In documenting architecture's history, scholars have frequently overlooked the use of slave labor. In Slavery and Construction at the Royal Palace of Caserta, Robin L. Thomas examines the lives of the slaves who built the palace, begun in 1752 near Naples. Most of the slaves employed there were Muslim corsairs who had been captured at sea, and they were caught up in long-standing political and religious conflicts between the Two Sicilies and the Maghreb states. Converting these Muslim captives to Christianity became a key part of the Neapolitan court's efforts to battle the corsair threat, and Caserta was one of the places where conversion efforts were most successful. The costs and risks associated with slave labor were often high, making the use of slaves in some ways impractical and inefficient in an area with ample nonslave laborers available. Yet in building the royal palace these converted slaves played a role that served more than practical purposes. Their presence became a symbol of the monarchy's military and religious triumphs.
The Royal Palace of Caserta was one of the largest structures built in Europe during the eighteenth century (Figure 1).1 Commissioned by King Charles of Bourbon of the Two Sicilies (1734–59) in 1750, it was designed by Luigi Vanvitelli (1700–73) to the monarch's exacting specifications. At the king's request, Vanvitelli crafted a plan of four equal rectangular courtyards (Figure 2). This arrangement permitted the creation of four nearly uniform apartments on the piano nobile, one each for the king, queen, crown prince, and crown princess. Vanvitelli followed the king's and queen's dictates carefully but allowed his originality to shine in the sequence of dramatic spaces preceding these apartments. Visitors entered the building's shorter central arm and found themselves within a continuous portico; this connected to the gardens behind the palace and offered an enticing glimpse of their greenery (Figure 3). Moving down this corridor, one caught views to the right and left of the first two courtyards. Yet the greatest architectural spectacle was withheld until one reached the center of the building, where a magnificent stair hall, revetted with polychrome marbles, opened to the right (Figure 4). Up two flights of stairs was a vestibule that served as the hub of movement through the palace, giving access to the royal apartments and to the palatine chapel. The palace exterior, by contrast, was relatively sober. A large oval piazza served as a forecourt. The south façade was composed of a weighty podium of travertine supporting two and a half stories of rosy brick, and Vanvitelli used colossal order pilasters and engaged columns to mark the building's projecting corners and frame its central temple front. At 247 meters long by 42 meters high, the palace dwarfed its visitors (Figure 5).
Standing in the forecourt on 3 June 1756, a visitor would have seen hundreds of men and women hard at work nearby. One group of men was tasked with shifting into place one of four pedestals flanking the main portal (Figure 6). Designed to bear the weight of colossal statues (never realized), these were massive blocks of stone, among the largest pieces of travertine used in the building. To move one, the men strained their muscles, ropes tightened. As the weight of the block started to shift, an iron bracing bar sprang loose. It flew toward one of the workers, striking him and splitting open his body. The others rushed to his aid, but the man was already dead.
The man's name was Robis of Tripoli, and his death reminds us that human tragedy was a part of the palace's construction history.2 This episode reveals another aspect of the building's construction: the role of slave labor. Robis was one of hundreds of slaves who worked at Caserta.
The presence of slaves on the work site in Caserta may seem surprising. Their stories, and stories of slavery and architecture more generally, have not occupied a central part of the historiographic tradition. Literary scholar Simon Gikandi has explained this absence by arguing that the ugliness of slavery did not fit with morally transcendent ideas of art.3 As such prejudices have faded, research into the relationship between slavery and architecture has grown. From the buildings that supported the slave trade to slaves' specific jobs on work sites, our knowledge of the world of slaves has expanded exponentially over the past two decades.4 Historians such as Annette Gordon-Reed, architects and historians of the U.S. Capitol and White House, and architectural historians such as Dell Upton, Clifton Ellis, Rebecca Ginsburg, and Louis P. Nelson have all contributed to this growing body of work.5
While scholarship on American slavery proceeds, the story of slavery and art in early modern Italy is only beginning to be told. Less is known about slavery in postclassical Europe than about its American counterpart, and European slavery was in many ways different in nature from slavery in the Americas. For one, it was smaller in scale. And while most American slaves came from sub-Saharan Africa through the triangle trade, most European slaves, especially in the Mediterranean, began as prisoners of war taken from Africa's northern coast. Whereas race was the determining trait of American slaves, North African slaves—predominantly Muslims—were differentiated by their faith.
In Italy, slaves were a visible part of society. Most large Italian cities had slave populations, and port cities had the largest numbers, since slaves were employed in rowing galleys. Yet the roles of slaves in Italian society also extended to art and architecture. Caravaggio owned two slaves while he was working in Malta, and Bernini advised using Greek slaves as models.6 Slaves worked on the walls encircling the Vatican and helped build the Palazzo Venezia in Rome.7 Their work was essential to the creation of the Tuscan port of Livorno, and their presence lives on there in the figures of Moors at the base of a monument to Ferdinando de' Medici (1595–1626).8 That slaves were working at Caserta, then, was not unusual; slavery was an accepted part of the broader Italian social and cultural context.
