The Medieval Review 16.06.25

Feniello, Amedeo. Napoli 1343: Le origini medievali di un sistema criminale. Milan: Mondadori, 2015. pp. 288. €22.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-88-04-65862-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Ronald G. Musto
Italica Press, New York

'1343.' Students of literature know it as the probable year of Chaucer's birth. Scholars of the Italian Renaissance and of Neapolitan history will recognize it as the year King Robert the Wise died, leaving his kingdom to his granddaughter Giovanna I. '1343' thus marks the date at which most studies of Angevin Naples either abruptly end or after which they perfunctorily carry on until the feeble demise of the dynasty: Naples slouching towards the Aragonese conquest and the Renaissance.

But for Amedeo Feniello '1343' is neither turning nor beginning nor end, but another datum in a continuum from Naples' ducal period in the early Middle Ages to its late medieval, early modern and indeed modern life. '1343' represents not a cultural boundary post for the art, cultural or religious historian but a single data point for the social and economic treatment that Feniello offers in this remarkable new treatment of Neapolitan society in the later Middle Ages.

Feniello's book has two beginnings--just as it has two themes- united across the centuries by socioeconomic and political structures. The first, just outside the contemporary Naples of the film Gomorrah--recounts a 2005 triple murder by the Camorra: a back-street assassination over turf initially met with official indifference and local silence. The second, recounted as impressionistically as the first, is also about a murder: this one in 1343 on the Bay of Naples, of a Genoese sea captain, and the theft of his cargo of meat and grain by another highly organized Neapolitan gang on a ship outfitted and directed by the barony of one of Naples chief seggi (sedile) or rioni.

Feniello's comparison is more than a facile device. At this book's heart lie the connections between Naples' modern system of organized crime and its medieval social system on the one hand, and the historian's existential position as both contemporary citizen and impartial scholar on the other. He acknowledges the problematic nature of such comparisons and focuses immediately on the historian's conundrum: to what extent are comparisons drawn over six centuries valid methodologically and theoretically (9)? To what extent do they become metaphors, true in the way poetry and literature are often more "true" than history but lacking in specific detail, context and import? To what extent can the historian, motivated by contemporary problems, project questions into the past and seek answers there?

Feniello resolves this conundrum in two ways. The first is methodological: by stressing what he terms "una struttura di lungo period" (9), something akin to the Annales' longue durée but more inflected by recent approaches that stress continuities passed on both by written texts, whether archival or narrative, and by cultural memories, "imprinting" (255) and "prejudices" (9). A master of archival research himself, here Feniello takes a different turn, stressing less the truth of established fact than a verità processuale (10): a truth derived from reconciling conflicting testimonies.

Feniello's second method is rhetorical. Despite initial appearances of an impressionistic, comparative examination of Naples' historical and current conditions, Feniello himself admits to his strongly traditional philological approach, one still dominant among Italian scholars of Naples. Yet even more deeply, Feniello's startling contemporary opening pages set the stage not for a loosely structured set of parallel investigations but for a highly rigorous social and economic history of the city and its kingdom from the Norman period into the trecento. Already well known for his studies of Naples, Feniello takes us on a detailed tour of its socioeconomic and political structures as they were changed and augmented under the Normans and Hohenstaufen and then firmly set under the Angevins. [1] Feniello's rhetorical sleight of hand thus quickly and completely immerses the reader not in the world of the modern Camorra but in the deeply complex realities of Naples' medieval seggi, its royal governance and its social organization.

Despite decades of historiography--particularly Anglophone--that draw a sharp divide between the communal states of northern and central Italy and the 'backward' monarchical structures of the Neapolitan Regno, Feniello's approach is fully comparative. Central to his investigation are the parallels and divergencies between Naples' civic organization and those of Florence, Genoa and more broadly of Rome and central Italy. Feniello's careful attention to the documentary evidence for the development of Naples' seggi clearly demolishes this historiographical dichotomy. He establishes beyond doubt Naples' vigorous communal life dating back to the late ducal period and its hard-won independence from the Regno's monarchs whether Norman, Hohenstaufen or Angevin. He also clearly and convincingly demonstrates how even under the intense scrutiny of an Angevin court only recently established in Naples--and jealous of both its prerogatives and revenues--Naples' communal government continued to function, largely independent of the crown, well into the quattrocento.

Herein, however, is the core of Feniello's problem: in meticulously reviewing how this communal organization under Naples' seggi evolved and maintained its power and independence, Feniello has at times drawn too strong a contrast to parallel communal developments north of the Regno. Bearing in mind his initial comparisons of Naples' medieval and modern structural organization, Feniello is quick to emphasize the negative aspects of the city's division into strong centers of power under an increasingly consolidated number of baronial families. Here a clan capo's word was law for all aspects of life under his domination--secular and sacred--despite repeated attempts by the Angevins, especially Robert the Wise and Sancia of Majorca, to either contain or co-opt baronial power. The Angevins' destruction of the barons' towers and their planting of Naples' new Gothic basilicas atop their sites did much to disrupt the clans but never destroyed them. The barons' nearly absolute control over their seggi and their monopoly on violence led not only to a political system that could quickly mobilize men and resources to defend Naples against its external enemies but also to an internal "theater of war" that staged incessant civil strife among the capi that not even the crown could control.

