A Life Full of Writing

Maria Carolina reached for the quill and ink as she fell gravely sick; she kept a daily diary for most of her adult life in addition to her Reflections on current affairs; she penned thousands of letters to relatives, friends, and advisers over the course of her lifetime. It was indeed a life full of writing.
Image: The first entry for 1783 of Maria Carolina's personal 'Riflessioni' (ASNa, AB, Busta 76, fol. 33).

On 16 September 1811, the exiled-Queen Maria Carolina almost died. She collapsed at home on the island of Sicily where the Neapolitan family had fled following the fall of Naples to the French in 1806. She struck her head on the marbled wall as she fell, rendering her unconscious, almost lifeless. Guards and doctors rushed to her side but feared the worst. She began to shake; she bit her tongue until it swelled so large it almost chocked her. They reckoned it was epilepsy. That night she spat blood. Her temperature plummeted as fast as her husband King Ferdinand rushed from the nearby Villa Ficuzza to be at her side. When he arrived, however, she had stopped shivering, held back the blood, and rested soundly. Te Deums were sung, church bells were rung and prayers were said for the recovery of the queen. In the next days, she recovered; battered, weakened, but alive.

And what did Maria Carolina do with her regained strength?

Her thoughts turned to writing. She asked for a quill, grasped its point and returned to writing her letters.[1]

For Maria Carolina writing was an intrinsic part of her life. She maintained a daily diary for thirty years from 1781 to that fateful year, 1811.[2] She recorded her hopes, her fears, her health, her children’s health, when they misbehaved, when she saw her husband, and what songs she could not get out of her head after hearing them at the opera.  But writing meant much more to her than a means of tallying her days.

Writing was a method of self-expression. In her Riflessioni, Maria Carolina kept track on every proposal that passed her hands. She mused on the ideas of state as she made mental notes for later reflection.[3] In her careful studying of documents, she was not too dissimilar to her brother Leopold who did the same when he worked secretly on his plans for a Tuscan constitution.[4] During her first days at the Neapolitan court in 1768, she isolated herself in her room in order to write down her feelings of despair, of grief, and trepidation following her wedding and removal from her family in Vienna.[5]  

More importantly, writing was a means of control for Maria Carolina. Self-control perhaps in the exercise of daily penmanship but also in the art of gathering information. Her careful control of her husband’s mail testifies to how important she viewed letters. King Ferdinand frequently complained to his father about his wife’s relentless encroachment into his private exchanges. So afraid was the King that something critical could be found by her that he begged his father to write decoy letters of plain sentiments and separate them from more secret letters between them.[6] She did not returned the same openness to Ferdinand.

“When I speak of wishing to see some letters she writes home,” he complained to his father, the King of Spain, “or to know what she is writing, there is a fight; and if I insist she loads me with abuse.”[7] Maria Carolina closely guarded her letters as she understood the power of information. In her thunderous arguments, with Lord William Bentinck—the British commander and envoy sent to secure Sicily from the French during the 1800s—Maria Carolina defended her right to protect her correspondence. She also used her letters as a defense, revealing the letters between her and her husband to Bentinck in order to display their close bond and diminish his delusions of rupture between them.

Maria Carolina’s total correspondence is vast—incalculably vast since much of it has been lost in the destruction of the Archivio Borbone during World War II. Her remaining correspondence reaches the tens of thousands. In our project collection, we have over 2,200 letters belonging to her alone.[8] Separated by circumstance, she wrote almost daily to her daughter Marie Therese in Vienna. She extensive updates to her brothers Joseph and Leopold, and begged responses from their successor as emperor, her nephew Franz. Intent on regaining her Neapolitan kingdom from the French through any means necessary, she took great steps to hide her illicit communication with those in Naples—something which the British suspected as undermining their fight against the French. In one case, a servant hid perfectly cut pieces of paper between the soles of her shoes in order to avoid detection.[9]

Even when everything seemed dire, she still maintained he correspondence through illness and the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars. She continued writing letters to her trusted ambassador in Vienna and friend Marzio Mastrilli, the Marquis de Gallo, “by the light of a tin lamp” as all the silver had been sold off in anticipation of a French invasion.[10]

When Maria Carolina finally succumbed to illness brought on by her age and the ruinous journey through the Black Sea to her final exile in Vienna during the winter of 1813/1814, she was found  dead by her chambermaids in a pile of her letters. For Maria Carolina, letters shaped the fundamental aspect of her life from her innermost feelings to her political maneuvers to her survival and her death. It was truly a life full of letters.

By Jonathan Singerton


[1] As described in Egon Caesar Conte Corti, Ich einer Tochter: Ein Lebensbild der Königin Marie Karoline von Neapel (Munich: Verlag F. Bruckmann, 1950) , 615. Conte Corti did not provide adequate citations throughout his study of Maria Carolina’s life based on her unpublished writings and those of her family which were mostly destroyed during the Second World War.

[2] Cinzia Recca, ed., The Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples 1781-1785: New Evidence of Queenship at Court (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 24. Recca calculates this to equal 10,905 days.

[3] Giovanni Merola, Le riflessioni della regina Maria Carolina sulle riforme nel Regno di Napoli e Sicilia 1781-1785, in: Römische Historische Mitteilungen 60 (2018), 219-240.

[4] Carlo Francovich, “La rivoluzione Americana e il progetto di costituzione del granduca Pietro Leopoldo,” Rassegna Storica del Risorgimento, Vol. 41, No. 2/3 (April/September, 1954), 371-377; Gerald Davis, “Observations of Leopold of Hapsburg on the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4 (October, 1962), 373-380.

[5] Adam Wolf, Fürstin Eleonore Liechtenstein 1745-1812 nach Briefen und Memoiren ihrer Zeit (Vienna: Carl Gerold’s Sohn Verlag, 1875), 92. Wolf cites a letter dated 2nd June 1768 from Leopoldine Kaunitz to Eleonore Liechtenstein. According to Rebecca Gates-Coon (The Charmed Circle: Joseph II and the ‘Five Princesses’ 1765-1790 (West Lafayette, IN: Perdue University Press, 2015), 7 and 343)  these held at the Lobkovitz family archives (Lobkovicové Roudničti Rodinny Archiv) at Nelahozeves, Czech Republic.

[6] Attilio Simioni, „Nell’intimità d’una reggia: lettere di Ferdinando IV di Napoli a Carlo III di Spagna,“ Rassegna Storica del Risorgimento, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1924), 2-23.

[7] Ferdinand to Carlo, 12th November 1776, quoted in Harold Acton, The Bourbons of Naples (London: Prion Books, 1957), 185.

[8] https://www.uibk.ac.at/geschichte-ethnologie/changing_social_representations/project-rationale/

[9] See Figure 88 in Conte Corti, Ich eine Tochter Maria Theresias (between pages 648-649) originally from Alberto Lumbroso, Miscellanea Napoleonica, Parts 3-4 (1895), s.n.

[10] Maria Carolina to the Marquis de Gallo, 20th November 1792, Archivio di Stato di Napoli, Archivio Borbone, Busta 319; as translated by Harold Acton, The Bourbons of Naples (London: Prion Books, 1957), 256.

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