To date, two short studies have documented slaves' roles in construction at Caserta.9 This article builds on those, offering a more thorough exploration of available archival material and a comprehensive analysis of slavery's meaning in its original political and religious contexts. To understand the historical significance of slavery at Caserta, one must first know that the kingdom was in frequent conflict with the Islamic states of North Africa. Prisoners who were taken after naval skirmishes with Maghreb ships were treated as slaves. But unlike the Swedish prisoners of war that Russian czar Peter I put to similar use in St. Petersburg, African slaves were distinguished by their faith as well as by their ethnicity.10 The Neapolitan court saw them as potential converts to Christianity, and baptisms were the palace's spiritual mortar. It is this attention to faith and conversion that distinguishes slavery at Caserta. In this article, I probe the religious and political significance of such evangelization. Following a brief history of slavery in southern Italy, I discuss the “landscapes” of slavery in Caserta and the kingdom's capital of Naples. Next, I chart the work slaves did on the palace and then analyze the role that faith played in slavery and construction. Roughly 30 percent of the palace's workforce was enslaved, controlled, and evangelized by the royal court. The court made its evangelical mission visible to outsiders to remind them of the rivalry between the Christian kingdom and the Islamic states of North Africa. Slaves thus imbued the palace, already a symbol of Bourbon power, with a message of the king's spiritual and military supremacy.
Slavery in Southern Italy
Slavery was a pervasive feature of Mediterranean society. Human loot in the war between faiths, Christians and Muslims were regularly captured and enslaved in North Africa, West Asia, and southern Europe. Of all the regions of Italy, the south was most affected by slavery. Inhabitants of the region, known variously throughout its history as the Kingdom of Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples, and, finally, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, imbibed stories of slavery and the clash of faiths from an early age. The tales they heard of Muslim and Christian slaves included that of the city of Lucera, where Frederick II (1220–50) relocated Sicily's Muslim population. For seventy-five years the city prospered under the crown's protection, only to be sacked by a subsequent Neapolitan king who sold its inhabitants into slavery.11 In 1480 a comparable fate befell the Christian inhabitants of Otranto. Ottoman forces captured that city, enslaved five thousand of its inhabitants, and killed another eight hundred. Catholic Europe upheld the victims there as martyrs, and some of their relics were brought to Naples. Their reliquary chapel in Santa Caterina a Formiello (Figure 7, C) was redecorated shortly after Charles ascended to the throne in 1734, and the chapel's royal designation reassured the sovereign's subjects of his commitment to guard the realm—the most frequently raided in western Europe.12 From the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, corsairs based along the African coast were a constant threat. The Ottoman admirals Dragut and Barbarossa struck southern Italy repeatedly in the sixteenth century, seizing Christian slaves by the hundreds. In response, the Spanish viceroys who governed the kingdom at that time commissioned a chain of protective watchtowers (Figure 8). Although useful as lookouts, they provided little defense, and brazen attacks near Naples continued.13 The coastal towers were visible markers of an enduring danger, reminding locals of the perils of enslavement. Along with images of the Otranto martyrs, these towers helped condition how Muslim slaves were regarded and treated within the kingdom. More than human chattel, slaves were living evidence of the realm's conflict with a foreign menace.
Joining such reminders of slavery's religious and political impacts were the accounts of former Christian slaves. Snatched from ships or coastal villages, European captives were spirited away to Tripoli, Tunis, or Algiers, where the bey, dey, or pasha retained some for state use and sold the rest. State slaves went to bagnos (housing quarters) from which they could be dispatched to galleys or construction projects. In 1753, a British captain recounted what two freed Neapolitans had told him of their work: “[They are] often employed in digging stone for lime, and carrying it to a great distance from the quarries, building houses &c. They are also employed in cleansing the harbours of mud, breaking up rocks at the entrance of harbours, and other laborious, filthy, and dangerous undertakings.”14
An image from Philémon de La Motte's Voyage pour la redemption des captifs (1735) elaborates on this list of labors, showing slaves constructing Moulay Ismail's palace in Menkes, Morocco (Figure 9). They bake bricks, carry them, and lay new courses atop a wall. According to travelers' accounts, whips ensured that the slaves met Moulay Ismail's expectations, and to dramatize the abuse, La Motte shows a slave held to the ground beneath the lash of an overseer (Figure 10).15 Books and images like these described the horror of enslavement for a fearful populace and hardened their perceptions of the North African other.
