- Leontius Project
Barra, Maria Antonia and Murat
In February 2021, Italian street artist Jorit completed his project called "The Dreams District" in Barra on the outskirts of Naples. Touching on the injustices of the world, the final artwork depicts three sleeping children, portraying the message that all children are born equal and have the right to dream. Situated at the foot of Mt Vesuvius, Barra is the home of one small part of my family tree that awkwardly branches off my maternal line. Considering the story of how I link to Barra, and Naples more broadly, the artwork by Jorit couldn't be more apt!
My maternal line is like no other! With each generation, I’ve encountered quite unconventional women, stories of riches to rags, child brides, young widows, and their connections to some of the most influential historical figures from the now province of Vibo Valentia. Some made questionable decisions - sometimes to the benefit of their children, other times to their detriment.
Climbing my line we find the following women – Lina Tropea, Concetta Serrao, Elisabetta Galati, Maria Antonietta Cognetta, Clementina Galati, Carolina Scognamiglio, Maria Antonia Nieto, Felicia Massara, Marianna Trentacapilli...
I discovered this story in an 1811 dossier (collection of official documents in the town archives of Vallelonga) about my 13-year-old 5xgreat grandmother Maria Antonia Nieto of Vallelonga and her marriage to 36-year-old Domenico Scognamiglio from Barra. The collection provides more than just a set of names and dates. It gives insight into a chaotic time and place, a period of battle and brigandage, where lives were lost and innocence stolen. But above all, the uncanny link between the teenage girl and King Joachim Murat of Naples (brother in law of Napoleon).
Document 1 – Baptism of Mariantonia Nieto
Maria Antonia Nieto was baptised at the Church of St Maria Maggiore in Vallelonga on 29 November 1797, daughter of the “magnficient lord” Giuseppe Nieto and Felicia Massara. Felicia herself was born in Monterosso Calabro (about 14km north of Vallelonga) around 1775. Her father, don Michele Massara, was an aristocrat educated in law and served as mayor of Monterosso for several years. Her mother, donna Marianna Trentacapilli, was born into the then noble and highly influential Trentacapilli family from Pizzo Calabro. The alliance between the Massara and Trentacapilli families was such that many strategic marriages were contracted between them, to the point where Michele and Marianna were likely second cousins.
Document 2 – Death of Giuseppe Nieto
Much less is known about Giuseppe. While there is no doubt that he was of a high social status (due to his "magnificent" title and his marriage to the likes of Felicia Massara), his origins are quite a mystery. The surname “Nieto” is notoriously Spanish and rarely found anywhere on the Italian peninsula. While is would seem implausible that a man with Spanish origins would live in the hills of Calabria during the late 1700s, it is not an impossibility given the former Spanish rule of the Kingdom of Naples. Unfortunately, we can only speculate since the church records of Vallelonga were destroyed by an accidental fire in 1926.
Sadly, he died on 28 June 1807 at around 30 years of age. The extract indicates receptis vulneribus obiit i.e. "died from wounds received". That year, many young men met their maker due to similar wounds. In 1806, the French, led by the Napoleonic regime, succeeded in taking over the Kingdom of Naples. Support for the former Bourbon King Ferdinand was so fierce that numerous battles were fought trying to defeat them. One such battle, that resulted in hundreds of deaths, was fought in Mileto (some 40km from Vallelonga) on 26 May 1807, one month before Giuseppe's death. The victory of the French at this battle did nothing but fuel political resistance in the hearts of the Calabrian people, and eight years of brigandage followed. I don't doubt that Giuseppe died as a result of this chaos since family members of his mother-in-law, Marianna Trentacapilli, were famously staunch Bourbon loyalists that also lost lives in opposing the new regime. More about them to later.
Nevertheless, Giuseppe made an impact on the town. The small square which contains the “Fontana della Croce” was in fact named “Strada di Nieto” during the early 1800’s. It's name was later changed to “via Croce”. Just off the square is a laneway that links to via Nicefora and leads up to Piazza Monserrato. To this day the laneway is called “via Nieto”.
Document 3 – Baptism of Domenico Maria Scognamiglio
This extract was sent from the Church of Ave Gratia Plena, Barra, a mere 10 minute walk from Jorit's street art. It shows Domenico Maria Scognamiglio was baptised 30 April 1775. He was born to Antonio Scognamiglio and Maria Rosa Tarallo (both surnames are widely spread across the city of Naples). The family lived in a home owned by the Solimeno family.
Document 4 – Death of Celeste Scognamiglio
Around the turn of the century, Domenico married a woman called Celeste. On the 12 May 1809, it is documented that Celeste passed away. The extract states that she resided with her family at number 20 via Infrascata (today via Salvator Rosa) outside the centre of Naples. She was 38 years old and mothered two children with Domenico: Luisa aged 8 and Antonio aged 4. The young Domenico was left a widower.
The Napoleonic regime that took hold of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in 1806 can't be considered all doom and gloom. A series of changes and improvements were made across the Kingdom. One of these changes was the introduction of town councils and compulsory civil registration for births, deaths, marriages and legal proceedings. In 1811, the qualified civil servant Domenico Scognamiglio arrived in Vallelonga from Naples to complete the setup of the council.
