13 October 2016

Execution of former King of Naples

Joachim Murat, key aide of Napoleon, shot by firing squad

Joachim Murat, King of Naples, depicted by Francois Gerard
Joachim Murat, King of Naples,
depicted by Francois Gerard
Joachim Murat, the French cavalry leader who was a key military strategist in Napoleon's rise to power in France and his subsequent creation of an empire in continental Europe, was executed on this day in 1815 in Pizzo in Calabria.

The charismatic Marshal was captured by Bourbon forces in the coastal town in Italy's deep south as he tried to gather support for an attempt to regain control of Naples, where he had been King until the fall of Napoleon saw the throne returned to the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV in May 1815.

Murat was held prisoner in the Castello di Pizzo before a tribunal found him guilty of insurrection and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

The 48-year-old soldier from Lot in south-west France had been an important figure in the French Revolutionary Wars and gained recognition from Napoleon as one of his best generals, his influence vital in the success of Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt and Italy and in victories against the numerically superior Prussians and Russians.

He was a flamboyant dresser, going into battle with his uniform bedecked in medals, gold tassels, feathers and shiny buttons.  Yet for all his peacock tendencies, he was renowned as a bold, brave and decisive leader, often securing victory through daring cavalry charges.  In all he is thought to have fought around 200 battles.

A defiant Murat faces his executioners
A defiant Murat faces his executioners
Napoleon rewarded him with the hand of his sister, Caroline, and promotion to the rank of Marshal and Admiral of France. He made him King of Naples in 1808, although it was something of a consolation prize to Murat, who had hoped to be given the throne of Spain, which went instead to Napoleon's brother, Joseph.

Murat moved into the Royal Palace and indulged himself in a life of luxury, entertaining lavishly and surrounding himself with expensive acquisitions.  He had portraits of himself, his wife and other family members commissioned by celebrated artists as well as numerous scenes depicting his victories on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, he was an effective ruler of Naples, where he broke up the large landed estates, introduced workable laws and established the Napoleonic Code, under which class privilege and hereditary nobility were abolished and all male citizens deemed as equal. He also cracked down on the many gangs who made their living through robbery and pillage.

He foresaw and supported the potential unification of Italy, attempting to position himself to take control beyond Naples by encouraging the secret societies that eventually were central to the Risorgimento.

When it became clear, however, that Napoleon's grip on Europe was weakening, Murat's thoughts became focussed on self-preservation.

A room at the Murat museum in Pizzo imagines the scene as Murat appears before the Bourbon tribunal
A room at the Murat museum in Pizzo imagines the scene
as Murat appears before the Bourbon tribunal
Desperate to retain power in Naples and the lifestyle that went with it, he entered into an alliance with Austria after France’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in October of 1813. However, the summit of European powers that met at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon's defeat had other ideas, planning to return Naples to the Bourbons.

Murat fled, declared himself in support of Italian independence and fought the Austrians in northern Italy. He was defeated, then attempted to regain favour with Napoleon, who had escaped his exile on Elba, only to be turned away without even speaking to him. The emperor would later regret shunning his former trusted aide, claiming that with Murat at his side he would have won the Battle of Waterloo,

In a last throw of the dice, Murat then assembled an expedition force on Corsica and set out to recapture Naples himself. With only 250 men, however, he was never likely to succeed. In the event, bad weather blew his three ships of course and his landed in Pizzo, more than 350km south of Naples, almost at the toe of the boot, where he was soon arrested.

He faced death in the same way as he had gone into battle, extravagantly dressed and fearless. Having been granted his last wish for a perfumed bath and the opportunity to write to his wife and children, he refused the offer of a blindfold and a stool to sit on, and instead stood before the firing squad, eyes wide open.  His final words, or so the story goes, were: “Soldiers, do your duty. Aim for my heart, but spare my face. Fire!”

Travel tip:

Pizzo has made the most of its connection with Joachim Murat, who was buried in the town's Baroque Church of St George. The Aragonese castle has been renamed Castello Murat and contains a Murat museum.  Each year celebrations take place on the anniversary of his death, sometimes with historical re-enactments.  Pizzo is also notable for tuna fishing and for its speciality tartufo ice cream, which features a ball of ice cream encasing molten chocolate.

The plaque on the wall of Murat's villa at Santa Maria Annunziata
The plaque on the wall of Murat's
villa at Santa Maria Annunziata
Travel tip:

As well as his home at the Royal Palace in Naples, Joachim Murat kept a villa on the Sorrentine peninsula, just outside the small town of Massa Lubrense at the village of Santa Maria Annunziata. The building, identifiable by a plaque on the wall, has a clear view of the island of Capri and was used as a vantage point by Murat from which, early in his reign as King of Naples, he was able to oversee an operation to recapture the island, which had been garrisoned by a combined force of English and Corsican soldiers in 1806.

Capri as seen from Murat's villa on the Sorrentine peninsula
Capri as seen from Murat's villa on the Sorrentine peninsula

More reading:

How the defeat of Austria at the Battle of Marengo helped Napoleon secure power

Napoleon crowns himself King of Italy


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