Unlike most of their Muslim counterparts in Europe, European slaves in Africa or Asia could be freed. While some gained freedom by converting to Islam, salvation usually arrived in the form of ransom.16 Sometimes family members in Europe scraped together the money to free their captured relatives, but more often, religious orders or lay confraternities paid the ransoms. The Trinitarians and Mercedarians excelled at this mission; they had permanent presences in Tunis and Algiers, where they founded chapels and hospitals, such as the St. John de Matha Trinitarian Hospital in Tunis.17 In Italy, lay congregations did similar work. The Confraternity for the Redemption of Captives in Naples (founded in 1548) was the earliest of these. The confraternity's church sat on a tiny parcel of land ceded by the Celestines of San Pietro a Majella (Figure 11; see Figure 7, E). Affording little space, the site nonetheless gave the organization a prominent location at the intersection of two major streets. Such visibility helped attract private donations to sustain the confraternity's mission. Among the lay foundations in Naples that paid ransoms, the Confraternity for the Redemption of Captives was the most successful in establishing an architectural presence and a financial system to support its work.18
Ransoms had negative consequences, however, in that they helped to fuel the corsair economy. In the eighteenth century, many people recognized that raiders had set sail seeking financial fortune. Learned men like the historians Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750) and Pietro Giannone (1676–1748) lamented how large ransoms inevitably led to more attacks.19 They also feared escalating costs, citing the ballooning amounts being paid.20 Better that Christian Europe unite to crush the Barbary States militarily than bleed money, they wrote. King Charles of Bourbon supported this view but failed to rally his European allies.21 Despite this failure, he fought against the enslavement of his subjects for much of his reign. This political, economic, and military context forms the backdrop against which slavery at Caserta took place.
Muslim slaves' stories are less well known than those of European captives in North Africa. Fortunately, the archives in Naples preserve many records of Muslim slaves' lives.22 By the end of the sixteenth century, Naples's enslaved population, numbering roughly twenty thousand, dwarfed those of other Italian cities. “You Neapolitan nobles admirably delight in keeping slaves,” said Matteo Bandello.23 The largest concentration of slaves in Naples was at the arsenal, which comprised a group of buildings bordering a small harbor, separated from the main port (Figure 12; see Figure 7, A). Similar to coastal forts in West Africa, it was the point of passage for most slaves brought into the kingdom. Located directly beneath the royal palace, the arsenal was remodeled during the 1660s by Viceroy Pedro de Aragón into an enclosed basin with workshops to the west and a breakwater with an older tower to the south.24 A plan dating from the time of the renovation shows a series of small, irregular rooms standing just north of the basin. The uppermost seven were designated as the “new hospital for the slaves.” An adjacent spiral staircase led to dormitories on an upper floor, but many galley slaves slept on their ships.
Lievin Cruyl's drawing of the arsenal, dating to roughly the same period, gives an idea of the port's appearance as viewed from the east (Figure 13). At the center of the image are the galleys the slaves rowed, the docks they worked as stevedores, and the arched bays of the workshops where they repaired and constructed ships. The battlements of the castle, known as the Castel Nuovo, are topped with cannons in the right foreground, and we know that at the base of the ramparts slaves operated shops where they sold tobacco, salt, and cheese to the public (Figure 14).25 Just above the large bastion, Cruyl shows the slaves' hospital extending diagonally toward the right. A monumental portal topped by a balcony marks its entrance. The presence of balconies on the hospital's upper floors is confirmed in Gaspar van Wittel's (1652–1736) paintings of the arsenal, where the building occupies the center middle ground (Figure 15). However, spaces on the upper floors would not have been for slaves (who could have used the balconies to escape); rather, they would have been reserved for navy officials.26
Van Wittel, who was Luigi Vanvitelli's father, produced nineteen similar paintings of the arsenal, yet only a few depict slaves (Figure 16).27 Such infrequent appearances and outright omissions hint at the problematic nature of representing slavery. While accepting slave labor, discerning vedute owners did not want to see slaves in these idealized paintings. Following Gikandi (as noted above), they found slavery to be an unappealing intrusion into the scene, one to be alluded to in only the most circumscribed way. Slaves were all but expunged from the landscape.
Along with the state-owned captives who worked in the arsenal, there existed a limited private market in slaves. Individuals who purchased slaves mostly bought them from their previous owners or, as in the case of the sculptor Michele Perrone, traded art for them.28 Many of these slaves were domestic servants, but owners also sometimes leased them out for extra income.29 While most remained Muslim, some embraced Christianity.30 A few bought their freedom with borrowed money or were manumitted by their owners. A number sought to return to North Africa, but edicts barred Christian converts from leaving lest they lapse in their new faith. Many Neapolitans bequeathed both freedom and funds to slaves in their wills. The architect Dionisio Lazzari (1617–89) left his slave Lucia forty ducats—a substantial amount. The master clockmaker Lorenzo De Ruggiero willed his tools to his former slave Giacomo Antonio so that he could open his own workshop.31 Thus, at the beginning of the eighteenth century Naples's slave population was an integral part of public and private society. The worldly roles of slaves varied, while their souls were increasingly contested by their Christian masters.
Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Naples
With the arrival of Charles of Bourbon, slavery in the Two Sicilies changed. The king was the first resident monarch of the Two Sicilies in more than two hundred years. During his twenty-five-year reign in Naples (before he became King Charles III of Spain in 1759), he and his ministers undertook a series of broad reforms that included altering laws governing slavery. They restricted the slave trade and implemented more systematic rules for the management and custody of slaves. As a result, the total number of slaves declined, with the greatest decrease among those owned privately. The king employed fewer galley slaves, putting his slaves to work instead on building projects. Among these were a hospice for the poor, a cavalry barracks, and the palaces at Portici, Capodimonte, and Caserta.