Feniello makes his point masterfully, deploying at will both narrative and documentary sources to support his interpretation. Yet, despite his constant emphasis on Naples' differences from other contemporary urban governments--and his basso continuo that these differences now account for the rampant corruption and violence of modern Naples--his comparisons serve only to emphasis the similarities of trecento Naples' civic structures to those of its northern neighbors. The increasing consolidation of public power, space and resources into the hands of a few great baronial families during the late duecento and through the trecento was the defining element of Rome's ongoing constitutional crisis, for example. Even a casual reader of Dante would soon learn that his Inferno is a reflection of the constant factional strife that defined Florentine society throughout the later Middle Ages. The "privatization of the public realm" was not unique to Naples but is a well-studied and confirmed trope of medieval studies in general.

Even Feniello's chief example of difference appears to prove the opposite. The author draws a stark contrast between the commercial and mercantile culture of the Genoese captured on that night in 1343 and the backward-looking baronial forces of Naples' seggi that took to the seas in a desperate attempt to relieve the famine then gripping the Regno and its capital. Yet, in the very act of providing key social and political background for the Genoese on that galley, Feniello again emphasizes the very same internecine struggles, the same political and military divisions by rione, the same intractable problems of violence and disorder in Genoa that Feniello portrays as trecento Naples' unique legacy. Naples as an urban entity was more similar to its northern neighbors during the long trecento than either accepted historiography or Feniello's revisionism would have it.

Why then has Feniello provided us with this excellent social and economic history only to minimize the weight and impact of his own findings? The answer may lie in some of the literary sources that Feniello deploys to dramatize his theme of Naples' inevitable decline into disorder and decline. Petrarch, the Villani and other contemporary historical writers developed a comprehensive interpretation of trecento Naples that I have termed elsewhere the "black legend of the Angevins." [2] A narrative of ineluctable decline, violence and corruption, it served to objectify the southern kingdom as a political and cultural "other" both from these writers' personal motives and to serve a newly emerging cultural narrative of northern liberty, reform and rebirth. This frame has dominated Neapolitan historiography both in Europe and in the Anglophone world ever since and continues to cast an almost invisible shadow over contemporary scholarship.

Where then lie the stark differences between contemporary Neapolitan society and what many still consider the "real" Italy? While Italy after Berlusconi can no longer claim to have restrained organized crime, corruption, violence and poverty to one city and one region, key differences remain, most obviously (if decreasingly) in the context once confidently termed "development." How is it that Naples remains divided into the turf of competing Camorra families, similar to and metaphorically easily described as the heirs of Naples' baronial seggi? How is it that the res publica became the cosa nostra? Here again Feniello provides us with answers that have less to do with political and social cultures than with the very data of which he is the master: the increasing economic interdependence between the Angevin Regno and its Florentine bankers.

All students of medieval Italy know the basic narrative of the Angevin conquest and how it was financed. Fewer know how the most important interaction of the medieval Italian economy worked: the exchange of the Regno's agricultural wealth and Angevin military support for Florentine gold. The first fed and protected the growing trade and industrial population of Tuscany, the later fed the continuous war economy of the Angevins. As Feniello details here, Florentine financiers quickly replaced all others, and soon themselves became the key agents of the royal crown throughout the South, profiting from their position as judicial and tax agents and royal bailiffs. Like any colonial class, they then transferred their newly acquired wealth back to their homeland. Niccolò Acciaiuoli's role as both chief financier and then chief seneschal of the realm under Giovanna I and Louis of Taranto amply symbolizes this dramatic takeover. With economic colonization, the Regno's wealth drained northward to feed Florence's golden age still so amply on display in the Uffizi's trecento galleries. Even the Angevin (and English Plantagenet) defaults on their immense debts to Florentine banks did not disrupt this dynamic.

As Feniello's narrative makes clear, by the mid-trecento this had led to widespread impoverishment, to what Jean Delumeau has termed the "age of anguish" for the South, with repeated famines (carestie: more like market-produced food shortages), urban revolts and endemic disorder among rural feudatories. By the time the Aragonese conquered the Regno, the South had been stripped of both its agricultural and its financial treasure. Petrarch and his contemporaries provided the causality accepted to this day: not the laws of economics and demographics that Feniello so clearly establishes, but a newly emerging humanist narrative of moral failure and dynastic decline.

Feniello's masterful work brings all these strands together in a comprehensive, fast-paced narrative, punctuated by a lively paratactic style that makes his Italian sometimes read like an American crime novel--to very good effect. In keeping with this approach, the book uses endnotes and offers a good introductory bibliography. Again, my only and major criticism of this important book is that Feniello himself often appears to leave us with a final interpretation based not on his careful archival research into social and economic data but on the highly stylized image left by trecento narrative sources. He suggests that Naples' failures as a city, then under the barons of the seggi as now under the capi of the Camorra, lie less in these social and economic structures than in the moral failings of its rulers and people. Feniello's brilliant and important restatement of this "question of the South," his maledetta continuità (255), is sure to lead to a lively and vital new process of discussion, debate and reinterpretation.



1. For example, Napoli nel medioevo. (Galatina: Congedo, 2007); and Napoli: Società ed economia (902-1137) (Rome: Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo, 2011).

2. See Ronald G. Musto, Medieval Naples: A Documentary History, 400-1400 (New York: Italica Press, 2013), xlvi-lxi; idem, "Introduction: Naples in Myth and History," in Artistic Centers of the Italian Renaissance: Naples, eds. Marcia B. Hall and Daniel Willette (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming September 2016).

Copyright (c) 2016 Ronald G. Musto

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