So who the hell were the Bourbons?
First of all, yes, bourbon is a drink—it’s a type of barrel-distilled whiskey, frequently associated with Kentucky and college boys who want to seem sophisticated. “Bourbon” also refers to the French dynasty, which produced European monarchs for eight centuries. The Bourbons originated in France in the 1200s, spread their influence to Spain, and eventually held claims to the thrones in Sicily, Naples, and Parma, as well. Naples was once the capital of the Kingdom of Naples (the southern half of the Italian peninsula), which passed between French and Spanish hands for generations. It gets confusing because a lot of cousins married cousins—you know, the usual—but basically this means: fancy palaces were built in Naples. This is the family that made Versailles, after all. The Bourbons were pushed out of power when the Kingdom of Sardinia annexed Naples in 1860, but buildings such as the Palazzo Reale and Palazzo di Capodimonte still reflect their influence today.
People keep referring to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, but there’s only one Sicily…?
Yes, there is only one Sicily—the largest island in the Mediterranean—and it serves fabulous seafood. But for a time, there were two Sicilies—the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples, combined on paper in 1808, in practice in 1815. Actually, depending on who you ask, there were two Sicilies since the sixteenth century, when the War of the Sicilian Vespers separated the rulers of the island from the rulers of the peninsula. Technically, the mainland rulers occupied the Kingdom of Naples, but they enjoyed being annoying and continued to refer to their land as the Kingdom of Sicily. Confused yet? So are we, as were half of Italy’s citizens. What you need to know is that all of the kingdoms—Sicily, Naples, and the Two Sicilies—ceased to exist in 1861, when the nationalist state of Italy was formed.
Why didn’t I know that Naples used to be the second most populous city in Europe?
Most people don’t! Perhaps this is because Naples is now just the fourth largest city in Italy. But in the seventeenth century—the age of the great painters in Rome—Naples teemed with 250,000 people, second only to Paris in population. Unfortunately, the crowded conditions eventually took their toll on the city; bubonic plague wiped out nearly half the inhabitants in 1656, while typhoid and cholera killed over 48,000 people between 1834 and 1884. Naples endured, however, and was still Italy’s largest city by the end of the nineteenth century. But economic sluggishness and emigration slowed growth, leading to Naples’s reputation today as a mid-size European city.
Why do I keep hearing the phrase “used to be”?
Because Naples’s fortunes took a hit after Italian unification in 1861, which significantly dented its economy and political importance. “Unification” refers to the annexation (or “invasion,” depending on who you ask) of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies by the Kingdom of Sardinia. Garibaldi and King Victor Emmanuel II spearheaded this consolidation of power, which is why you see their names everywhere in Italy. They also required the former Kingdom of Naples to empty their coffers for the new Italian state—some 443.2 million ducats. Unsurprisingly, Naples’s economy faltered, causing many residents to emigrate (four million between 1876 and 1913, by some estimates). Though the state of Italy altered Naples’s trajectory, the city has rebounded over the past decades into a major center of culture, food, and history in the Mediterranean.