Royal Flush

Written by
Christian Niedan

Today, Queen Elizabeth II of England has spent 65 years 96 days on the throne, overtaking King Ferdinand III of Sicily (also known as King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies) for #42 on the list of longest reigning monarchs with verifiable start and end dates. Here is a closer look at the ruler that Elizabeth just passed.


Ferdinand age 9, 1760

Ferdinand was a man known by several numbers — and a high IQ was not among them. On October 6th of 1759, he was just 8 years old when he became Ferdinand III of the Kingdom of Sicily, and Ferdinand IV of the Kingdom of Naples on the Italian mainland. 30 years later, he was a middle-aged ruler (with very little interest in the details of ruling) during the nearby French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, and would see his Neapolitan kingdom repeatedly overrun by invading French armies. Exiled to Sicily, and then restored to his mainland throne multiple times (the 1816 return resulting in his becoming Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies), and dependent on the support of larger European powers, Ferdinand’s royal authority was largely wielded in his stead by multiple other individuals (chiefly, his wife) and nations (chiefly, Austria), until his death in January of 1825.

Ferdinand’s two kingdoms had been given to him by his father King Charles III of Spain — who had himself become King of Sicily and Naples when he was 18, and ruled there for 25 years, before handing the crowns to Ferdinand. However, Ferdinand was not the natural first choice to get the crowns, since he was the third son. His eldest brother Philip was mentally disabled, and his brother Charles was to be the next King of Spain, but was diplomatically barred from also holding the other two crowns. Still, those crowns were intimate family possessions. While Charles III was born in Spain, his three eldest sons were all born in Naples — and this larger part of what would become the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” had close cultural ties with its island counterpart.

Ferdinand was not a smart man. This was not helped by influencers who intentionally kept his early education minimal. Ferdinand also loved outdoors diversions like hunting far more than he liked royal court life. This was noticed early on and exploited by his much-older regent, Bernardo Tanucci, who essentially ruled Sicily and Naples in young Ferdinand’s place until he came of age in 1767. The following year, Ferdinand married Maria Carolina of Austria, in a strategic matrimony of the influential European royal houses of the Bourbons (his) and the Habsburgs (hers). Queen Maria Carolina would become the true power behind King Ferdinand’s thrones during the 46 years of their marriage, up until the year before her death in 1814.

Queen Maria Carolina was the daughter of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and the older sister of Queen Marie Antoinette of France. After supplanting Tanucci in government, Maria Carolina installed the pro-English prime minister Sir John Acton, who had previously commanded the Neapolitan army and navy, and served as minister of finance. This was part of a larger strategy to separate Naples and Sicily from Spain’s (and Ferdinand’s family’s) sphere of influence, while building stronger ties with (her own family’s sphere of) Austria and England.

These influences would prove crucial to poor decisions that led to Ferdinand repeatedly retreating to Sicily, while Napoleonic French forces occupied Naples. The first bad move was in 1799, when Napoleon was caught up in a sinking campaign in Egypt, a year after English Admiral Horatio Nelson triumphed over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Ferdinand was convinced to use this opportunity to attack French forces in Rome, but the result backfired, and played a key role in his most famous literary and screen depictions.


Ferdinand and family, 1783


The revenge of Dumas:

The most famous screen depictions of Ferdinand are based on a novel by the son of one of his prisoners.

French author Alexandre Dumas was 22 when Ferdinand died on January 4th, 1825. Alexandre’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas had distinguished himself as a general in the French army during campaigns in Italy, and as French cavalry commander on the failed Egyptian campaign, before falling out with Napoleon and being granted a return to France. Sailing back from Egypt in early 1799, Dumas’ leaky ship was forced ashore at Taranto in the Kingdom of Naples, and he was captured by an army loyal to an embattled Ferdinand, who was at war with Napoleon. The French officer was imprisoned there for the next two years, his health ravaged by malnourishment and isolation, and it probably sped the onset of his death five years later from stomach cancer. A year after his release, the young Alexandre was born, and likely held little affection for Ferdinand (nor Napoleon, who denied the impoverished Dumas family a military pension). Among the author’s many literary works (including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) was La San Felice, published in 1864.

