Fête sur l’eau

May 5 2009

Chinese in Naples, September 19 1823


June 1824. – […]

Last night, I witnessed one of the most beautiful scenes imaginable. It was a sort of fête offered to Marie-Louise, by the King of Naples, and took place on the water. Never was there a more propitious night for such a festival, for not a breeze ruffled the calm bosom of the beautiful bay, which resembled a vast lake, reflecting on its glassy surface the bright sky above, which was glittering with innumerable stars. Naples, with its white colonnades, seen amidst the dark foliage of its terraced gardens, rose like an amphitheatre from the sea; and the lights streaming from the buildings on the water, seemed like columns of gold. The Castle of St. Elmo crowned the centre of the picture; Vesuvius, like a sleeping giant in grim repose, stood on the right, flanked by Mount St. Angelo, and the coast of Sorrento fading into distance; and on the left, the vine-crowned height of the Vomero, with its palaces and villas, glancing forth from the groves that surround them, was crowned by the Mount Camaldoli, with its convent spires pointing to the sky. A rich stream of music announced the coming of the royal pageant; and proceeded from a gilded barge, to which countless lamps were attached, giving it, when seen at a distance, the appearance of a vast shell of topaz, floating on a sea of sapphire. It was filled with musicians, attired in the most glittering liveries; and every stroke of the oars kept time to the music, and sent forth a silvery light from the water which they rippled. This illuminated and gilded barge was followed by another, adorned by a silken canopy, from which hung curtains of the richest texture, partly drawn back to admit the balmy air. Cleopatra, when she sailed down the Cydnus, boasted not a more beautiful vessel; and as it glided over the sea, it seemed excited into motion by the music that preceded it, so perfectly did it keep time to the delicious sounds, leaving behind it a silvery track like the memory of happiness. The king himself steered the vessel; his tall and slight figure gently curved, and his snowy locks falling over ruddy cheeks, show that age has bent but not broken him. He looked simple, though he appears like one born to command; a hoary Neptune, steering over his native element: all eyes were fixed on him; but his, steadily followed the glittering barge that preceded him. Marie-Louise was the only person in the king’s boat; she was richly dressed, and seemed pleased with the pageant. Innumerable vessels, filled with the lords and ladies of the court followed, but intruded not on the privacy of the regal bark, which glided before us like some gay vision or dream.”


Ferdinand I (Ferdinando Antonio Pasquale Giovanni Nepomuceno Serafino Gennaro Benedetto) reigned as the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies from 1816 until his death soon after this scene, on January 4 1825, and had been, separately, King of Naples and King of Sicily long before. Lord Acton’s grandfather, Sir John Acton, 6th Baronet (1736-1811), had been his prime minister. (Lord Acton’s granddaughter was married to my godfather.) There is still a Via Acton in Naples.

Marie-Louise of Austria (1791-1847) was in Naples on a visit. She was the daughter of the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, and Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, had been the second wife of Napoleon and had become the Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla.

Edith Clay, editor; Sir Harold Acton, Introduction; Lady Blessington at Naples [her Neapolitan journals, 1823-26]; Hamish Hamilton, 1979.

One Response to “Fête sur l’eau”

  1. […] Chinese in Naples, September 19 1823 […]

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