Landed Identity and the Bourbon Neapolitan State: Claude-Joseph Vernet and the Politics of the ‘Siti reali’
Travelling through the Kingdom of Naples as a grand tourist with Horace Walpole in 1740, Thomas Gray was moved to describe parts of the kingdom in the following terms:
Viewed according to the terms of the author’s positive understanding of improvement as a force that worked to initiate previously ‘fallow’ land into an agricultural market economy, the Neapolitan territory in Gray’s account appears as a perfect assembly of the defining features of an improved and productive landscape. And although enclosure – the process whereby previously uncultivated tracts of territory, often held as common woodland, were cultivated, usually at aristocratic initiative – was a defining term in debates about landed culture across eighteenth-century Europe, Gray’s description is testimony to the particular energy local forces had brought to its development in Naples.2 Throughout the early eighteenth century, the territory of the kingdom, governed by Spanish and Austrian viceroys on behalf of distant sovereigns, had been subject to the expansionist programmes of feudal estate-holders whose policies aimed to incorporate tracts of land into their fiefdoms and convert this territory, usually common woodland, into cultivated, crop-yielding agricultural estates.3 In the absence of any local sovereign power, efforts to enclose ever larger territories under the authority of feudal overlords passed unchecked. Instead, the local office of viceroy, dependent upon those same feudal powers to raise the tax income demanded by distant Spanish and then Austrian sovereigns, tolerated the progressive strengthening of feudal control over the land.4 In 1742, Giuseppe Gioacchino di Montealegre, marchese di Salas and secretary of state to Charles of Bourbon who, as the son of Philip V of Spain and Elizabeth Farnese had been crowned king of the Kingdom of Naples in Palermo in 1735, summarized viceregal rule in pre-Bourbon Naples in the following terms:
Basing discussion around e King hunting on Lake Patria (c.1746) (Plate 2), painted for Charles of Bourbon by Claude-Joseph Vernet, this chapter argues that images of the king hunting, such as this, operated as particularly effective vehicles of royal interest in the struggle waged by the founder monarch of the Bourbon dynasty in Naples to wrest territorial control from the feudal barons. A special concern is to relate the pictorial languages of these images to a wider set of questions about the aesthetic associations and political status of the territories they represent. This chapter begins by suggesting the ways in which Vernet’s painting, organized according to many of the formal terms of classical view painting, was able to imbue the new Neapolitan territorial type of the royal hunting reserve with some of the venerated associations of classical landscape and involved the site as part of an ambitious pictorial tour of Bourbon-held territories on the Italian peninsula. It then investigates the complex political status of the actual territory represented in order to suggest that the royal hunting park was uniquely adapted to serve as instrument and marker in the royal campaign to return large tracts of land to royal control. Finally, this chapter identifies the particular strategies through which Vernet’s view was able to amplify and extend the political relations already configured in the landscape of the hunting park and consequently demonstrates the active involvement of images such as this in the process of forging a landed identity for the new Bourbon state. But it is helpful first to introduce the sito reale, the new category of royal territory of which the hunting reserve formed a constituent part and to return briefly to the aristocratic type of territory, agricultural enclosure. It was over these two territorial models that the battle between the king and the feudal barons was fought. Scrutiny of the testimony written in the 1730s, of Michele, marchese De Lerio, a prominent Puglian landowner from Francavilla, reveals a vocabulary used to describe the incorporation of land in terms of enclosure, improvement and deforestation.6 Composed as a record of those areas of land cleared,
De Lerio’s will presents an account of aristocratic virtue founded precisely upon the ability to ‘improve’ a landscape by making it yield economically. The following extract is typical:
The type of ‘improvement’ advocated by De Lerio had become so widely practised that from the onset of Bourbon rule royal government ministers identified aristocratic enclosure as one of the feudal abuses in most urgent need of reform. The success of a royal programme aimed at the radical reduction of feudal power and the transfer of much of that authority into the hands of the centralized royal state would depend in large part upon halting the large-scale appropriation of land into aristocratic control.