Charles's approach to the enslavement of Muslims in his realm was ultimately inconsistent, although marked by incremental improvements in the slaves' treatment. By contrast, his attention to his own subjects enslaved in North Africa was forceful and sustained. The king spent enormous sums to ransom his subjects and sought to halt coastal raids, both militarily and diplomatically.32 Royal shipwrights built swift xebecs to protect settlements along the kingdom's coastlines.33 Abetted by the shrinking of the Maghreb fleets, the deployment of these vessels contributed to a dramatic reduction in coastal attacks.34 Diplomacy went in tandem with these military measures. In the 1740s, the king's ministers struck accords with the Ottoman Empire and the pashas of Tripoli.35 Negotiations with the Ottoman envoy proceeded smoothly and helped pave the way for further commercial and slave exchanges.36 Negotiations with the pasha of Tripoli, however, were more contentious and reveal much about how slaves were treated in Naples at the time.37 The pasha's envoy demanded the liberation of six slaves deemed important and then proceeded to level accusations against the Neapolitan court. He noted that, unlike Christian slaves in Tripoli or Muslims in Malta or Livorno, Muslim slaves in Naples had no place to pray. Worse, he alleged that when they died they were buried alongside animal carcasses near a bridge at the city's edge (see Figure 7, B). He had heard that locals pelted their remains with rocks as they were transported, and that dogs dug up their shallow graves. The court denied some of these accusations—refuting claims that animals were buried alongside the slaves or that dogs exhumed their corpses—but it acted on others. Unaware that locals threw stones, the royal government promised to investigate and halt such abuse. Citing burial of the dead as “an office of humanity that must be practiced toward men of all types,” the court promised to build a wall around the cemetery.38
Providing a place for prayer, however, sparked debate. Some court officials went along with the idea, but others did not, believing the king had a spiritual obligation to propagate Christianity. While Livorno and Malta might grant places for Muslims to worship, it seemed to some improper and even sinful to encourage Islam in Naples. Behind such reservations lurked equal concern about Neapolitan reactions. As a court-generated report of 1743 put it: “The Neapolitan populace is a bit more [devoted] to the surface of religion than its essence … and not a small number of our religious officials, even they are little informed of the essence and substance of the Christian religion, [and] instead of reducing such great prejudice in the populace, more often confirm and nurture it.”39
The court recognized that permissive stances toward religious practice were at odds with entrenched popular piety.40 Corsair raids, coastal towers, paintings, captive narratives, and even popular songs had long shaped Neapolitans' distrust of Muslims.41 Moreover, political critics had often harnessed ingrained stereotypes to discredit leaders in the past. Rumors alleged that the Viceroy Duke of Osuna (1616–20) not only sympathized with Muslim slaves but had fathered a child by one.42 The Viceroy Marquis of Astorga (1672–75) reportedly did worse, having supposedly assembled a secret harem.43 With revolt a constant threat in a city that famously rose up against viceroys in 1647, the Caroline court balked. Unlike Livorno, where diverse religious practices were allowed, Naples turned away from tolerance. Thus, the peace treaties Charles signed did not guarantee a new approach to prisoners of war coming from North Africa. They would continue to be treated as slaves, and religious conversion rather than accommodation would be the goal.
Before turning to a more detailed examination of the slaves who worked at Caserta, it is worth noting how the Caroline government classified them. First were the forzati—convicts sentenced to servitude, not technically slaves but treated similarly. Like slaves, forzati were chained and had no control over their work assignments. Yet they were born Christian, and the royal government set up a church dedicated to San Vincenzo near their quarters in the arsenal breakwater. In Cruyl's drawing, the church is shown as a small domed structure, positioned slightly above and to the right of the tower (Figure 17).44
All nonconvict slaves were called Turks (turchi), even if few of them were direct subjects of the Ottoman sultan. They were divided into two subgroups: schiavi battezati and schiavi turchi. The schiavi battezati had converted to Christianity and wore white outfits, but they remained slaves despite their conversion.45 The schiavi turchi were Muslims, and their heads were shorn except for a topknot of hair known as the cerro.46 The cerro helped distinguish them, and laws passed in the seventeenth century made it illegal for anyone to cut or obscure it.47 Finally, Greek Orthodox, Protestants, and even fellow Catholics were occasionally taken at sea and enslaved, but once their faith was discovered and confirmed, they were freed.48
The type of work these laborers performed varied according to the needs of the crown and the degree to which royal officials trusted individual slaves. Rowing galleys proved the hardest work and was usually reserved for those deemed the least trustworthy. Yet not all galley slaves rowed at sea; a large number worked in the arsenal and made important contributions to the architectural magnificence of Naples. They unloaded precious yellow marble from Sicily, rare fragments unearthed from the Palatine Hill in Rome, and other stones shipped to the arsenal for subsequent delivery to Caserta.49 Slaves who worked on urban construction sites were regarded as the most fortunate. Initially, the court had slaves escorted daily from the arsenal to their work sites. This practice changed with the building of the royal palace at Capodimonte, which was situated about a mile outside the capital. In 1738, slaves were housed on the grounds of the Capodimonte work site, and a precedent was established for their deployment to other sites, including Caserta.50