At some point, the widower Domenico would have met the widow Felicia Massara. Both were 36 years of age, each with two young children, and both of a relatively high social status. One would have assumed that this would be the perfect match.
Document 5 – The petition to allow the marriage of Maria Antonia Nieto
Instead of Domenico taking Felicia’s hand in marriage, the agreement was made for the 36-year-old to marry 13-year-old Maria Antonia. The following document certainly evokes a sense of sorrow.
On 25 April 1811, Felicia presented herself to the Vallelonga town hall and declared her consent to allow her daughter to marry Domenico Scognamiglio from the city of Naples, now dwelling in Vallelonga. The document clearly shows her “segno di croce” (x-mark which took the form of a signature for those that were illiterate) as well as the approval of the following men: Natale Lamanna, notary of Vallelonga; Giuseppe Lazaro, witness; Saverio Manduca, notary of San Nicola da Crissa. The document was then sent to the town of Soriano, along with a fee, and signed by the notary Michele LoJacono on 27 April. It was then forwarded to King Joachim Murat for his final approval since the legal marrying age was 16.
What was Felicia thinking? Was she forced? Was she desperate? Did Domenico make an offer too good to refuse? These questions will never be answered, but one can only imagine how terrifying this would have been for Maria Antonia.
Document 6 – The approval from the King’s office
On 5 September 1811, in the King's office, a document was drawn up stating the following:
“Maria Antonia Nieto of Vallelonga in the Province of Calabria Ultra, of age 13 years and 9 months, is authorised to contract marriage without yet having reached the age as specified by the law”
It was signed “Gioachino Napoleone” (name often used by Joachim Murat) on behalf of the King, Giuseppe Pignatelli, Secretary of the Ministry of State. The request was not challenged; no questions as to why this marriage should proceed. The King had made these laws but with a simple petition that contained no valid explanation, the exception was given. The document was then sent to Vallelonga and kept in the archives along with the notification of marriage. At midnight (midnight!!), on 13 May 1812, the pair formally registered their marriage at the town hall. The following shows Maria Antonia's x-mark followed by the signatures of Domenico and their witnesses.
The story ends sadly when on 2 February 1829, Maria Antonia died at the young age of 32 after having 7 children. Domenico was once again left a widower and responsible for the many children he had produced from both his marriages. "Noblewoman" Felicia never remarried and lived a long life. She died on 22 April 1856 in Vallelonga at the age of 80, a great achievement in those days, and outlived many of her descendants. I see her as the Queen Victoria of this family line.
While it seems unfair that Maria Antonia was robbed of her youth to marry a man nearly three times her age, she became the matriarch of a family of lawyers, notaries, mayors, doctors and pharmacists that would lead the development of Vallelonga into the 20th century; the Scognamiglio, Galati, Martino, Cognetta and Scaturchio families to name but a few of her descendants that today are spread all over the world.
Execution of King Joachim Murat
But in a strange twist of fate, the King too would eventually lose his own life in 1815 - on the orders of Maria Antonia's great uncle.
Gregorio Trentacapilli was either a brother or cousin of Maria Antonia's maternal grandmother Marianna (and a definite second cousin to her grandfather Michele Massara - they were all descendants of the Massara/Trentacapilli alliance). During October 1815, Joachim Murat was on royal visit through Calabria. Once word spread that Murat was on his way to Monteleone (the capital of the province), the bandits of the local area gathered in large numbers intending to capture the unsuspecting King. Ever the opportunist, Gregorio took charge of the situation with his brother Raffaele Trentacapilli, the local Baron Melacrinis, and townsman Giorgio Pellegrino. They led the bandits and local soldiers towards Monteleone and eventually found the king and his solders.
Seeing the large group approaching, the King stood down from his horse and attempted to calm them, encouraging them not to shoot and come nearer to talk rather than fight. Gregorio wanted to hear nothing of it, and ordered Murat to follow him to Pizzo “in the name of King Ferdinand” (the Bourbon King overthrown by Napoleon in 1806). A battle ensued but the King and his men were outnumbered. They were caught and led back to Pizzo.
In the town, the King was publicly condemned to death and locked in the prison chambers within the fortress of the old castle. This castle had been erected by the former Aragon (Spanish) rulers and still stands today on a cliff face just off the town square. It was here at 9pm on Friday 13 October 1815 that Murat was led to his death by firing squad. To the end he carried himself as a noble King and accepted his fate with dignity. Making the point that he was still the King, he gave the final orders “Attention, it is I who commands! Load…Point…Fire!"
Making world news, the following decree of the Bourbon King Ferdinand IV was published in the “Niles’ Weekly Register – Volume 13“ (global gazette in Baltimore, Maryland, USA).
“Granted to colonel Gregory Trentacapilli the dignity of knight, commander of the royal order of Saint Ferdinand and of the Merit, besides a yearly pension for life of 1000 ducats.
Nominated the baron Caesar Melacrinis, Raffaele Trentacapilli and Gregory Pellegrino, knights of the grace of the royal order of Constantiniano, granting to each of them a yearly pension for life of 300 ducats.”
I guess all is fair in love and war, but children should always have the right to dream.