchy of the eighteenth century into the monarchy of the lazarroni, police, and soldiers, which would last until 1860.” 

By the end of March 1799, the Sanfedisti had reconquered all of Calabria and continued to advance through Basilicata and Puglia. The Christian Army’s progress was aided by the arrival of professional Russian and Turkish troops, the campaigns of Fra Diavolo and the other brigands-cum-guerillas in the northern part of the kingdom, and above all by the diversion of French troops out of Naples to northern Italy in response to a joint Austrian-Russian offensive. After just four months, Cardinal Ruffo arrived at the gates of Naples where (as we have seen) he defeated the republican forces on the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Following the victory at the Ponte della Maddalena, Neapolitan republicans and their remaining French allies retained control of most of the city’s forts, from which they shelled the city below. Meanwhile, the city was engulfed in anarchy, as the lower classes of the city—with the shameful participation of some Sanfedisti—pillaged and murdered those suspected of collaborating with the rebels. Ruffo did not have enough men to restore order to the city while also seizing the remaining republican positions. A few British ships were anchored in the Bay of Naples, but the whereabouts of Nelson’s main fleet was unknown, and there were rumors that a combined French-Spanish fleet was on its way to relieve the republican forces. Faced with these precarious circumstances and motivated by a desire to save his people from further bloodshed, Cardinal Ruffo gave terms to the republican garrisons. In exchange for their surrender of the fortresses, he would spare their lives and guarantee them safe passage to France. The capitulation was signed by Cardinal Ruffo and the local commanders of the allied Russian, Turkish, and British forces.

As preparations were being made for the surrender, Nelson’s fleet unexpectedly arrived in the Bay of Naples. Nelson haughtily informed Cardinal Ruffo that he disapproved of the capitulation and would not honor it. Ruffo rowed out to the flagship Foudroyant to talk sense to Nelson. Nelson’s French was poor, so the English ambassador (and the husband of Nelson’s mistress) Lord Hamilton served as interpreter. Ruffo appealed to strategy: a prolonged assault on the fortresses would buy time for the French to send reinforcements. He appealed to honor and morality: Ruffo and the other allied commanders, including the British commander, had given their word; a legitimately concluded armistice must be followed religiously. But Nelson was intransigent, almost fanatical in his insistence that that a king does not treat with his rebels. When Ruffo asked whether Nelson was acting upon the orders of King Ferdinand, Nelson did not give a straight answer. In correspondence to one of his officers after the meeting, Nelson wrote: “I employed every possible argument to convince His Eminence of the fact that the armistice is annulled by the arrival of the fleet. But an admiral lacks the necessary skill to argue with a prelate.”

Upon returning to shore, an exasperated Ruffo found himself in the unexpected position of advocating on behalf of the Neapolitan republicans. He even tried to arrange for the rebels to leave for France by land instead of sea—but the rebels assumed this was a ruse: they would rather trust an English Protestant than a Cardinal. 

After days of stalemate Ruffo received a terse message from Ambassador Hamilton: “Lord Nelson instructs me to assure you that he has resolved to do nothing that would interfere with the armistice that Your Eminence has contracted with the fortresses of Naples.” Nelson’s apparent change of heart was believable—the Russian and Turkish commanders had stood by the capitulation as a matter of honor and Ruffo had threatened to pull the Sanfedisti out of the city, thus forcing the British to storm the fortresses on their own. Ruffo declared a public day of prayer and thanksgiving to Almighty God and the capitulation proceeded as planned. The Neapolitan rebels marched out of the forts with military honors from the Russian and Turkish forces. The republicans were then escorted to boats that were supposed to take them to France. But Nelson had laid a trap. He turned his guns on the boats and had the republicans arrested for treason. Although Cardinal Ruffo, as royal vicar-general, was theoretically the highest legal authority in the city, Nelson ignored him and immediately ordered summary executions of the highest-ranking rebels. 

Cardinal Ruffo was powerless to resist Nelson’s brazen treachery. While there is debate about whether Nelson acted at the direction of Ferdinand and Maria Carolina, there is no doubt that the monarchs were pleased with the results and disappointed with Ruffo’s moderation. When Pope Pius VI died in captivity in France in August 1799, Cardinal Ruffo quietly departed the city that he had reconquered two months earlier and traveled to Venice for the conclave that elected Pius VII. Ruffo remained involved in Neapolitan and papal politics for the remaining three decades of his life, but he never regained the prominence he once had as commander of the Sanfedisti. 

In a little-known thousand-page history of the Revolution of 1799, Alexandre Dumas describes Cardinal Ruffo as “another Richelieu, advancing along the coast of Calabria in a red cassock, cross in hand and sword at his side.” There is some truth to the comparison: one does not rise to the top of eighteenth-century papal and royal bureaucracies without a knack for slick political and diplomatic maneuvering. As we have seen, Nelson observed that trait in Ruffo and considered himself outmatched. But Ruffo put his urbane talents to good use. He was able to transform latent popular unrest into a powerful movement that re-directed righteous anger away from private vengeance and toward a sacred purpose. He deftly co-ordinated military operations between an army of rustic Catholic crusaders on the one hand and their Protestant, Orthodox, and Muslim allies on the other hand. He negotiated a compromise with his sworn enemies that would have prevented further bloodshed and could have paved the way for national reconciliation, but for the dishonorable actions of Nelson. 

Saint Anthony of Padua is a fitting patron of Sanfedismo. He is at once a Doctor of the Church and the saint to whom we turn when we mislay a mundane object. Saint Anthony, like Sanfedismo, embodies the unity of Catholicism in its most elite and humblest forms. On Saint Anthony’s Feast, let us remember the great victory he granted to a refined curial Cardinal and his army of exuberant and unruly peasants who successfully fought to vindicate the Holy Faith against the errors of the age. 

Anthony Piccirillo writes from New Jersey.

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