Slavery at Caserta
The work of slaves at Caserta is well documented. Since the site lay so far from the capital (about 36 kilometers), the king placed an intendant in charge to administer the palace's construction and keep records of building activity. These records are the most important source of information on slavery and architecture within the kingdom. For much of the eighteenth century, Don Lorenzo Neroni held the post of intendant. His dispatches to royal ministers in Naples brought slaves to Caserta, returned them to the galleys, petitioned for their needs, and denied their requests. Tuscan by birth, he came into the king's service after being named a knight in the Grand Duke of Tuscany's crusading Order of Santo Stefano.51 Founded in 1561 to lead campaigns against Muslim powers, this order became—along with the Knights of Malta—the principal Christian slaver in the central Mediterranean.52 The order's military activity declined in the eighteenth century, but its history informed Neroni on long-standing struggles between Christian and Muslim states. His association with it seems also to have affected his knowledge and attitudes around slaves, for he managed them better than did most royal agents.53
Before any slaves were sent to work at Caserta, the court deployed forzati. One hundred arrived in October 1750 to build roads and dig wells.54 The government dispatched twenty soldiers to keep watch over them, yet in less than three months, sixteen of the slaves fled.55 Sentries recaptured fourteen of these and returned them to the galleys. Meanwhile, the court took new measures to prevent further escapes. Beginning in February 1751, forzati were chained together when not working, and in July more soldiers arrived to oversee them. Neroni also perfected his rosters, even detailing the costs of recapturing each fugitive. Finally, the court imposed more severe consequences for fleeing, and some forzati were condemned to prison.56 Escapes persisted, however, and became more brazen. In July 1752, for reasons that are unclear, a group of forzati fled along with their guards.57
Given the problems the forzati presented, the court began sending slaves to Caserta.58 Officials probably thought slaves were less likely to flee since most neither spoke Italian nor knew the terrain. In addition, Caserta provided the court with a place to employ slaves who were housed in the arsenal but lacked sufficient work there.59 At first the court seemed unclear about the slaves' particular roles at Caserta and how best to manage them. Only with time would their duties be defined and the court's evangelical aims made evident.
Over the next decade, a system of housing, feeding, caring for, catechizing, and overseeing Caserta's slaves evolved, with elements developed piecemeal and sometimes in response to specific needs. By 1755, several hundred slaves were working at Caserta.60 As few spoke Italian, the court established a chief overseer, Ahmet of Tripoli, to serve as an Italian-speaking middleman who could relay orders from the master mason, Pietro Bernasconi (1706–67), to the workers.61 As capomaestro of the work site, Bernasconi decided what work slaves did and divided them into teams both large and small. They dug foundations, hauled stone, polished marble, laid the brick courses of the main palace, cut channels for an aqueduct that would bring water to the gardens from nearby mountains, felled and planted trees according to Vanvitelli's plans for the parklands, manned iron forges, and excavated parts of the ancient Roman amphitheater in nearby Santa Maria Capua Vetere.62 Although no images of them performing this work survive, a print depicting forced laborers working near the royal palace at Portici gives an idea of what labor conditions were like (Figure 18). The image shows either slaves or forzati, under the watch of royal soldiers, quarrying volcanic stone from the old lava flows of Mount Vesuvius and carrying it to ships at the water's edge. Some work unchained, while others are chained together in a row and being lashed by an overseer (Figure 19).
As this print shows, the slaves' work was grueling and dangerous. Slaves worked nine hours per day, six days per week. The month the king laid the ceremonial first stone, the court set up a hospital for forzati and slaves to the west of the palace. There, injured slaves were treated and supervised by a resident doctor. He determined when the injured could return to work; sometimes he recommended complete retirement. In the summer of 1766, a slave named Mustafà from Tunis was declared too sick to work again; the doctor suggested he be moved to the arsenal hospital.63 Most terminally ill slaves were sent back to Naples, but many died at Caserta. In October 1762, Vanvitelli reported to his brother in Rome that a baptized slave had fallen to his death from the upper reaches of a wall.64 Slaves also perished at the hands of other slaves; even in the king's presence, fights broke out regularly, leaving some dead and others badly beaten.65 Burying Muslim slaves who died at Caserta presented its own problems. Superstitious locals sometimes exhumed the bodies and dispersed the remains. Muslim slaves requested that the crown set up an enclosed burial ground with a locking gate, as had been done in Naples.66 It is not clear whether Neroni took up this recommendation, but the court generally ensured that burial was respected.
