The French milieu in Naples in the early nineteenth century

Florence Le Bars (translation Elli Doulkaridou)

Since the spectacular discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eighteenth century, Naples has fascinated Europe. Having become the southern boundary of the Grand Tour, barely touched by the Revolution and the Napoleonic campaigns, the city was already visited by the cultivated elite and scholars. With the arrival of Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat, the Kingdom of Naples appealed more widely to the aspirations of French travelers. To the traditional categories of the diplomat-collector and the tourist, was soon added that of young talents seeking recognition.

The French milieu in Naples, before the arrival of Napoleon's troops as well as after their departure, consisted mainly of passing-through art lovers and plenipotentiary emissaries taking advantage of their status to build their antiquities collections without being subjected to the legal restrictions concerning the exportation of works of art. Thus, the Duke of Blacas and the Count of Pourtalès constituted a large portion of their antiquities collections by purchasing the famous “Etruscan” vases flowing to the capital from the sites of Nola and Ruvo.

But the new government set up from 1806 until 1815 attracted French travelers of a new kind. A younger generation of antiquarians such as the Count of Clarac (Future Conservator of Antiquities in the Louvre), painters such as Ingres and Granet (at the time residents of the French Academy in Rome), or young Montagny, architects such as Étienne-Chérubin Leconte or François Mazois, were trained in archeology and confronted in situ the problems of a nascent discipline. Most of them were in their twenties. They become protégés of Queen Caroline Murat, who offered them the opportunity to execute their early works. Back in Paris after 1815, this generation would fertilize the French cultural life during the Restoration and the Second Empire.

These young talents met with already established personalities such as Aubin-Louis Millin, director of the Cabinet of Medals, who was passing through Naples between 1812 and 1814.

Despite the turbulent political situation and rampant banditry on the southern roads of the kingdom, Naples continued to be a necessary step of the Grand Tour and a melting pot for young intellectuals from all over Europe. The French milieu was certainly particularly favored by the crown, but it was still very permeable and open to other nationalities. Contacts were formed between artists, scholars and scientists from all over the continent. Travelers from all political backgrounds met there, whether being emigrants of the Revolution, loyal supporters of Napoleon or in exile. Lamartine saw Juliette Recamier. Lucien Bonaparte, already fallen from grace, visited the south of the peninsula. Custine, then aged 22, accompanied Millin in Calabria.

Back in France, friendships sealed during the Neapolitan stay and especially the cultural policies experienced in the Kingdom of Naples would inspire reflections on heritage, conservation and finally the birth of a national archeology.