As part of our project analysing the letters of Maria Carolina, one other figure is inescapable from our attention: her husband, King Ferdinand IV of Naples-Sicily. Born as the third son of Charles Bourbon, Ferdinand could have expected little from his lot in life if it were not for the death of his half-uncle Ferdinand VI of Spain whose passing precipitated a string of successions on Iberian and Italian peninsulas. Ferdinand inherited the dual kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1759 as his eldest became the heir apparent to the Spanish throne and his elder brother Felipe was mentally incapacitated.

Beginning his rule at the age of eight, Ferdinand’s adolescence passed in the shadow of powerful ministers including Bernardo Tanucci who effectively dominated Neapolitan-Sicilian affairs in close collaboration with Ferdinand’s father in Madrid. The young prince, as convention holds, devoted his best impressionable years for learning to hunting instead, igniting a lifelong passion and borderline obsession. Ferdinand is often remembered for this passionate pursuit. The British ambassador to Naples recalled the ten of thousands of animals which the king murdered on an annual basis and Ferdinand’s own diaries note with exactitude the numbering of trophies.  

As a result, Ferdinand is often perceived as an indolent monarch who lacked any discernible interest in state affairs. Yet Ferdinand’s temperament and aptitude for rulership has never received much in the way of fair consideration. The image we still hold of Ferdinand largely derives from the anti-Bourbon scholarship of the nineteenth century which uphold Ferdinand as a selfish, workshy monarch incapable of much beyond hunting and poorly educated. In the twentieth century, the famous Italian thinker Benedetto Croce labelled him as an “ignorant” man who possessed “few ideals” and “little sense of duty” towards his subjects.[1]

Finding the real Ferdinand, however, has been an inadvertent side-effect of our research into Maria Carolina. Rather than appearing as a slothful unintelligent king, Ferdinand appears through his writings and actions as a wholly committed and dynamic sovereign; one determined to apply himself to raising the potential of his subjects and who did not shy away from the duties thrusted to him.

Two represented manifestations of Ferdinand’s drive and dedication during his reign. At Carditello near Naples, he inherited an estate from his father which had formerly been a hunting lodge but became a place to experiment in breeding more useful livestock and raising thoroughbred horses. Ferdinand himself took great interest in the area, erecting a more permanent royal residence and ensuring that foreign workers skilled in animal husbandry would arrive in newly constructed buildings. Over time, Ferdinand oversaw the introduction of a herd of four hundred buffalo and cattle as a means of extracting better quality breeds for farming.[2] Under Ferdinand’s gaze, Carditello transformed into a place of intensive manufacturing activity and as a profitable enterprise.

The same held true at San Leucio, a hilltop outcrop near the Royal Palace at Caserta where Ferdinand took a measured interested in the development of silk weaving. In 1789, Ferdinand issued a decree establishing the Royal Colony of Silk Weavers (Real Colonia dei Setaioli) at San Leucio and afforded worker families numerous rights such as free housing, free education, and generous bonuses for accomplished artisans or additional production.[3] Although aimed at creating excellent silk exports for international markets, San Leucio came to represent a monarchical project founded on enlightened ideals and emblematic of Ferdinand’s intensity for the improvement of the lands he surveyed. Ferdinand personally oversaw the erection of these new buildings and donated substantially to the remodelling of San Leucio into a collectivised working community with significant rights compared to contemporaries.

Both sites of improvement at Carditello and San Leucio feature prominently in Ferdinand’s correspondence with Maria Carolina. The king often shared his reports of visitations to the workers with Maria Carolina, reflecting on how he thought of their progress and musing upon ways to devise and realise new plans for their enhancement. His letters also reveal a man intimately entwined within the monarchical system—not detached or divorced from it. The king intently met frequently with his ministers and subjects whilst out on hunts or inspection tours of his project such as Carditello and San Leucio.[4] Moreover, his own diaries demonstrate his commitment to work as well as pleasure where he constantly recorded his attendance of meetings, discussions, and his maintenance of correspondence and decrees. Far from being the roguish aloof character we are perhaps more familiar with, Ferdinand’s own words and actions mark him out to be an astute and involved monarch.

In the course of our project focusing on the governance of Maria Carolina’s times, Ferdinand’s shadow casts a rather more complex shade than a simple disconnected phantom. He is to all intents and purposes a sorely misunderstood historical figure whose reputation as a king and as a man require a rethink from scholars. In studying Maria Carolina, we cannot not help but also find a new side to King Ferdinand.


[1] Benedetto Croce, Storia del regno di Napoli (Bari: G. Laterza e figli, 1925), 194.

[2] Maria Rosaria Iacono, ‘La tenuta agricola di Carditello: fonti archivistiche’, in Un Elefante a Corte. Allevamenti, cacce ed esotismi alla Reggia di Caserta, ed. Vittorio Martucci and Mariastella Margozzi (Naples: Florentino, 1992), 33–40.

[3] An edition of the original decree has recently be published, see Matteo Angelo Galdi, Origine della popolazione di S. Leucio suoi progressi fino al giorno d’oggi colle leggi corrispondenti al buon governo di essa, di Ferdinando IV, re delle Sicilie (Naples: Saletta, 2004).

[4] For example: Archivio di Stato di Napoli, Archivio Borbone, Busta 33, Ferdinand to Maria Carolina, 15/16 June 1788, fols. 66r-68v.

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