Unlike most of the African or African American slaves who worked on buildings in Washington, D.C., whose owners were compensated by the federal government, slaves at Caserta were the direct property of the crown. Although it owned them, the Neapolitan government paid each slave a small wage. A full day's work earned a slave or forzato three or four grana—one-fifth of the average free male laborer's daily compensation. Slaves sometimes earned bonuses for meritorious work, and the court paid specialized laborers, such as ironworkers, a few grana more.67 Best compensated was the overseer Ahmet of Tripoli, who earned an additional 150 grana each month.68 Many slaves spent their earnings at a tavern “of the Turkish slaves” near the palace.69 Baptized slaves, paid more than others, contributed part of their earnings to maintain a chaplain. Of course, slaves were always at the mercy of those more powerful than themselves. In one instance a royal agent was caught trying to defraud Caserta's slaves of their pay; Neroni condemned him to prison.70
Slaves at Caserta worked unchained. They also enjoyed some free time in the evenings when they could frequent the tavern. At night they were shackled, and, unlike slaves in the arsenal, they sometimes remained so on days when they did not work. With Caserta's work site open to the countryside, Neroni feared that greater freedom could result in more escapes.71 He also worried that too much freedom might lead to revolt. Although no major revolts took place at Caserta, Neroni's fears were not unfounded.72 In 1755, galley slaves commandeered two royal ships docked in Trapani and sailed them to Algiers.73
Neroni wanted to maintain slave discipline, but the court was focused on conversion. Christian converts enjoyed numerous small freedoms, and the Bourbon court used better treatment to encourage still more conversions; yet conversion for better treatment alone was discouraged. The practice of converting Muslim slaves was long-standing in Naples. In 1576 the archbishop of Naples, Paolo Burali d'Arezzo, set up a congregation for converting slaves and a process for their catechism. The congregation was short-lived, and by 1601 the Jesuits inherited this work, founding their own Congregazioine degli Schiavi. When Charles arrived in the city in 1734, the Augustinians of San Giovanni a Carbonara, rather than the Jesuits, led these efforts. Their Collegio degli Schiavi was located within their church and monastery complex, near the eastern edge of Naples (see Figure 7, D).
Father Paolo Israel, born to Jewish parents in Aleppo, was the initial leader of this college. Conversant in many languages and familiar with cultural practices in various parts of the Mediterranean, he tailored his conversion tactics to the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the members of his enslaved flock.74 Following the example of Saint Augustine's Enchridion, he established the most effective catechism the city had ever seen. Slave owners and charitable confraternities soon sponsored slaves to live and study at his college. Father Israel also cultivated royal support, inviting the king to attend baptisms and convincing him to become a benefactor. According to a history of the college, the king, after visiting, “stirred his ministers to attend to the conversion and Christian instruction of his slaves with diligence and fervor.”75 Charles named Israel “royal catechist,” granted him a stipend, and charged him with caring for all the converted slaves in the arsenal. Father Israel dispatched a subordinate, Agostino Schiahin, to move into quarters near the arsenal's breakwater (see Figure 17).76 According to one account, Schiahin was so successful that he transformed “the arsenal into a sanctuary.”77 Given such success, the king named another Augustinian, Giuseppe Dolat, catechist at Caserta in 1757.78 This marriage of the Augustinian college's mission with royal goals transformed the work site in Caserta into a place where slaves were both labor and raw material. They worked on the palace while Dolat worked to convert them.
The path to conversion was not simple, however. Dolat revealed his technique in a catechism published in 1756. Following the usual question-and-answer format, he combined common standard practice with innovations. Dolat felt that Turks were indolent, uncouth, and given to bad habits. To begin, one had to expose their moral errors. He then encouraged the catechist to contrast a corrupt existence with the purity of Christian life. Next, one had to gauge the slave's desire to convert. If deemed serious and not merely seeking better treatment, novices began a multistage process: renouncing Islam, embracing Christianity, and mastering holy doctrine. If they passed these stages, they were baptized.79 Dolat's ideal catechist kept a sharp eye on a small flock. Taking on no more than six or seven novices, he ensured that they were in their cells at night and prevented excessive fraternizing or drinking. He led them to chapel twice daily and on weekends offered extended spiritual discourses. Useless if he did not know Arabic and Turkish, the catechist was expected to hone his technique with experience.80 Keep a notebook, Dolat advised, and jot down not only each slave's name but his distinguishing qualities. Never show favoritism, and if a slave transgresses, demonstrate compassion. Yet do not manage everything alone. Major relapses and disputes should be referred to the general of the galleys.