The novel (compiled in 9 volumes) is set in Naples in 1799-1800 (during his father’s captivity), and is a fictional account of real-life Neapolitan aristocrat, Luisa Sanfelice, who Ferdinand ordered executed in 1800, along with others who took part in the Parthenopean Republic of 1799. This briefly-lived (seven months) high-minded republic (Parthenope being a Greek colony where Naples now stands) was created from the Kingdom of Naples after its surrender to the French, following Ferdinand’s ill-advised declaration of war and attack on French-held Rome. The novel explores the Neapolitan nobility’s republican sentiments through the love story of Luisa, and Ferdinand’s use of brutal tactics to consolidate power and suppress political dissent when he reassumed his mainland kingship.

By early 1918, the novel’s original 9 volumes had been translated into English by R.S. Garnett, who condensed them down to the two-volume release of the 336-page The Neapolitan Lovers and the 424-page Love and Victory. In the April 27th 1918 edition of The Literary Digest (published in New york during the final destructive year of World War I), a reviewer wrote the following of Garnett’s translation of La San Felice:

It comes at a very opportune time, when we consider that history repeats itself, and that war is war the world over. This portrayal of the struggle between the Neapolitan patriots and the French, explaining the treacherous actions of the King of the two Sicilies and his queen, has much in comment and fact applicable to the present world-cataclysm.

Dumas had long cherished a desire for vengeance against the “Neapolitan Claudius and the Venetian Messalina” (Ferdinand IV. and Carolina), who had murdered his father. His desired revenge came with the holding up to the scorn of the world of all ages this blood-stained pair, whose base deeds were recorded in the secret archives of Naples and which were handed to Dumas by Garibaldi. In the opinion of the translator, this romance shows, better than any of his works, the insight, vigor, and intense power of Dumas.

Being compared to murderous Romans (though, Claudius’ reputation was later polished up by Robert Graves’ famous 1934 books of historical fiction, I, Claudius and Claudius the God) is bad for the reputation of any couple. So Lina Wertmüller (the first woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar) took a different approach when she directed and co-wrote 1999’s historical fiction romantic comedy, Ferdinando e Carolina. Opening with Ferdinand nearing death, he looks back beyond the violence of his long reign to the more-peaceful days of his forced marriage to Maria Carolina of Austria (he was 17, she was 15). The film depicts a surprising affection in their early marriage, which wears away under the realities of ruling (his inability, her ambition).

Yet, that depiction has done little to dissuade interest in exploring the bloody reprisals of Ferdinand seen within multiple Italian adaptations of Dumas’ sprawling tragic love story set in 1799 Naples. In 1942, Luisa Sanfelice was a film starring Laura Solari as Luisa. In 1966, it was a TV mini-series with Lidia Alfonsi as Luisa and Guido Alberti as King Ferdinand. In 2004, it was a three-hour TV film with model Laetitia Casta as Luisa, and Emilio Solfrizzi as King Ferdinand.

Those adaptations don’t make up for two life-draining years in a Neapolitan prison, but perhaps Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and his son have extracted some measure of revenge from the dented screen reputation of the long-lived King of the Two Sicilies.



Call it Macaroni:

When Ferdinand was crowned king of Naples and Sicily in 1759, it was on the cusp of a European men’s fashion movement that grew out from Italy between 1760-80 to influence young male courtly wardrobes in England. A man of this movement was called a Macaroni, and he is the source of the continuing “Dandy” trend that persists into present day fashion collections. The roots of that connection are chronicled in a famous song of the era:

Yankee Doodle came to town
Riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni!