At Caserta, Dolat initially found one hundred slave converts (the number would soon grow), far more than the half dozen he recommended for one catechist in his book. They slept in an unused barracks, a former villa a few miles from the palace, or outdoors beneath ships' sails. Dolat immediately petitioned for new living quarters for the baptized and set about dividing these Christians from the Muslims.81 As if to signify their importance to the crown, he had the converted slaves moved to permanent quarters closer to the palace (Figure 20, A). Positioned in a settlement called Ercole, their lodging was known as the Ritiro d'Ercole (Figure 20, B). An older building, this was renovated to include dormitories, a refectory, and a room for guards.82 Completed in April 1758, the Ritiro was expanded in 1760 to house two hundred slaves.83 Although no elevation of the buildings survives, an 1826 plan of the Ercole quarter reveals how older buildings were adapted for reuse (Figure 21). Irregular wings bordered two separate courtyards, indicating that two older properties were simply joined together. Architects positioned a single kitchen within the smaller courtyard and included toilets off both courts. Unfortunately, the plan offers no clues about which spaces served as dormitories, the refectory, or guards' quarters.84
At first, the Ercole quarter lacked a chapel, though it had a chaplain.85 For worship services, he led the slaves outside the quarter to a cramped church nearby. Half the slaves had to stand outside the church, and locals gathered to watch. Ogling women reportedly led to “very little devotion, and some scandal,” prompting Dolat to ask Vanvitelli to design a new chapel in 1766.86 We have no idea what Vanvitelli's design was like, only that the court rejected it. Instead, the court asked the architect's son and two assistants to plan a chapel inside the Ritiro, to be constructed using recycled materials from a nearby confraternity building.87 This chapel served the slaves until 1786, when they moved to a new chapel and more substantial living quarters closer to the palace (see Figure 20, D).88
Over the course of his years of work at Caserta, Dolat tended to baptize slaves in batches of twenty to thirty. Rosters list their names, parents, where they were born, and their ages. Most came from Tripoli, Tunis, or Algiers and were between twenty and forty years old. A procession and special Mass marked their new spiritual life. On occasion, the king attended these events, as did the local bishop. Most baptisms took place in the church of San Vito Martire, at the garden's edge (Figure 22; see Figure 20, C).89 Converts were given new white outfits, including shirts, pants, socks, shoes, vests, overcoats, and hats; in addition, each was given a crown and a candle to carry and a rosary and crucifix.90 Donning white, they shed their chains, although a military guard still supervised them. A few successfully petitioned to go unwatched altogether.91
All baptized slaves had godfathers, and most adopted their godfathers' names. Among the earliest converts were the king's godchildren, Carlo Sebastiano Borbone and Antonio di Carlo di Borbone.92 Vanvitelli stood as godfather to at least two slaves who took his name: one drove mule carts loaded with building materials; the other was often asked to help hoist the stout architect onto his horse.93 The records also mention slaves named for master mason Bernasconi, intendant Neroni, and various court ministers. Having a prestigious godfather usually guaranteed privileged treatment. For example, Giuseppe de Gregorio, whose godfather was the king's principal minister, became “head slave” of the Christian converts, and at his death in 1759, notaries discovered he owned clothes worth a princely 125 ducats.94 The king's godsons enjoyed even greater benefits. When Antonio di Carlo di Borbone converted, Charles took a paternalistic interest in him, encouraging him to study engineering and architecture. It remains unclear what work Antonio did at Caserta, but his skills were such that when Charles left for Spain in 1759, he invited Antonio to follow. In Madrid, Charles entrusted him with building the new porcelain manufactory at Buen Retiro and with helping to renovate the Palacio Real. Thus, Antonio di Carlo di Borbone became the only slave from Caserta to work as an architect.95 His story shows how conversion could, in rare cases, dramatically change a slave's life for the better.
Beyond these privileged few, the converted slaves at Caserta who enjoyed the greatest freedoms were those who married. Since most slaves were men, their brides were local women. Some couples seem to have met at the work site. One slave's wife, Angela di Ferrante, worked at the hospital.96 Married slaves were allowed to live outside the Ritiro, and so the court guarded against marriages of convenience, rejecting some requests to wed.97 Neroni required married slaves to report weekly to the governor of the Ritiro. Otherwise, couples could carve out a semblance of normal domestic life. For them, the palace became less a place of enslavement and more a site of necessary employment. Many had children, who by long-standing local tradition were born free. Yet children presented financial problems for slave fathers. The intendancy paid married slaves less than regular workers, meaning that many struggled to feed their families.98 One desperate slave asked to take up additional jobs.99 Another pleaded for the crown to sponsor one of his daughters to enter a convent.100 Despite the challenges, marriage became ever more common among Caserta's slave population.
The numbers of conversions at Caserta rivaled those anywhere in the kingdom. In the seventeenth century, when the overall slave population was larger, only a few hundred slaves were baptized each decade in Naples.101 Dolat exceeded that pace, often converting sixty Muslim slaves each year. Yet his work took a toll. In 1760, he asked to return to San Giovanni a Carbonara “for some time of solitude in the cloister, so that [I] can take up [my] work afterwards with greater fervor and renewal of spirit.”102 The court granted him leave, and he returned to Caserta some months later.
Dolat's mission transformed the work site in profound ways. For converted slaves, the chapel, the Ritiro d'Ercole, and their own small homes were undoubtedly more important than the palace's rising walls. Knowledge of their lives can therefore help lead historians away from the main palace and its lavish gardens and toward these humbler secondary sites. Doing so breathes new historical meaning into the entire complex.
The Significance of Slavery
Slavery helped bolster the political and religious significance of the palace for the monarchy, projecting an image of Charles as protector of his subjects and promoter of the Christian faith. Conveying these messages was the primary reason for using slave labor at Caserta. Unlike in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, financial gain was not a primary concern. Housing, food, clothing, medical care, and catechism all cost the intendancy dearly. To supervise the 500 slaves and forzati working at Caserta between 1755 and 1763, the royal government paid 438 guards.103 Considering the lengths to which the court went to keep slaves at Caserta, Joseph Jérôme de Lalande asserted that the king wasted money on slave labor. Caserta's slaves were discontented, he said, noting that they required constant supervision, and still “many flee and few work profitably.”104 Luigi Vanvitelli disagreed about their labor and upheld slaves' work as equal to that of free men. Yet he too fretted over the expenses that maintaining slaves entailed.105 Neroni's ledgers did not justify their presence.106
As is clear from the archival records, Charles and his advisers were motivated not by money but by religious and political considerations. The traveler John Moore noted of Caserta in 1790:
Among the workmen employed in finishing this palace and the gardens, there are one hundred and fifty Africans; for as the King of Naples is constantly at war with the Barbary States, he always has a number of their sailors prisoners, all of whom are immediately employed as slaves in the gallies, or at some public work. There are at present at Casserta, about the same number of Christian slaves; all of these have been condemned to this servitude for some crime, some of them for the greatest of all crimes; they are however, better clothed and fed than the Africans. This is done, no doubt, in honour of the Christian religion, and to demonstrate that Christians, even after they have been found guilty of the blackest crimes, are worthier men, and more deserving of lenity, than Mahometan prisoners, however innocent they may be in all other respects.107
Despite Moore's account and the weight of archival evidence, it would be a mistake to oversimplify the court's evangelizing aims. As Moore noted, the kingdom was at war with the Barbary States. In the 1750s, Charles hoped to unify his European allies against Tunis and Algiers. Later, as king of Spain, he ordered repeated, if unsuccessful, assaults on Algiers (1775, 1783, and 1784). This conflict conditions how we should understand conversion at Caserta: baptisms were resounding spiritual victories intended to stand alongside military ones. Moreover, royal religious zeal must be balanced against the rising anticlerical sentiment at court. Charles trimmed many traditional ecclesiastical privileges and distanced the kingdom from Rome. This continued even when the papacy, in 1743, took up the beatification of Benedict “the Moor” of Palermo (1524–89). A native of Charles's kingdom, black, and the son of slaves, Benedict was a Franciscan friar who became the patron saint of many people of color. Despite the many ways the Bourbon court could have connected its conversion efforts to Benedict's story, it did not lend its support to his beatification.108 Meanwhile, politics and personal ties could condition how Muslim slaves were treated and how the court approached Islam and Islamic states. Proud to convert slaves at Caserta, the queen was equally pleased with her page Ali, who remained true to his Muslim faith.109 The royal couple celebrated the treaty with the Ottomans by displaying a portrait of the Ottoman envoy in the palace at Portici for much of their reign. Charles was even curious about Islamic culture, and as king of Spain he approved of the exploration of Spain's Muslim past.110 By the 1780s the Neapolitan court had softened its treatment of Muslim slaves. Granted more liberties, they received bonuses “to celebrate their Easter.”111
By the century's end, the Maghreb states no longer posed a threat to southern Italy. Slavery at Caserta ceased after the defeat of the Barbary States in the early nineteenth century. Even before these political changes, a growing chorus of European philosophers began to criticize the institution of slavery. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu all condemned it. Louis de Jaucourt, in his articles on slavery and the slave trade in the Encyclopédie, offered sharp critiques of human bondage. David Hume, Benjamin Franklin, and Adam Smith believed that slavery impeded economic growth.112 These last arguments resonated powerfully in Naples, where political economy was much discussed during the eighteenth century.113 Local intellectuals Carlo Broggia, Antonio Genovesi, Ferdinando Galiani, Giuseppe Palmieri, and Giuseppe Maria Galanti all aligned with Hume and Smith and advocated for ways to employ more of the kingdom's populace; yet they rarely mentioned slavery. Galanti decried the enslavement of the kingdom's subjects by the Barbary States, but only Galiani openly and unequivocally condemned slavery altogether.114
Growing antislavery sentiment in Europe filtered into perceptions of art and architecture. Already in 1764, Pierre-Jean Mariette claimed that the artistic inferiority he saw in Roman art was due to the use of slaves as artisans.115 Later in the century, Ekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova, Princess Dashkova, criticized Peter I's work at St. Petersburg, noting: “Under Catherine II, the city has quadrupled in size; the royal buildings are much more splendid, and that has been accomplished without using forced labor.”116 More work needs to be done on how slavery influenced perceptions of art and architecture during this period, but these examples suggest that structures built by free men were deemed finer, and the prosperity of states more robust, without slave labor.
Caserta represents one of the last chapters of slavery in Europe. The Bourbon monarchy's program of Christianization closed a history of military and religious struggle that had gripped southern Italy for centuries. At its conclusion, one could agree with Alexander Pope: “Oh stretch thy reign, fair Peace! From shore to shore / 'Till Conquest cease, and slav'ry be no more.”117 Pope's lines neatly encapsulate the main historical reason for Mediterranean slavery: it was part of a conflict that swept up the lives of many, among them Mustafà of Tunis, Ahmet of Tripoli, Salvatore la Rossa, Giuseppe de Gregorio, and Antonio di Carlo di Borbone. Encountering their stories, we gain new ways of understanding the palace at Caserta. For some, the site stood as a marker of captivity; for others, it represented spiritual conversion. For the court, the slaves' presence deepened the palace's significance as an expression of royal power, demonstrating the triumph of the sovereign over foreign adversaries.
As Giordano Bruno wrote, “There is no architecture so great, so magnificent, and so beautiful that it does not consist of things which appear and are judged to be small, most lowly.”118 The history of slavery at Caserta shows how the lives of the lowliest and least fortunate participants in a great building's construction add to our understanding of its significance.