As chronicled in the Macaroni section of the book accompanying Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2016 exhibition, “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015”:

The Macaroni – a term derived from the pasta dish that well-to-do young men would have enjoyed in Italy as part of the Grand Tour – dressed in a manner that asserted him cosmopolitan outlook. The first use of the term appeared within David Garrick’s play The Male-Coquette (1757), which included a foppish character, the Marchese di Macaroni. Although used occasionally to refer to women for their gambling – described, like fashion, as a form of ephemeral expenditure – the term generally referred to the styling of men.

Influenced by French and Italian styles, the macaroni’s attitude towards fashion was exclusive and elite, with many wearing tightly fitted versions of suits that derived from French court dress (habit a la francaise). At a time when English dress generally consisted of looser silhouettes, such as a subtle silk velvet ensemble with a long, full-skirted coat and waistcoat with breeches, the macaroni suit was slimmer and had a much shorter coat with smaller cuffs. An equally tight fitting waistcoat and breeches completed the look. This had the effect of focusing more attention on the physical body of the man, and many jokes were were told of the rear being visible for the first time through truncated coat tails. Colalrs were very high, almost reaching the chin, while buttons became quite large and were either cloth-covered or made of metal and foils (sometimes even polished steel, which was a new luxury material at the time). Macaronism also emphasized the types of effects associated with French, Spanish, and Italian textiles and trimmings. Brocaded and embroidered silks and velvets, pastel colors, fashionable patterns of spots and stripes, and refined textile surfaces (such as those created with metallic sequins on silk satin) were all popular.

The striking effect of these colors may be observed in a green Italian coat with breeches. When paired with a vest of orange satin, trimmed with gold-metallic passementerie and sequins, the ensemble bears close resemblance to a hand colored Matthew and Mary Darly Caricature, “The Macaroni Bricklayer”.

As with their preferences for French-style suits, macaroni men preferred accessories that were characteristic of court attire, including the decorative dress sword. They set new fashions or slipper-like leather shoes with buckles of diamonds, paste stones, or polished steel. The macaroni replaced the small scratch-wig of the older generation with elaborate hairstyles that matched the towering heights of the contemporary female coiffure. A variety of wigs were popular, including club wigs that resembled “pigtails” of varying thicknesses and lengths, or the bag wig in which the tail was garnished at the back with a large black satin wig bag trimmed with a rosette bow that protected the suit from hair powder. Impracticably tiny tricorne hats became fashionable, as did large floral corsages or nosegays, hanging watches and seals suspended around the waistline, elaborate canes, neo-classical snuffboxes, and spyglasses.  

Reigning Men also highlights a portion of Vivienne Westwood’s first men’s collection, Cut and Slash, which embraced Macaroni influences:

Vivienne Westwood’s work is characterized by both deep respect for and a vexatious parody of tradition. In her first men’s collection, Westwood flouted the conventions of late 1980s tailoring and resurrected the distinctive pastel colors and slim silhouette of the eighteenth-century macaroni — retaining the breeches, but replacing the earlier period’s labor-intensive floral embroidery with a pattern created by contemporary photographic print technology.

By 1799 in Naples, the fashion of powdered wigs had given way to society men braiding their own natural hair into a pigtail down their back, known as a “queue.” In her 1846 guide, The Book of Costume: or Annals of Fashion, The Countess of Wilton, R.L. Shep relates the following example of Ferdinand’s excising of French influence following his return from temporary Sicilian exile:

A curious anecdote is related respecting the queue, which, at the revolution in Naples, in the year 1799, was a most important addition to the heads of the gentlemen, inasmuch as, in many cases, it actually saved the heads it served to ornament. The royalists seized all those whom they suspected of being inimical to their party; but instead of questioning their captives, they adopted a novel and summary way of discovering their political sentiments — they merely looked whether their heads gloried in queues or not. If they possessed the appendage, which was considered as strictly loyal, they were instantly liberated; but woe to those whose love of French modes had persuaded them to drop their pigtails!    

Keep your heads up for the next part of this series, coming later this year, when I look at the long reigns (ending one day apart) of Prince/Duke Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau and Emperor Basil II of the Byzantine Empire. Until then, long live Queen Elizabeth II, and may she pass many more interesting rulers!